Shippingport Atomic Power Station was the first full-scale atomic electric power plant in the world.
The Beaver County plant built on the Ohio River, just 25 miles from Pittsburgh, at the time of its opening inspired promises and bold predictions that “nuclear power would raise the public’s welfare, revamp industrial techniques, and increase America’s standard of living.”
Its decommission was less glorious — due to environmental concerns publicized by Pitt Professor Ernest Sternglass — but it was successful. Nowadays the site hosts a different power plant, the Beaver Valley Nuclear Generating Station, which has two Westinghouse pressurized water reactors.
On the day of Shippingport Atomic Power Station’s dedication, May 26, 1958, President Eisenhower, who five years before gave his famous Atoms for Peace address at the United Nations, delivered a speech via electronic hook up to people who gathered at the Shippingport site. The ecstatic crowd of government officials, dignitaries and business elite shared the sense of accomplishment, congratulating each other on completing the landmark plant just in 32 months. Final costs for the entire plant ran up to $75 million.
Philip Fleger, chairman of the Board of Duquesne Light and the man of vision, who won the bid with his Shippingport offer, was among the enthusiasts: ”It is all together fitting that this station should be located close to the birthplace of the petroleum industry and on top of one of the world’s greatest coal fields,” he said. “For the history of industry and man’s progress is closely bound to the history of fuel…”
It was in Shippingport where experts established practices and rules on how to operate a nuclear power plant. A mistake could be costly and the main rule at Shippingport read: “No carelessness can be tolerated anywhere, for the entire chain of events can prove disastrous.” In the 1960s experts from Shippingport traveled to Japan when the Japanese started talking about using nuclear power as an energy alternative.
However, the Shippingport experiment was not meant to live. After 25 years of operation, the plant was decommissioned.
Dr. Sternglass, Pitt professor of radiology, accused Shippingport executives of covering up harmful radiation levels he discovered in data gathered by Nuclear Utilities Services Corporation, which went unreported to government officials. Sternglass alleged that levels of cancer, infant mortality, heart disease had increased due to higher levels of Strontium-90 in the soil and milk produced on local dairy farms. Dr. Sternglass’ accusations galvanized protests in Shippingport. The community and environmentalists called for the moratorium on nuclear power plants in Pennsylvania and the U.S. Due to insufficient evidence the case was dismissed and the investigation closed. But in spite of the result, Dr. Sternglass’ account of the scandal make a riveting read. At present Dr. Sternglass serves as Emeritus Professor at the Department of Radiology at the University of Pittsburgh.
Shippingport was the first but obviously not the last nuclear power plant. As of March 2014, 435 nuclear power plants are in operation worldwide, 104 of the them are located in the U.S.