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Pittsburgh lab at the center of an espionage case is key to the US Navy’s nuclear program

Atomic Energy
Associated Press
Philip A. Fleger, chairman of the board of Duquesne Light Co., right, explains to other officials the operation of the world’s first full-scale atomic power plant before dedication ceremonies in this southwestern Pennsylvania community 25 miles northwest of Pittsburgh in Shippingport, Pennsylvania on Sept. 6, 1954. Others are from left to right are Sterling Cole, chairman of the joint committee on Atomic Energy, Gwilym A. Price, President of Westinghouse Electric Corp., and Lewis L. Strauss, chairman of the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission.

On Sunday, it was revealed that U.S. Navy nuclear engineer Jonathan Toebbe and his wife were charged with trying to sell classified information about the country’s nuclear attack submarines. According to court documents, Toebbe spent time working at the Bettis Atomic Power Laboratory in West Mifflin, Pa.

The Bettis Lab is considered one of the most important facilities for the creation of naval ships powered by nuclear propulsion. In 1948, Westinghouse Electric Corporation signed a contract with the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission to research how atomic energy could be used as a power source. Three years earlier, the United States dropped atomic bombs in Japan, and the government wanted to develop the technology for other military uses.

The roughly 202-acre Bettis Lab, named for 1st Lt. Cyrus K. Bettis, is on the site of Pittsburgh’s first airfield, which opened in 1925. Charles Lindbergh landed his “The Spirit of St. Louis” plane there in 1927. It was home to events like the National Elimination Balloon Races (hot air balloons) and was a main site for private aircraft until it was sold after World War II.

Although it began in peacetime, the lab’s technology helped make the U.S. Navy the most powerful in the world. A 1999 government report on the facility called the technology developed at Bettis Lab “among the most valuable and sensitive military technologies in the United States.”

The first nuclear-powered submarine, the USS NAUTILUS, was created there and went to sea in 1955. The NAUTILUS was faster than battery-powered submarines and could travel further. It sailed under the North Pole in 1958, a more than 2,000 mile-long trip.

Bettis Lab researchers also developed the country’s first nuclear-powered surface ship and nuclear-powered aircraft carrier. In 1957, scientists used nuclear reactors developed at the lab to open the world’s first full-scale atomic electric power plant, the Shippingport Atomic Power Station in Beaver County.

It was chosen by NASA to take part in Project Prometheus, an initiative that would have sent scientists to Mars and explore other parts of space like Jupiter’s moons.

Now, it continues to serve as a research laboratory, as well as home to the U.S. Navy’s Bettis Reactor Engineering School.

Katie Blackley is a digital editor/producer for 90.5 WESA, where she writes, edits and generates both web and on-air content for features and daily broadcast. She's the producer and host of our Good Question! series and podcast. She also covers history and the LGBTQ community.
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