Rickover was Right
The news this week that Russia is postponing work on its Gen IV BN-1200 reactor, along with reports of new problems at the already much delayed construction of Areva's EPR at Flamanville--this time, anomalies in the composition of the steel in certain parts of the reactor vessel--and a history of delays in the construction of the EPR at Olkiluoto, Finland, highlights yet again the wisdom of Admiral Hyman Rickover when he spoke of the difference between real reactors and "paper reactors."
I have referred to this quote several times in previous blogs, so I think it is high time I provided the full quote and a link to an original source. This quote originates in a June 5, 1953 document by Rickover, which he read as part of his testimony before Congress, published in AEC Authorizing Legislation: Hearings Before the Joint Committee on Atomic Energy (1970), p. 1702:
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. (7) Very little development will be required. It will use 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 can be distinguished by the following characteristics: (1) It is being built now. (2) It is behind schedule. (3) It requires an immense amount of development on apparently trivial items. (4) It is very expensive. (5) It takes a long time to build because of its engineering development problems. (6) It is large. (7) It is heavy. (8) It is complicated.
(The astute reader will notice that the term Rickover originally used was "academic reactors," but the term "paper reactors" seems to have become popularized in the intervening years. Witness that the term paper reactors gets almost 15 million hits on Google, while the term academic reactors gets 720,000 hits.)
The reality is that many large-scale projects seem to have construction delays and cost overruns. The last big example of that I'm aware of was the construction of the facilities for the Olympics in the United Kingdom, which I previously discussed. And new technologies always seem to have some unexpected hurdles to overcome as well. How many new, advanced cars and gadgets of all types have failed to live up to expectations? Couple new and large, and you have a "perfect storm" of conditions that lead to delays and cost overruns.
I am not saying this to make excuses and justify all the delays and cost increases. I am just trying to urge more attention to try to anticipate problems as much as is possible, and more caution about what we even appear to promise. The current project delays in the news are not the first and will not be the last. We all should remember that every large, new project looks perfect on paper, and turning a paper reactor into a real one is not an easy task.