Nebraska’s nuclear past

The Hallam nuclear plant, in its heyday.

By now you’ve probably heard that Germany will be phasing out all nuclear power by 2022, largely out of safety concerns raised by the Fukushima disaster in Japan.

Within that context of renewed emphasis on nuclear safety, a story in Monday’s Lincoln Journal Star about an early experiment in nuclear power is all the more astounding.

The story is a look back at the Hallam nuclear plant, a short-lived attempt at a sodium-cooled reactor that is now entombed in concrete. The plant, which opened in 1962, seemed doomed from the beginning as the reactor’s containment vessel fell off of a truck and was stuck in a muddy cornfield for three weeks.

But the larger problem was the design itself – the plant was shut down after only two years because cracks had formed in the structure and were deemed to expensive to repair.

One of the engineers involved in the project described it as a good learning experience, although this type of reactor design has yet to see widespread use.

Liquid sodium is an attractive cooling option for engineers because it doesn’t corrode steel and doesn’t need to be pressurized. In addition to the Hallam plant, liquid sodium was used in the Fermi 1 plant in Michigan (shut down in 1975), and several early American and Soviet nuclear submarines.

The big problem, however, with using sodium as a coolant ought to be familiar to anyone who was paying attention in high school chemistry class – when it comes into contact with water, it explodes:

That could be a big problem if, say, the reactor is flooding by a tsunami or some such thing.

One of the engineers involved in the project told the Journal Star just how much things have changed.

“It was a lot of fun back in those days. It was just the guys and it was more of a relaxed atmosphere. Nowadays the regulatory atmosphere keeps things tight and close to the vest.”

Photo by Joan Blair via Creative Commons

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