1956-2016 Celebrating 60 years of history in Central Virginia
What started as a chance fly-by over Campbell County has led to 60 years of nuclear innovation in and around Lynchburg
When C.W. Middleton, a vice president of The Babcock & Wilcox Company (B&W), was piloting his personal airplane to the Outer Banks of North Carolina for vacation in 1955, he flew over a piece of land tucked away in rural Central Virginia near Mt. Athos and surrounded on three sides by the James River. Middleton knew that B&W needed land for a major expansion: the company had recently entered the fledgling nuclear energy business by supplying components for the USS Nautilus, and B&W’s plans for continued engagement in that promising field would require a remote location.
At Middleton’s suggestion, the company (known today as BWX Technologies, Inc., or BWXT) purchased approximately 2,000 acres of the property in Campbell County just off Mt. Athos Road. The company commissioned select personnel to relocate to the Lynchburg area and began the design and construction of the Atomic Energy Division plant. The plant would consolidate the company’s commercial and government nuclear energy work, and in 1956, nuclear division operations began as the company achieved two historical milestones: the company had constructed the Lynchburg Research Center, which was the first privately financed U.S. nuclear facility, and it began activity at the first privately licensed commercial Critical Experiment Laboratory.
In the years to come, the company would purchase or lease other facilities in the Lynchburg area for commercial and headquarters operations, including Old Forest Road, Ramsey Place, Main Street and other locations.
The company quickly became a major player in the nuclear industry when it manufactured components for the first full-scale peacetime nuclear power plant in the U.S. – the Shippingport Atomic Power Station in Pennsylvania – in 1957. This division also began fabricating research and test reactor fuel for universities and national laboratories. It manufactured the nuclear reactor for the world’s first commercial nuclear merchant ship, the NS Savannah, in 1958. The NS Savannah, which was launched in 1959, was a key element in President Eisenhower’s Atoms for Peace Program and became an important ambassador for nuclear power throughout the world.
Also in the late 1950s, the company shipped its first core for the nuclear-powered Skate-class submarine program.
In 1962, commercial success continued as teams designed and furnished reactor systems for Consolidated Edison’s Indian Point Nuclear Power Plant, which led to the continued development of safe and reliable reactors for other customers. That same year, the Research and Development Division began construction of the Nuclear Development Center and a new test reactor in Lynchburg. Following the boom of success for the nuclear division, the company’s Atomic Energy Division moved its headquarters from New York City to Central Virginia in 1963. Five years later, the Naval Nuclear Fuel Division was formed as the company continued its manufacturing activities to support the nation’s naval reactors mission.
From 1966 to 1971, a flurry of construction activity at Mt. Athos resulted in the addition of 22 new operations bays. The site’s workload peaked in 1975 at more than 2.3 million man-hours before declining as the Cold War ended.
During the 1970s, the company installed six commercial nuclear power systems in the U.S., which at that time represented more than 15 percent of the country’s nuclear operating capacity. As it moved into the 1980s, the company built a dedicated research and test reactor fuel element facility to produce fuel elements for the U.S. Department of Energy’s laboratory program. During the same two decades, the company was successfully fabricating and delivering naval reactor components for the Nimitz-class aircraft carrier and Ohio-class submarine programs.
The company decontaminated and decommissioned the first plutonium laboratory in the U.S. and was also awarded a contract to design a Space Nuclear Thermal Propulsion (SNTP) system for NASA in 1987. The SNTP Program was an advanced technology development effort aimed at providing the nation a new, dramatically higher-performing rocket engine that would more than double the performance of the best conventional chemical rocket engines.
In order to continue to support the commercial nuclear industry, BWXT and French-owned Framatome SA formed a joint venture in 1989. BWXT later sold portions of that business to Framatome, which would eventually become known as AREVA.
By 1990, the company had become the sole supplier for naval reactor components for the U.S. Navy fleet, but BWXT still pursued a diversified portfolio of nuclear projects, as evidenced by its 1991 contract to design and produce quadrupole magnets for the Superconducting Super Collider project in North Texas.
With the end of the Cold War, a new market opportunity emerged: nuclear nonproliferation. In 1995, BWXT was chosen to downblend a stockpile of Highly Enriched Uranium (HEU) as part of Project Sapphire. The project involved taking weapons-grade HEU and reducing its enrichment to make it a viable fuel for power plant reactors and other peaceful purposes. The project was a significant milestone in global nuclear threat reduction. This experience would serve the company well as BWXT was later awarded a contract with USEC Inc. to downblend 50 metric tons of HEU for use in commercial power plants.
BWXT also leveraged its success as a nuclear owner/operator to branch into managing and operating large, multi-billion dollar contracts for U.S. Department of Energy nuclear weapons sites around the country. Experienced employees from the Lynchburg site relocated to places like Oak Ridge, Tenn. and Amarillo, Texas, applying their years of experience to improving operations at those sites and expanding BWXT’s reach into government contracting.
Always looking for new opportunities, the company was contracted to design and manufacture the nuclear technology and reactor components for NASA’s Jupiter Icy Moons Orbiter under Project Prometheus in 2003. The mission aimed at searching for life in the subsurface oceans of Jupiter’s three ice-covered moons, requiring new space nuclear power and propulsion technologies that would revolutionize space exploration.
In the mid-2000s, the company sought to streamline part of its business operations and develop a new, multi-year price agreement approach with its primary Naval Reactors customer. These agreements, known as “market baskets,” restructured customer communications and lowered costs while providing BWXT and its client with multi-year predictability in finances and work scope. The first market basket contract was a $1.8 billion agreement signed in 2007.
The first Ford-class aircraft carrier was ordered by the U.S. Government in 2008, providing more work for BWXT to manufacture her reactor. A year later, the company introduced its plans to design and deploy the mPower small modular reactor. The modular and scalable nature of the reactor quickly gained wide recognition for its substantial electric utility involvement, cost competitiveness and innovative design.
In 2010, the company relocated its headquarters to Charlotte, North Carolina, the same year in which it spun off from former parent company McDermott International, Inc. In 2015, the company spun off its power generation business, and its headquarters returned to Lynchburg once again. It began trading on the New York Stock Exchange for the first time as BWXT and remains one of the few publicly traded companies headquartered in the Lynchburg area.
In 2016, the company announced a record $3.1 billion contract for naval nuclear reactor components and fuel, with work extending into 2024.
Today, BWXT employs 5,400 people and is a leading supplier of nuclear components and fuel to the U.S. government; provides technical, management and site services to support governments in the operation of complex facilities and environmental remediation activities; and supplies precision manufactured components and services for the commercial nuclear powerindustry.
From an obscure and undeveloped parcel of land to a world-class nuclear company, the face of BWXT’s presence in and around Lynchburg has changed over the past 60 years. However, its ability to shape the nuclear industry has not. BWXT is grateful for the support that so many from Central Virginia have provided and looks forward to many more years of growth and achievement.
2,000 acres at Mt. Athos site purchased for nuclear operations
Operations begin at the Mt. Athos site. BWXT built the first privately licensed commercial Critical Experiment Laboratory and began operations at the Lynchburg Research Center, the first privately financed US nuclear facility.
Manufactured components for the first full-scale peacetime nuclear power plant in the US – the Shippingport Atomic Power Station in Pennsylvania.
Began fabricating research and test reactor fuel for universities and national laboratories.
World’s first nuclear merchant ship NS Savannah is launched with a BWXT-manufactured nuclear reactor.
Began construction of the Nuclear Development Center and a new test reactor in Lynchburg.
Designed and furnished reactor systems for Consolidated Edison’s Indian Point Nuclear Power Plant, thus entering commercial nuclear market.
Atomic Energy Division moved its headquarters from New York City to the Mt. Athos site.
Initiated fabrication of components for Nimitz-class aircraft carriers.
Naval Nuclear Fuel Division was formed as the company continued its manufacturing activities to support the nation’s naval reactors mission.
Hurricane Camille leads to flooding of James River at Mt. Athos site.
Installed six nuclear power systems in the U.S., which at that time represented more than 15 percent of the country’s nuclear operating capacity.
Designed and built components for liquid metal fast breeder reactor.
Built a dedicated research and test reactor fuel element facility to produce fuel elements for the U.S. Department of Energy’s laboratory program.
A 35-foot crest of the James River damages plant and leads to evacuations.
Awarded a contract to design a Space Nuclear Thermal Propulsion system for NASA.
Became the sole supplier for naval reactor components for the U.S. Navy fleet.
Awarded contract to design and produce quadrupole magnets for the Superconducting Super Collider project in North Texas.
Issued patent for solar bi-modal space power and propulsion system.
Initiated fabrication of heavy-equipment components for Virginia-class submarine.
Awarded first major US Department of Energy site management and operating contract at Idaho National Engineering and Environmental Laboratory as part of winning team.
Chosen to downblend a stockpile of Highly Enriched Uranium (HEU) as part of Project Sapphire.
Contracted to design and manufacture the nuclear technology and reactor components for NASA’s Jupiter Icy Moons Orbiter under Project Prometheus.
Signed first “market basket” contract for Naval Nuclear Propulsion Program for $1.8 billion.
First Ford-class aircraft carrier ordered by U.S. Government and powered by a BWXT reactor.
Introduced plans to design and deploy the mPower small modular reactor.
Spun off power generation business.
Announced record $3.1 billion contract for naval nuclear reactor components and fuel.