Nuclear Nostalgia

Going in search of what’s left of America’s first commercial atomic power plant at Shippingport.

When I was a kid, my dad was a salesman. He sold industrial pipes, valves and fittings for the McJunkin Corp. in Leetsdale, just a bit farther down the Ohio from Sewickley. His travels for work were usually limited to the tri-state area, but we got to know most of his regular destinations by name, and that’s how I became familiar with the word “Shippingport.”  Dad used to call on someone out there.

As a kid, I don’t think I ever knew that it was home to America’s first commercial nuclear-power plant. I may have picked up that tidbit of information in high school in a science or history class, but in those innocent pre-Three Mile Island days, nuclear power (I think it was still “atomic” back then) was just more amazing technology that was a component of our new space-age world.

Well, for my recent WQED documentary, “Invented, Engineered and Pioneered in Pittsburgh,” I got to go and see what’s left of the historic Shippingport Atomic Power Station. The people who worked there still call it “SAPS.”

It was a cluster of nondescript, industrial-looking structures beside the Ohio River west of Beaver, not far from the point where the borders of West Virginia, Ohio and Pennsylvania meet. From what I’d read and from what I’d heard, I expected the site to be nothing more than a field. For a while in the 1990s, employees and their families were invited to go there for picnics.   

And while most of the structures and the reactors and all the potentially scary stuff were dismantled, removed and shipped out of here on a barge in the early ‘90s, I was surprised to find out that one building and a few pieces of the landmark power station are still there. They are insignificant, almost invisible, next to the giant cooling towers, reactor dome and adjacent buildings at First Energy’s Beaver Valley Nuclear Plant. This relatively new plant is also officially in the town of Shippingport, but it doesn’t use the town’s name. Call it “Beaver Valley.”

I went out there with my crew on a beautiful spring day. Scott Waitlevertch and Richie Hecht from First Energy were our guides. We went through security checkpoints, saw the post-9/11 concrete barricades across the old road out to SAPS, and we drove between the huge Beaver Valley cooling towers to get out to the Shippingport site.

Richie Hecht is an electrical engineer originally from Dormont who had worked at SAPS, and he seemed a little surprised, saddened and disappointed at how crumbly, rusty and decrepit all the remains looked.  He told us the one remaining building used to be the Duquesne Light building, and when he tried the glass front doors, they were locked.

We had our camera out and decided to walk around the building. The turbine and a couple of the metal transmission towers and assorted other pieces of the plant are still there.  Richie pointed out the old clock that was stopped at 7:12, the time when they turned the power off here for the last time.

Then he tried the back door. And it opened. It was dark inside, and Scott warned us to be very careful (who knows what critters might be living in there?). It was very dark, and, of course, none of us had brought a flashlight. Then Richie said, “The control-room panels are still here!” You could just barely make out the shape of the room with all the dials and gauges on the walls. I was able to use the flash on my still camera to get a shot and a glimpse of the abandoned room, an eerie relic of the early atomic age.

We couldn’t get any video without going back for lights, so we settled on a few more shots outside then walked back to the van. Richie also pointed out where the parking lot used to be. Not a lot of security back then.  People could just pull in, park and walk in to the office. School kids came on field trips. And I guess salesmen could stop by and ask to speak to someone too. Of course, I imagine Dad there, trying to convince somebody to order a few more pipes, valves or fittings.

Categories: Rick Sebak