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Chapter 6: Responding to Social Needs

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Phillip Rittenhouse
Phillip Rittenhouse

Throughout 1972, the Emergency Core Cooling System (ECCS) hearings on the safety of light-water nuclear reactors attracted the media's attention and raised concerns among personnel in the nuclear energy establishment, including Oak Ridge National Laboratory. Many questioned the adequacy of interim safety standards for nuclear reactors that the AEC issued in 1971, and the chairman of the AEC in 1972 convened quasi-legal hearings on those standards at Bethesda, Maryland. The hearings pitted the nuclear power industry against the opponents of nuclear power and seriously divided researchers at the AEC and its laboratories. Placed on the witness stand during heated adversarial legal proceedings, some scientists expressed confidence in the interim safety standards, and others did not. 

William B. Cottrell

In a letter to Hans Bethe, Nobel laureate professor at Cornell University, and former director of Los Alamos Scientific Laboratory's Theoretical Division, ORNL Director Alvin Weinberg pointed out that emergency cooling systems provided a final defense against melting of fuel in the case of a loss-of-coolant accident in the largest light-water nuclear reactors. "And it makes me all the more unhappy," Weinberg concluded, "that certain quarters in the AEC have refused to take it seriously until forced by intervenors who are often intent on destroying nuclear energy!" 

David Hobson

Weinberg and the Laboratory staff sometimes found themselves at odds with the members of the AEC staff during the trying ECCS hearings of 1972. When the Laboratory safety specialists expressed serious reservations about the degree of emergency core cooling safety, they soon heard their reservations quoted by the opposition, declaring, "Nobody will call these scientists loony; they are ranking members of the atomic energy establishment, whose words we have been taught to accept without question."

George Lawson

When the hearings concluded, the AEC issued revised nuclear safety standards that its opponents decribed as a "continuation of the AEC coverup of critical safety problems." The hearings contributed in no small way to the political decision of 1973 to form from the AEC a new agency for research and development and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission for safety review functions. The hearings contributed to major mission and management changes at the Laboratory as well. 

Several ORNL researchers (shown in the above photos) participated in the Emergency Core Cooling Hearings held by the AEC in 1972 at Bethesda, Maryland. 

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