I suppose I’m just going to have to give in and jump on the wind generator bandwagon as an alternative energy source now that the disaster in Japan has soured public opinion on Nuclear energy even more.
Steve Hemmingsen, who lives in the shadow of a gazillion of those unsightly(my opinion) electric generating whirligigs spinning away on every southwest Minnesota hillside, recently reminded me about how Sioux Falls was once a real pioneer in the development of nuclear power; a “Pathfinder” in both name and mission.
Back in the 50’s and 60’s about all we knew of atomic power was the fact that Russia and the United States had a bunch of intercontinental ballistic missiles pointed at one another promising mutual annihilation if either side got too pushy.
But there were others at the same time trying to downplay the bombs and tout the POSITIVE side of nuclear energy as an economical, clean, relatively safe source for generating electricity. After all, the U.S. Navy had already proven that it was feasible with the launching of “Nautilus” the first nuclear powered submarine in 1955; the beginning of our nuclear Navy.
Northern States Power Company along with other investor owned utilities wanted to be in on the ground floor so it applied for and received permission to build a small nuclear plant just northeast of the growing and industrially ambitious city of Sioux Falls. It would be one of the first all nuclear generating stations in the country and serve as a guinea pig for the utilities to find out how to run a nuke plant and demonstrate the feasibility of building more. The chamber of commerce was all for it; believing the facility would attract new people and business to our “modern progressive” community. The chamber even used Pathfinder in the tourist brochure of “must see” places in Sioux Falls.
“Pathfinder” went on-line in 1966 but almost immediately began having mechanical problems. In fact, it only ran at maximum output ONE time and then for just a half hour. Within a year, it was decided that the plant was too costly to maintain and not all that safe so the reactor, manufactured by Allis/Chalmers (the tractor people) was shut down and converted to use natural gas and oil as fuel to make steam for powering the turbines. Here’s what Atomic Power Resources Associates official blog has to say about Pathfinder: “This plant, was one of the most troubled in history because of the design of the reactor which was one of only two ever built here that attempted to use nuclear superheating of the steam in the reactor core. The plant was never successful and never passed full power tests, and was never put on the grid of Northern States Power for any measurable time before being terminated.
But NSP did learn from Pathfinder’s problems and went on to build several more nuclear power plants. Just no more in South Dakota. It took 24 YEARS for the reactor to cool enough to be safely removed from the building and hauled off to a nuclear waste disposal site in Washington State. I remember during those years there were lots of whispers and rumors about Pathfinder occasionally leaking little poofs of radiation. One story that went around was that the plant had once come close to a melt down. I think that was probably right after the movie, China Syndrome, came out. To my knowledge, though, no such evidence ever surfaced.
In 1994, Pathfinder was renamed for NSP executive, Angus Anson, who was killed in the same plane crash that claimed the life of Governor George Mickelson. The plant is still there and still used by Xcel as a backup.. providing extra electricity during those scorching humid summer days when everybody’s air conditioner is cranked up on high.
I suppose if you live near the Buffalo Ridge when it’s hot like that, you could go stand in front of one of those mega million dollar giant fans that pepper the landscape. I’m sure they must generate a nice breeze along with a little electricity.