The Shippingport Atomic Power Station

Jack Craddock III
March 13, 2016

Submitted as coursework for PH241, Stanford University, Winter 2016


Fig. 1: The Shippingport Atomic Power Station. (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

The Shippingport Atomic Power Station, shown in Fig. 1, is recognized as one of the world's first nuclear power plant devoted exclusively to peacetime purposes. [1] Located in Western Pennsylvania, the plant operated from 1958 to 1982, generating 7.4 billion kilowatt-hours of energy in those 25 years.

The power station was developed in the era post-WWII and devastation of the atomic bombs dropped over Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Japan. Shippingport was intended to harness nuclear energy as force for good rather than destruction. The Shippingport Station accomplished this goal, as it operated safely and beneficially for 3 decades.

Nuclear power is a foundation of the American energy mix, and the commissioning of the Shippingport Atomic Power Station was a crucial first step toward the contemporary state of affairs. The legacy of the Shippingport Atomic Power Station is role that commercial nuclear power plants continue to perform an in powering the United States.


In 1953, Dwight D. Eisenhower, President of the United States, stood before the United Nations General Assembly and proposed a future in which nuclear technology would be a spoken of fondly, rather than fearfully. Against the backdrop of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and nuclear proliferation, Eisenhower declared that "this greatest of destructive forces [could] be developed into a great constructive force for all mankind." [2] This speech marked the beginning of Eisenhower's "Atoms for Peace" initiative, which included a call for global powers to stockpile uranium for power generation purposes rather than for weaponization. As a direct outcome of this speech, the Atomic Energy Commission called for bids from private enterprises to build an atomic power station in the U.S. The winning bid came from the Duquesne Light Company in Western PA, and construction began on the Shippingport Atomic Power Station. [1]

In order to design the power plant, AEC turned to Admiral Hyman G. Rickover, Chairman of the Naval Reactors Branch of the AEC. Rickover envisioned a nuclear navy for the U.S., and he was able to apply successful experimental reactor design from naval research to Shippingport. Rickover's legacy for nuclear power, highlighted by Shippingport, is immense. Rickover's biographer, Theodore Rockwell, spoke like this regarding the importance of the Shippingport plant: "Commercial nuclear power was now a reality, just four and a half years after the task was assigned to Admiral Rickover. Three years later, commercial plants based on this design began to spring up across the country, and shortly after that, around the whole world." [3]

Operation and Design

The Shippingport Atomic Power Station was designed to operate as both a power plant and a site for experimental reactor designs. Built with flexibility in mind, the power plant was able to accommodate multiple types of reactors. The first reactor produced 68 MW of power from 1957 until 1964. It was then replaced with a second core that pushed electrical output to approximately 100 MW. Finally, a third reactor of different design was implemented in 1977. The core was changed to a light water breeder reactor. This design innovation allowed the reactor to produce more uranium than it consumed, and the plant could consume thorium (a cheaper and more available fuel) rather than uranium as the primary fuel source. [1]


In 1979, the U.S. nuclear power industry experienced a major disappointment with the disaster at Three Mile Island. As public fears grew about the safety of nuclear reactors, Shippingport found itself in crosshairs. In 1982, the plant was taken offline and the decommissioning and dismantling process began a few years later. The process lasted several years, but by 1989, the Shippingport reactor was completely leveled and decommissioned. [4] This process is considered an example of successful decommissioning.


The Shippingport Atomic Power Station produced electrical power for the state of Pennsylvania for 25 years, but its impacts were more broad-based and far-reaching. Shippingport proved the concept of commercial nuclear power generation and set the stage for nuclear power's rise to prominence over the second half of the 20th Century.

© Jack Craddock III. The author grants permission to copy, distribute and display this work in unaltered form, with attribution to the author, for noncommercial purposes only. All other rights, including commercial rights, are reserved to the author.


[1] W. Beaver, Nuclear Power Goes On-Line: A History of Shippingport (Praeger, 1990).

[2] D. D. Eisenhower, "Address Before the General Assembly of the United Nations on Peaceful Uses of Atomic Energy" in Public Papers of the Presidents of the United States, Dwight D. Eisenhower, 1953 (U.S. Government Printing Office, 1960), pp. 813-23.

[3] T. Rockwell, The Rickover Effect: How One Man Made a Difference (iUniverse, 2002).

[4] "Three Mile Island: Fallout of Fear," Time, 11 Apr 83.