Peach Bottom HGTR

Published December 12, 2018

At Peach Bottom, Pennsylvania on March 3, 1966 the first commercial gas-cooled thermal nuclear reactor (HGTR) in the United States was connected to the electrical power grid. Constructed by Bechtel Corporation it was financed by HTGR Development Associates, a nonprofit entity supported by  53 investor-owned utilities and the Atomic Energy Commission as part of the Power Reactor Demonstration Program. Operated by Philadelphia Electric Company this helium-cooled, graphite moderated reactor employed fuel kernels consisting of thorium and uranium oxide. A second core was installed in the Peach Bottom reactor in 1970 and operated until final shutdown in 1973. This first Peach Bottom HTGR reactor was decommissioned in 1974. The Peach Bottom power plant day hosts two General Electric conventional light water reactors and is currently seeking an extension of its operating license.

The concept for HTGR reactors was born at the Clinton Laboratories Power Pile Division (Now Oak Ridge National Laboratory) in 1947. During the 1950s early research was also conducted into the HTGR concept in Germany. From 1979 to 1989 the Fort St. Vrain Generating Station in Colorado also operated an HGTR and Great Britain operated the Dragon Reactor at Winfith, England. Other examples of operating HGTRs were the the AVR reactor and the THTR-300 in Germany, the HTTR in Japan, and the HTR-10 in China. Today these types of very high temperature graphite moderated reactors are considered a type of Generation 4 reactor that is inherently safe, reliable, modular, and proliferation resistant. 

The Peach Bottom HGTR is historically significant because its construction followed on the opening of the first commercial nuclear light water power reactor at Shippingport, Pennsylvania in 1958 and the Small Modular Mixed Oxide Fuel Reactor at Saxton Cove, Pennsylvania in 1961. All three of these public-private partnerships propelled Pennsylvania into a position of world leadership in developing commercial nuclear power plants. Such leadership in the commercial power sector reflected similar leadership in nuclear power propulsion systems constructed for submarines and aircraft carriers by Bettis Atomic Power Laboratory located south of Pittsburgh from 1954 to the present, the Westinghouse Astronuclear Laboratory at Large, Pennsylvania that developed nuclear rocket engine reactors for the NERVA program from 1959 to 1972 and the Westinghouse Astrofuel Laboratory at Waltz Mills, Pennsylvania during the same period. The University of Pennsylvania was also an early adopter of the Breazeale TRIGA nuclear research reactor developed by General Atomics that is still operating at State College, Pennsylvania.

Given these historical precedents it is very disconcerting to contemplate recent calls to permanently decommission the remaining reactors at Beaver Valley and Three Mile Island. The universe runs on nuclear energy and so will our future. This comes down to a question of leadership or lack thereof.  Many of China’s new fleet of Generation 3 and Generation 4 reactors were designed either by Westinghouse Electric Company in Pennsylvania or by Bill Gates-backed TerraPower. Why not use these new reactor concepts right here at home and continue to provide our citizens with the safest, cheapest, cleanest, and most reliable form of electrical power generation ever conceived by science? The currently artificially low price of natural gas is a temporary blip that is not sustainable and the environmental impacts of burning any fossil fuel are significant. Shale gas also remains a finite resource that cannot sustain the kind of economic growth required to ensure our future.