While doing some research for a book I’m working on, I came across a June 5, 1953 memo by Hyman Rickover, head of the naval reactors branch of the Atomic Energy Commission. For those readers who don’t know, Rickover is the father of nuclear power for electricity in the U.S., both for the U.S. Navy and for civilian reactors.

It struck me as valuable, given all of the recent hype about new nuclear technologies to replace the venerable light water reactor: molten salt, thorium, ARC fusion, traveling wave reactors, Prism, Astrid, HTGRs, and so forth. Rickover offered caution

Hyman Rickover
Hyman Rickover


He wrote:

“An academic reactor or reactor plant almost always has the following basic characteristics: (1) It is simple. (2) It is small. (3) It is cheap (4) It is light. (5) It can be built very quickly. (6) It is very flexible in purpose (’omnibus reactor’). (7) Very little development is required. It will use mostly off-the-shelf components. (8) The reactor is in the study phase. It is not being built now.

“On the other hand, a practical reactor plant can be distinguished by the following characteristics: (1) It is being built now. (2) It is behind schedule. (3) It is requiring an immense amount of development on apparently trivial items. Corrosion, in particular, is a problem. (4) It is very expensive. (5) It takes a long time to build because of the engineering development problems. (6) It is large. (7) It is heavy. (8) It is complicated.

“The tools of the academic-reactor designer are a piece of paper and a pencil with an eraser. If a mistake is made, it can always be erased and changed. If the practical-reactor designer errs, he wears the mistake around his neck; it cannot be erased. Everyone can see it.

“The academic-reactor designer is a dilettante. He has not had to assume any real responsibility in connection with his projects. He is free to luxuriate in elegant ideas, the practical shortcomings of which can be relegated to the category of ‘mere technical details.’ The practical-reactor designer must live with these same technical details. Although recalcitrant and awkard, they must be solved and cannot be put off until tomorrow. Their solutions require manpower, time and money.

“Unfortunately for those who must make far-reaching decisions without the benefit of an intimate knowledge of reactor technology and unfortunately for the interested public, it is much easier to get the academic side of an issue than the practical side. For a large part those involved with the academic reactors have more inclination and time to present their ideas in reports and orally to those who will listen. Since they are innocently unaware of the real but hidden difficulties of their plans, they speak with great facility and confidence. Those involved with practical reactors, humbled by their experience, speak less and worry more.”