More from 1955: Nuclear energy breeds new markets for control

1955 Industry Pulse: Instrumentation and control have merged to become one of the most profitable phases of nuclear energy. The control makers have taken notice and are profiting.
By Chris Vavra August 16, 2014

August 1955 feature articles included Control of nuclear reactors and A new approach to information storage. Courtesy: CFE MediaHappy 60th, Control Engineering! Our magazine first published in September 1954. This monthly column in 2014 will resurrect some of our favorite material from the 1954 and 1955 issues. Technologies have progressed, but they continue to pave the way for today’s innovations. Here is a full-length article from 1955 about how the nuclear market made instrumentation and control very valuable.

Ten years ago the blindfold fell from the eyes of the small group of process control makers who were shipping huge orders to obscure areas in Tennessee and Washington. The control men were dazzled by the promise of what they saw-but not quite sure how to approach it.

Today the dazzle is still there. But now there is now no hesitancy in the approach. Instrumentation and control have jelled into one of the most profitable phases of nuclear energy. The control makers have taken stock, dug in, and are proliferating.

As nuclear technology became clear, three paths unfurled for control products: 1: Processing the fuel; 2: Controlling the reactors; 3: Measuring and controlling with radioisotopes.

As for nuclear fuel processing, it proved to be a new pasture for standard industrial-type control. True, the pasture is rich: a gaseous diffusion process takes carloads of flow, pressure, temperature, and analytical controllers. But the number of such plants is limited. And the old line industrial control firms-those that shipped to Oak Ridge and Hanford-have grown into this business like endowed and talented sons.

Reactor control is another story. Coping with nuclear furnace dynamics has required new techniques and hardware. And while the process control firms have staked their claim, other formidable engineering ensembles like American Machine & Foundry, General Electric, and Westinghouse are deep into manufacturing control systems for reactors.

From the standpoint of control hardware, reactors are already big business. Controls for the MTR installation at Arco, Idaho, ran to $340,000-11% of its total cost. It is expected that instrumentation for the Duquesne power reactor will be just as large.

Even smaller reactors can mean a bounty for the control maker. Oak Ridge’s famous "swimming pool" unit, a prototype for an expected flood of small research reactors here and overseas, cost only $94,000. But about half was in control instrumentation. And this healthy ratio may become the rule as small commercial power reactors become available to run transport and industrial plants. When this happens the basic reactor must be augmented with automatic controls for the process with which the nuclear power supply is "packaged."

While the big promise of power reactor control still stands 5 or 10 years off, byproduct from the very first nuclear piles-the radioactive isotope-has already fostered a virile new branch of control. Some of the industrial uses for radiation measuring techniques: strip thickness control in rolling mills, closed system liquid level control, fluid control in pipelines, gaging of metals in machining, and monitoring closed systems for leaks, wear, penetration, and distribution.

The mushrooming of companies that seek to exploit nuclear measurement has been phenomenal. In 1943 there were only three small concerns manufacturing radiation-type instruments. Today over 96 are in the act, churning out an array valued at over $30 million annually. And according to AEC forecasts, the volume is apt to double by 1960.

A close-up of one of the members of this vigorous new crop of control makers confirms the optimism. Industrial Nucleonics Corp. sprouted in Columbus, Ohio, in 1960 with a functional beta gage to measure calender thickness in rubber and plastic. In a few months the "AccuRay" system included automatic control and was serving almost all major tire producers. Next came a scanner for wide paper machines, and than a computer to calculate average weight across the sheet. Eight of the 10 largest paper plants quickly bought the system. And in late 1953 "AccuRay" was rigged up to control a tandem steel mill-a system that’s almost a standard in the industry.

What’s next for control makers in the radioisotope field? Industrial Nucleonics, for one, sees, "More and more overall system responsibility in control of heavy industrial processes, incorporating monitors, computers, and data handling devices." Judging by work already done, it would seem that this lively young company-and the new branch of control technology it represents-is wasting little time in realizing its future.

– 2014 Edits by Chris Vavra, content specialist, CFE Media,