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Why Was the First Municipal Nuclear Power Plant Built in Piqua? WYSO Curious Cuts to the Core

Dec 29, 2016

It’s easy to forget about where you get the energy that powers your home. But back in the 1960s, some of Piqua’s electricity came from its nuclear power plant, the first small-town sized nuclear reactor in the country. Listener Karen Power wanted to know why the reactor was built in Piqua. I drove down to the old reactor site to find out.

“An ideal location”

“Here for the first time anywhere, the turbine generators of a municipally-owned power plant are using steam produced by nuclear energy for the generation of electricity.”

That’s the excited proclamation at the beginning of a film by the Atomic Energy Commission about the Piqua reactor. According to the film, the AEC intended to build several nuclear reactors in small towns. Piqua was chosen to go first.

Ground floor of the reactor building during the 1960s. Using an organic compound as a coolant meant that people could work inside the reactor while it was running.
Credit Piqua Library Local History Department

The Piqua plant was also part of an experiment in using an organic compound as a coolant. Using a molten waxy compound instead of water to cool the uranium fuel rods meant that the radiation was more insulated, and that people could work inside the reactor while it was running.

So why did the AEC choose Piqua? Piqua’s current power director, Ed Krieger, told me it most likely has to do with the utilities director at the time, John Gallagher, who had some national connections.

“John Gallagher served as president of American Public Power Association, and he was able to go to Washington and somehow lobby to get the facility built here.”

I also talked to Bret Reid, a long-time employee at Piqua Power, who says the location Piqua proposed was pretty ideal.

“It was in an area that basically would never get flooded,” Reid explains. “You had the river on one side, but on the other side you had a gravel pit. They put it on the highest point, and it was an ideal location for a reactor shell.”

The Atomic City

When Piqua agreed to build the plant, it gave up a lot of local control. Many of its new employees came from an organic chemistry program in Idaho, or from Canoga Park, California, where the fuel rods were built. The AEC also owned the reactor building and leased it to Piqua. But Reid tells me there was still plenty of local pride.

Piqua Daily Call headline from 1959. The AEC had just signed its contract with Piqua Power.
Credit Piqua Library Local History Department

                                

“I remember as a kid in school, Piqua was the Atomic City. You had signs on all the roads coming into town stating as such,” he says.

Scrams

Piqua signed its contract with the AEC in 1959, and construction was finished three years later. Things didn’t get off to a smooth start. Reid talked to several people who worked at Piqua Power during the 60s. They told him there were problems with low steam pressure when the plant was running.

“There would be a lot of scrams,” he explains. “A scram is basically when the nuclear reactor shut down and could not provide steam over to the power plant.”

This was probably because the fuel rods just didn’t produce enough power. The plant shut down in 1965. It was supposed to be temporary, but in 1967, the AEC surprised local officials by ending its 5-year contract early and closing the plant.

Where has Piqua gotten its power since then? Power director Ed Krieger says the town started buying part ownership other places, including a coal plant in Illinois, a wind farm in Ohio, and an allocation of power through the New York Power Authorities.

Krieger also told me they’re planning to produce more power locally in the future. That will probably include solar panels in Piqua.

“Beyond our lifetime”

As for the old reactor, the uranium was taken away, but the Department of Energy still owns the building. Piqua can buy it back when radiation levels get low enough by government standards.

The levels are pretty low; Krieger says they're about the same as the radiation you’d find in your house. But it could take at least 90 more years before the levels are low enough to satisfy the Department of Energy.

“At one time we thought it might be a few years away, but it’s really beyond our lifetime,” he says.

Looking down at the bottom of the abandoned reactor core. The core is three stories underground.
Credit Char Daston/WYSO

I couldn’t leave Piqua without seeing the reactor, so Bret Reid took me for a tour. It’s a big metal dome that’s now used as a warehouse. We walk through the airlock, past a time capsule they can only open when Piqua owns the building, and down three stories to the dimly-lit reactor core.

Reid explains that the walls curve under the floor, so the shell is shaped like a big pill.

Then he points out the reactor core; it’s behind four concrete walls in the center of the room.

When it was running, Reid says, “It would sound noisy because of the machinery required to run the operation: the air-moving equipment, the water pump, and of course the steam going through the lines.”

Today, the core is eerily silent, other than the faint buzzing from the lights above.

Learn more:

Here's a fact sheet about the reactor from the Department of Energy.  

And here's the AEC's film about the Piqua reactor: 

WYSO Curious is our occasional series about your questions and curiosities—let us know what you are curious about in the Miami Valley, and your question could get answered by a WYSO reporter. WYSO Curious is a partnership with Hearken, founded by Jennifer Brandel based on her work at Curious City/WBEZ Chicago.

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