ORNL: THE FIRST 50 YEARS--CHAPTER 4: OLYMPIAN FEATS
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A symbol of peaceful competition first in the ancient world and
then in the 20th century, the Olympics were revived after World War
I, not only in quadrennial athletic performances but also in
scientific competitions. Sparked in 1953 by President Dwight
Enternational cooperation in the peaceful uses of atomic energy, in
1955 and 1958 scientists worldwide showcased their achievements at
international conferences that resembled the athletic Olympics. In
these competitions, the world-class research at Oak Ridge National
Laboratory often took the laurels.ften took the laurels.
Science during the 1950s became a full-blown instrument of foreign
policy, both in Cold War weapons competition and in peaceful
applications of nuclear science, especially nuclear fission
reactors and fusion energy devices. As an international center for
nuclear fission research by the mid-1950s, the Laboratory had as
many as six reactors under design or construction. The Laboratory's
chemical technology expertise also made it a leader in reactor fuel
reprocessing and recovery. Both these programs earned the
Laboratory much prestige at the 1955 scientific olympics. Also, in
1958, the Laboratory's tiny fusion energy research effort vaulted
above larger programs elsewhere to win the gold at the second
United Nations Conference on Peaceful Uses of Atomic Energy.
The Laboratory and other AEC facilities also embarked on a program
of experimental reactor development in 1953. That year, the
Laboratory's experimental homogeneous reactor, under Samuel Beall's
direction, first generated electric power. Elsewhere, other nuclear
mileposts were passed: a demonstration atomic reactor to propel
submarines and an experimental breeder reactor began operating in
Idaho, and the first university research reactor was unveiled at
North Carolina State University.
In a dramatic speech on the future of the atom to the United
Nations in 1953, President Eisenhower pledged the United States "to
find the way by which the miraculous inventiveness of man shall not
be dedicated to his death, but consecrated to his life." The
president's "Atoms for Peace" speech, hailed throughout the world
as a prologue to a new chapter in the history of nuclear energy,
was to guide the research efforts of the AEC and the Laboratory for
years to come. The initiative, Alvin Weinberg declared, would make
nuclear science the "touchstone of peace."
Soon after this address, President Eisenhower signed the 1954
Atomic Energy Act, which fostered the cooperative development of
nuclear energy by the AEC and private industry. In response, the
AEC began a massive declassification of nuclear science data for
the benefit of private users, and the Laboratory assumed a key role
in the AEC's five-year plan to develop five new demonstration
Launched in 1954, the AEC plan called for construction of a small
pressurized-water reactor by Westinghouse Corporation; an
experimental boiling-water reactor by Argonne National Laboratory;
a fast breeder reactor, also by Argonne; a sodium-graphite reactor
by North American Aviation; and an aqueous homogeneous-fuel reactor
by Oak Ridge National Laboratory.
Beyond its work on the homogeneous reactor, the Laboratory in the
1950s--as a national center for chemistry and chemical
technology--focused on developing fluid fuels for nuclear reactors.
The Laboratory concentrated on three possible options: fuels in
solution, fuels suspended in liquid (or slurries), and molten salt
fuels. Each one posed fundamental challenges in chemistry and
chemical technology. Moving confidently from solids to liquids to
gases in support of the AEC efforts on behalf of the atom, the
Laboratory also conducted research for heterogeneous, solid-fuel
reactors. It also provided conceptual designs for a transportable
Army package reactor, a maritime reactor, and a gas-cooled reactor.
The Cold War and President Eisenhower's "Atoms for Peace" speech
reenergized and refocused the Laboratory's research efforts. In
effect, it gave the Laboratory a multifaceted research agenda, many
aspects of which were tied to the development and application of
nuclear power. Summarizing the impact of the nation's postwar aims
on the work of the Laboratory, Director Clarence Larson commented,
"1954 has witnessed the transition that many of us have hoped for
since the war. The increasing emphasis on peacetime applications of
atomic energy," he went on to say, "has been a particular source of
In addition to the Aircraft Reactor Experiment, the Bulk Shielding
Reactor, and the Tower Shielding Facility built as part of its
Aircraft Nuclear Project for the Air Force, the Laboratory had
three other major reactor designs in progress during the mid-1950s:
its own new research reactor with a high neutron flux; a portable
package reactor for the Army; and the Aqueous Homogeneous Reactor,
which was unique because it combined fuel, moderator, and coolant
in a single solution (designed as one of five demonstration
reactors under AEC auspices).
Initial studies of homogeneous reactors took place toward the close
of World War II. It pained chemists to see precisely fabricated
solid-fuel elements of heterogeneous reactors eventually dissolved
in acids to remove fission products--the "ashes" of a nuclear
reaction. Chemical engineers hoped to design liquid-fuel reactors
that would dispense with the costly destruction and processing of
solid fuel elements. The formation of gas bubbles in liquid fuels
and the corrosive attack on materials, however, presented daunting
design and materials challenges.
With the help of experienced chemical engineers brought to the
Laboratory after its acquisition of the Y-12 laboratories, the
Laboratory proposed to address these design challenges. George
Felbeck, Union Carbide manager, encouraged their efforts. Rather
than await theoretical solutions, Laboratory staff attacked the
problems empirically by building a small, cheap experimental
homogeneous reactor model. Engineering and design studies began in
the Reactor Experimental Engineering Division under Charles
Winters, and in 1951 the effort formally became a project under
John Swartout and Samuel Beall.
This was the Laboratory's first cross-divisional program. Swartout
provided program direction to groups assigned in the Chemistry,
Chemical Technology, Metallurgy, and Engineering divisions, while
Samuel Beall led construction and operations. Beecher Briggs headed
reactor design; Ted Welton, Milton Edlund, and William Breazeale
were in charge of reactor physics; Edward Bohlmann directed
corrosion testing; and Richard Lyon and Irving Spiewak performed
fluid flow studies and component development.
A homogeneous (liquid-fuel) reactor had two major advantages over
heterogeneous (solid-fuel and liquid-coolant) reactors. Its fuel
solution would circulate continuously between the reactor core and
a processing plant that would remove unwanted fissionable products.
Thus, unlike a solid-fuel reactor, a homogeneous reactor would not
have to be taken off-line periodically to discard spent fuel.
Equally important, a homogeneous reactor's fuel and the solution in
which it was dissolved served as the source of power generation.
For this reason, a homogeneous reactor held the promise of
simplifying nuclear reactor designs.
A building to house the Homogeneous Reactor Experiment was
completed in March 1951. The first model to test the feasibility of
this reactor used uranyl sulfate fuel. After leaks were plugged in
the high-temperature piping system, the power test run began in
October 1952, and the design power level of one megawatt (MW) was
attained in February 1953. The reactor's high-pressure steam
twirled a small turbine that generated 150 kilowatts (kW) of
electricity, an accomplishment that earned its operators the
honorary title "Oak Ridge Power Company."
Marveling at the homogeneous reactor's smooth responsiveness to
power demands, Weinberg found its initial operation thrilling.
"Charley Winters at the steam throttle did everything, and during
the course of the evening, we electroplated several medallions and
blew a steam whistle with atomic steam," he exulted in a report to
Wigner, asking him to bring von Neumann to see it. Despite his
enthusiasm, Weinberg found AEC's staff decidedly bearish on
homogeneous reactors and, in a letter to Wigner, he speculated that
the "boiler bandwagon has developed so much pressure that everyone
has climbed on it, pell mell." Weinberg surmised that the AEC was
committed to development of solid-fuel reactors cooled with water
and Laboratory demonstrations of other reactor types--regardless of
their success--were not likely to alter its course.
Despite AEC preferences, the Laboratory dismantled its Homogeneous
Reactor Experiment in 1954 and obtained authority to build a large
pilot plant with "a two-region" core tank. The aim was not only to
produce economical electric power but also to irradiate a thorium
slurry blanket surrounding the reactor, thereby producing
fissionable uranium-233. If this pilot plant proved successful, the
Laboratory hoped to accomplish two major goals: to build a
full-scale homogeneous reactor as a thorium "breeder" and to supply
cheap electric power to the K-25 plant to enrich uranium.
Initial success stimulated international and private industrial
interest in homogeneous reactors, and in 1955 Westinghouse
Corporation asked the Laboratory to study the feasibility of
building a full-scale homogeneous power breeder. British and Dutch
scientists studied similar reactors, and the Los Alamos Scientific
Laboratory built a high-temperature homogeneous reactor using
uranyl phosphate fluid fuel. If the Laboratory's pilot plant
operated successfully, staff at Oak Ridge thought that homogeneous
reactors could become the most sought-after prototype in the
intense worldwide competition to develop an efficient commercial
reactor. Proponents of solid-fuel reactors, the option of choice
for many in the AEC, would find themselves in the unenviable
position of playing catch-up. But this was not to be.
ARMY PACKAGE REACTOR
Similar initial success flowed from studies at the Oak Ridge School
of Reactor Technology, where a study group in 1952 proposed a
compact, transportable package reactor to generate steam and
electric power at military bases so remote that supplying them with
bulky fossil fuels was too difficult and costly.
The AEC and Army Corps of Engineers expressed a great deal of
interest in this concept, and in early 1953 Laboratory management
met with Colonel James Lampert and Army Corps of Engineers staff to
initiate planning for such a mobile reactor. Alfred Boch and a team
including Harold McCurdy and Frank Neill in the Electronuclear
Division were given responsibility to design this small reactor.
They selected a heterogeneous, pressurized-water, stainless steel
system design that could use standard components wherever possible
for easy replacement at remote bases. Walter Jordan led a
Laboratory team that drew up specifications for a package reactor
capable of generating 10 MW of heat and 2 MW of electricity.
General Samuel Sturgis, chief of the Army Engineers, decided to
build the reactor at Fort Belvoir, Virginia, where his officers
could be trained to operate it.
The Army Package Reactor was the first reactor built under bid by
private contractors. The Army Corps of Engineers, in fact, received
18 bids that ranged from $2.25 million to $7 million. The Corps
awarded the contract to Alco Products (American Locomotive Company)
in December 1954, and Alco completed the reactor in 1957.
With a core easily transportable in a C-47 airplane, the Army
Package Reactor could generate power for two years without
refueling; a small oil-fired plant would consume 54,000 barrels of
diesel fuel over the same period. The Army later built similar
package reactors for power and heat generation in the Arctic and
other remote bases.
Ancient athletes considered the Olympics a purifying experience.
Purification was also a preoccupation of scientists who
participated in the nuclear olympics of the 1950s--not personal
purification, but fuel purification to enable nuclear reactors to
operate more efficientlyo a preoccupation of scientists who
participated in the nuclear olympics of the 1950s--not personal
purification, but fuel purification to enable nuclear reactors to
operate more efficiently.nk Steahly, and Floyd Culler sought to
improve fuel purification by recovering valuable plutonium and
uranium from spent fuel elements and separating them from fission
products. Laboratory interest in these efforts was reflected by the
subdivision of its Technical Division into the Reactor Technology
and the Chemical Technology divisions in February 1950. The Reactor
Technology Division carried out Laboratory responsibilities for
reactor development, whereas the Chemical Technology Division,
following the lead of the Laboratory's "separations and recovery"
experience during and after World War II, sought to improve
chemical separations processes.
The Laboratory's most important achievement during World War II had
been the recovery of plutonium from Graphite Reactor fuel. Drawing
on its wartime experience, the Laboratory attained notable success
during the postwar years recovering uranium stored in waste tanks
near the Graphite Reactor. Hanford's management called on
Laboratory staff to address similar recovery problems at its
plutonium production facilities in the state of Washington. The
Laboratory also built a pilot plant to improve Argonne National
Laboratory's REDOX process for recovering plutonium and uranium by
solvent extraction. The pilot plant served as a prototype for an
immense REDOX process plant completed at Hanford in 1952. To
recover uranium from fuel plates at the AEC's Idaho reactor site,
Frank Bruce, Don Ferguson, and associates improved the so-called
"25 process," and Floyd Culler completed design of a large plant
that used this process, also in 1952.
Recovery, separation, and extraction--the primary components of
fuel purification--were big business at the Laboratory during the
1950s. Such efforts played a major role in developing the Plutonium
and Uranium Extraction (PUREX) process selected in 1950 for use at
the Savannah River Plant reactors. Two huge PUREX plants were built
at Savannah River in 1954 and a third at Hanford in 1956. Later,
large plants using the PUREX process were built in other nations,
and some Laboratory executives believe the PUREX process may
constitute the Laboratory's greatest contribution to nuclear
By 1954, the Laboratory's chemical technologists had completed a
pilot plant demonstrating the ability of the THOREX process to
separate thorium, protactinium, and uranium-233 from fission
products and from each other. This process could isolate
uranium-233 for weapons development and also for use as fuel in the
proposed thorium breeder reactors.
During the 1950s, the Laboratory's Chemical Technology Division
served as the AEC's center for pilot plant development, echoing the
Laboratory's wartime role in plutonium recovery and extraction. The
succession of challenges it had to meet--uranium-235 recovery,
PUREX development, and construction and operation of the REDOX and
THOREX pilot plants--swelled the ranks of the Chemical Technology
Division from fewer than 100 people in 1950 to almost 200 in 1955.
A similar expansion took place in the Analytical Chemistry
Division. Its staff increased from 110 people to 214 people during
the same period.
The fuel purification program brought Eugene Wigner back to the
Laboratory in 1954. Wigner had been working for Du Pont on the
design of the Savannah River reactors when he agreed to return to
Oak Ridge to apply his chemical engineering expertise to design a
solvent extraction plant. Labeled Project Hope because it promised
to extend the supply of fissionable materials for energy
production, Wigner's 1954 study resulted in the design of a
processing plant able to recover uranium-235 from spent fuel for
reuse in reactors at a cost of $1 per gram, much lower than the
prevailing cost of $7.50 per gram of uranium from ore.
His study helped turn the attention of the Laboratory's chemical
technologists from improving individual processes for recovery of
uranium, plutonium, and thorium to developing an integrated plant
capable of separating all nuclear materials at a single site. The
proposed power reactor fuel reprocessing facility would have
competed with private industry, however, and eventually the AEC
decided not to construct it.
OAK RIDGE RESEARCH REACTOR
In 1953, the Laboratory received AEC approval to build a new
research reactor. The reactor design, blueprinted by Tom Cole's
team, combined features of the Materials Testing Reactor and the
Bulk Shielding Reactor. With a thermal power rating of 20 MW, its
neutron flux--the neutron beam intensity so critical for
research--was 100 times greater than that of the Graphite Reactor
and was exceeded only by that of the Materials Testing Reactor in
IdaTesting Reactor and the Bulk Shielding Reactor. With a thermal
power rating of 20 MW, its neutron flux--the neutron beam intensity
so critical for research--was 100 times greater than that of the
Graphite Reactor and was exceeded only by that of the Materials
Testing Reactor in Idaho.supporting many scientific advances.
Physicists Cleland Johnson, Frances Pleasonton, and Arthur Snell
performed the first scientific experiments at the Oak Ridge
Research Reactor. Examining the relative directions of neutron and
electron (beta particle) emissions in the decay of helium-6 nuclei,
they confirmed the electron- neutrino theory of nuclear beta decay.
The results guided the improvement of the recoil spectrometry
techniques pioneered by Snell and his colleagues. Information on
the masses, energies, and nuclear particles of fission fragments
was obtained at the ORR by John Dabbs, Louis Roberts, George
Parker, John Walter, and Hal Schmitt. Jack Harvey, Bob Block, and
Grimes Slaughter used time-of flight spectrometry to obtain data
for the design of fission power reactors.
Neutron scattering research at the ORR by Wallace Koehler, Mike
Wilkinson, Ralph Moon, Joe Cable, and Ray Child examined the
magnetic properties of rare earths and other materials. Using a
triple-axis spectrometer at an ORR beam port, Harold Smith,
Wilkinson, Bob Nicklow, and Herb Mook gained new insights on the
dynamic properties of solids and the interatomic forces in various
crystals. Henri Levy, Selmer Peterson, Smith, Bill Busing, and
George Brown pioneered automated single-crystal neutron diffraction
studies, producing information on the structure of such materials
as sugar crystals.
A Physics Division team composed of Philip Miller, James Baird, and
William Dress worked at the ORR in collaboration with Norman Ramsey
of Harvard for a decade, conducting a series of experiments on an
electrical charge characteristic of neutrons. They designed and
operated a novel neutron spectrometer based on Ramsey's separated
oscillatory-field method for magnetic resonance. For this work and
other investigations of the fundamental characteristics of the
proton and neutron, Ramsey was awarded the Nobel Prize in physics
Another example of pioneering research at the ORR was completed
from 1974 to 1978 by Kirk Dickens, Bob Peelle, Temple Love, and Jim
McConnell of the Neutron Physics Division together with Juel Emory
and Joe Northcutt of the Analytical Chemistry Division. They
measured the rate of heat generation from the decay of fission
products in reactor fuel, an effect crucial to determining what
might happen during loss-of coolant accidents at reactors and how
much emergency cooling would be required for reactor cores.
Using sets of capsules moved mechanically into and out of the ORR's
neutron stream, nuclear fuels for reactors were tested. These
capsules often had colorful names, such as the "eight-ball capsule"
used to test spherical fuel for a German gas-cooled reactor. For
gas-cooled reactor experiments led by John Conlin, John Coobs, and
Edward Storto, two fuel irradiation test loops using circulating
helium were installed at the ORR.
To qualify a second reactor core for the nuclear ship Savannah, I.
T. Dudley installed a pressurized-water loop at the ORR. Donald
Trauger, who had charge of the tests using capsules and loops,
notes that the testing facilities were later copied for similar
testing of reactors in the Netherlands and elsewhere.
Clifford Savage built and operated an engineering-scale test loop
at the ORR to study fuel behavior and corrosion rates for the
Laboratory's Homogeneous Reactor Experiment. Although not the first
of their type, these engineering-scale experiments were the most
advanced of their time.
During the last experiments at the ORR before its operation ceased
in 1987, its highly-enriched uranium fuel was replaced with
low-enriched fuel containing only 20 percent uranium-235. The last
experiments revealed that low-enrichment fuel could be substituted
for highly enriched fuel in most research reactors. Such a switch
could allay fears that highly enriched fuel might be diverted into
nuclear weapons production.
The research reactor's presence caused scientists and engineers
from throughout the world to seek assignments at the Laboratory.
For the less scientifically inclined, the reactor became a tourist
attraction. An impressive structure, silhouetted by the blue glow
of Cerenkov radiation emanating from the core within its protective
pool, the Oak Ridge Research Reactor was admired in person by
Senator John Kennedy, U.S. Representative Gerald Ford, and other
noted and aspiring political figures. Thanks to relaxed security
requirements in the wake of President Eisenhower's call for
international cooperation, the reactor also lured many foreign
scientists and dignitaries, such as the queen of Greece and the
king of Jordan, who came to the Laboratory on other business but
could not pass up an opportunity to see one of the facility's most
notable pieces of equipment.
1955 GENEVA CONFERENCE
The Laboratory's new research reactor was being ds were being made
for the first United Nations Conference on Peaceful Uses of Atomic
Energy. That conference was scheduled for Geneva, Switzerland, in
August 1955. A staid, professional scientific meeting, organized in
response to Eisenhower's "Atoms for Peace" initiative, it also
became an extravagant science fair with exhibits from many nations
emphasizing their scientific achievements. ng their scientific
Never before had the accomplishments of nuclear power been placed
on such a public stage. And never before had scientists so openly
presented their findings as symbols of national prestige. Just as
the athletic Olympics in the post-World War II era emerged as
peaceful arenas for venting Cold War animosities, the 1955 Geneva
conference on the atom became a platform for comparing the relative
strengths of science in capitalist and communist societies.
Because critical assessments of the exhibits, especially those
brought by the Soviets and Americans, were expected, the AEC asked
its laboratories for spectacular exhibit concepts. At Oak Ridge,
Tom Cole's suggestion that the AEC build and display a small
nuclear reactor was welcomed.
In early 1955, a Laboratory team led by Charles Winters and William
Morgan designed and fabricated a scaled-down version of the
Materials Testing Reactor, operating at 100 kW instead of 30 MW.
The Laboratory designed it as the first reactor to use low-enriched
uranium dioxide fuel. When the fuel plates were fabricated,
however, a reaction between the uranium dioxide and aluminum caused
the plates to distort. Jack Cunningham's team finished resetting
the plates just before shipment.
After testing, the reactor was disassembled and sent by air from
Knoxville to Geneva, where the Laboratory team reassembled it in a
building constructed on the grounds of the Palais des Nations.
Designed, built, tested, transported to Geneva, and reassembled in
only five months, it became the most spectacular display at the
conference, admired by political dignitaries such as President
Eisenhower as well as by the public and media. The reactor and the
28 scientific papers presented to the conference by staff members
gave the Laboratory a claim to the laurels of the international
Heralding the multifaceted applications of peaceful atomic power,
the Geneva conference captured the public's imagination. After the
conference, the U.S. exhibit returned home for a triumphant
national tour, minus its most eye-catching element. The Swiss
government had purchased Oak Ridge's model Materials Testing
Reactor to use at a research facility.
At the same time, the Laboratory acquired its own version of the
Geneva reactor. To ensure against loss of the reactor during
shipment to Switzerland, Charles Winters had made duplicates of all
its components. These were assembled in the pool of the
Laboratory's Bulk Shielding Reactor and became known as the Pool
Critical Assembly. John Swartout later recalled the chiding he
received from AEC management for allowing the Pool Critical
Assembly to be built without advance AEC approval. Swartout pointed
out that if the reactor were safe enough to be operated within the
city of Geneva, it certainly was safe within the confines of the
"Our Laboratory stands today as an institution of international
reputation," exulted Alvin Weinberg, who became Laboratory director
shortly after the conference. "This we sense from our many
distinguished foreign visitors, from the numerous invitations which
our staff receives to foreign meetings, and in the substantial part
which we played at Geneva. But with international reputation comes
international competition." And, as any Olympic champion will tell
you, as difficult as it is to win the first gold medal, it is even
more difficult to sustain a level of performance unequalled by
International exchange on nuclear matters brought the Laboratory a
new assignment from the AEC: to explore gas-cooled nuclear reactor
technology. Although U.S. studies of gas-cooled reactors waned
after investigwaned after investigations into the Daniels Power
Pile were halted in 1948, British scientists successfully designed
and built several large gas-cooled reactors in the early
1950s.reacted to the British advances by directing the AEC to gain
first-hand experience with gas-cooled, graphite-moderated reactors.
In response, AEC turned to the Laboratory, which formed a study
team headed by Robert Charpie. The team's key task was to compare
the feasibility and costs of gas-cooled and water-cooled reactors.
Encouraged by the initial findings, in 1957, the AEC asked the
Laboratory to design fuel elements for the Experimental Gas-Cooled
Reactor (EGCR), which the AEC planned to build in Oak Ridge. By
early 1958, the Laboratory had completed a conceptual design for a
helium-cooled, graphite-moderated reactor. Its core was to consist
of uranium oxide clad in stainless steel. A team led by Murray
Rosenthal also studied fuel elements coated with graphite as an
alternative. John Conlin, Frank McQuilkin, and Don Trauger led a
team that assessed these competing concepts.
In 1959, after the Tennessee Valley Authority agreed to become the
reactor operator, the AEC arranged for the EGCR to be constructed
on the banks of the Clinch River near the Laboratory. The reactor
was to serve as a prototype for electric power generation and
TVA--the nation's largest public utility--hoped to participate in
a demonstration that held great promise for helping the agency meet
its customers' future power needs. In line with its previous
research, ORNL was given responsibility for developing and
fabricating the EGCR's fuel elements and moderator.
Eight test loops inside the reactor would have allowed Laboratory
scientists to test the various fuel elements. Construction delays
and increasing project costs, however, soon caused the test loops
to be eliminated from the design. Then, in 1966, the AEC ordered
the project stopped even though all construction on the reactor had
been completed and its fuel elements had been manufactured and
fully tested. The light-water reactor industry had advanced so
rapidly that the Oak Ridge gas-cooled reactor prototype had become
obsolete before it had become operational.
MOLTEN SALT TECHNOLOGY
Another innovative nuclear reactor design was developed at the
Laboratory in 1956 when a team headed by Herbert MacPherson
investigated the application of molten salt technology. The
Laboratory's aircraft reactor experiments during the early 1950s
used molten (fused) uranium fluorides (salts) as reactor fuel.
Molten-salt fuel could function at high temperatures and low
pressures in a liquid system that could be cleansed of fission
products without stopping the reactor. Like other liquid nuclear
fuels, however, molten salts were highly corrosive and posed
significant materials challenges.
To meet these challenges, MacPherson organized a group that studied
molten materials in the test loops built for the aircraft reactor
project and assigned to Alfred Perry the cost studies for various
molten-salt reactors. Teams headed by Beecher Briggs, Paul Kasten,
L. E. McNeese, and William Manly developed improved designs and
focused on identifying corrosion-resistant materials for use in
When an AEC task force in 1959 identified molten salt as the most
promising of the liquid-fuel reactor systems, the AEC approved
construction of the Molten Salt Reactor Experiment. By 1960, the
Laboratory was designing an experimental molten-salt reactor using
graphite blocks as the moderator.
A uranium-bearing fuel of molten fluorides was pumped through the
core and through a heat exchanger made of a nickel-molybdenum
alloy, called Hastelloy N, developed earlier at the Laboratory for
the aircraft reactor. Ed Bettis headed a design team that
continually refined the reactor configuration. Warren Grimes
provided chemical insights that determined many features of the
Molten-salt reactor experiments continued at the Laboratory through
the 1960s and into the early 1970s. In 1969, Keith Brown, David
Crouse, Carlos Bamberger, and colleagues adapted molten-salt
technology to the problem of breeding uranium-233 from thorium,
which could be extracted from the virtually inexhaustible supply of
granite rocks found throughout the earth's crust. When bombarded by
neutrons in the molten-salt reactor, thorium was converted to
fissionable uranium-233, another nuclear fuel.
Alvin Weinberg described the Laboratory's use of the uranium-233
reactor fuel bred from neutron irradiation of thorium as "burning
the rocks"; conversely, ea water, "burning the sea." Thus, by the
late 1950s Laboratory researchers were searching for an
inexhaustible energy supply extracted either from the earth's crust
or seas. Using elements found in abundance in granite or seawater
would potentially provide limitless energy.om the earth's crust or
seas. Using elements found in abundance in granite or seawater
would potentially provide limitless energy.
The Laboratory's fusion research efforts were no less Promethean
than its fission research. Such research began in Oak Ridge in 1953
as a small part of the AEC's classified Project Sherwood. By the
time of the second scientific olympics at Geneva in 1958, however,
the Laboratory had become a world leader in fusion research.
Hydrogen nuclei release enormous energy when they fuse together, as
in the thermonuclear reaction associated with detonation of a
hydrogen bomb. Fusion temperatures of the hydrogen isotopes
deuterium and tritium are about one million degrees.
Major research aimed at fusing these isotopes in a controlled
thermonuclear reaction began in 1951, when Argentine President Juan
Peron announced that scientists in his country had liberated energy
through thermonuclear fusion without using uranium and under
controlled conditions that could be replicated without causing a
Peron's claim proved false, but it stimulated a host of
international fusion research initiatives, including the AEC's
classified Project Sherwood. Legend has it that the name Sherwood
came from the answer to the question, "Would you like to have
cheap, nonpolluting, and everlasting energy?" The answer was "Sure
would." In reality, the name was derived from a complicated pun on
the story of Robin Hood of Sherwood Forest, which involved robbing
Hood Laboratory at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology to
fund James Tuck's fusion research at Los Alamos.
To achieve fusion, scientists sought to contain a cloud, or plasma,
of hydrogen ions at high temperature in a magnetic field. Because
the plasma cooled if it touched the sides of its container,
electromagnetic forces (pushing from different directions) were
necessary to hold the plasma in the center away from the
container's sides. If the plasma were suspended in the same place
long enough and at a high enough density and temperature,
scientists believed a fusion reaction would begin and become
In its early years, Project Sherwood focused on three fusion
devices. Princeton University had a stellarator, a hollow twisted
doughnut-shaped metal container, with electric wires coiled around
it to supply a magnetic field to confine the charged hydrogen ions.
Lawrence Livermore Laboratory in California had a "mirror" device
with a magnetic field stronger at its ends than in the middle to
reflect hydrogen ions back to the middle of the field. And James
Tuck's "Perhapsatron" at Los Alamos sought to contain the hot
plasma through a "magnetic pinch"--that is, magnetic forces were
designed to hold, or pinch, the plasma toward the middle of the
In Oak Ridge, the Laboratory focused not on a particular device but
on two problems basic to fusion devices: how to inject particles
into the devices and how to heat the plasma to temperatures high
enough to ignite the reaction.
With large surplus electromagnets on hand at the Y-12 Plant from
the calutrons once used to separate uranium-235 from uranium-238,
an ion source group in the Electronuclear Division, which included
Ed Shipley, P. R. Bell, Al Simon, and John Luce, became responsible
for fusion research. Their background in electromagnetic separation
and high-current cyclotrons led them to studies of energetic ion
injection to create a hot plasma. Theoretical work showed promise
and, in 1957, the Laboratory formed a Thermonuclear Experimental
Division with a staff of 70 people to pursue the fusion challenge.
Personnel came from the Physics and Electronuclear divisions and
from the discontinued aircraft reactor project.
In 1957, published stories and unsubstantiated rumors hinted that
British scientists might have achieved a successful fusion
reaction. Although overstated, the stories and rumors nevertheless
encouraged greater emphasis on fusion research by both the AEC and
the Laboratory. Moving a particle accelerator into the Y-12 Plant
to provide a beam of high-energy deuterium molecular ions, Luce,
Shipley, and their associates built the Direct Current Experiment
(DCX), a magnetic mirror fusion device. In August 1957, they
"crossed the swords," injecting a deuterium molecular beam into a
carbon arc that dissociated the beam into a visible ring of
circulating deuterium ions (shaped like a bicycle tire). This
advance transformed Project Sherwood from a remote, abstract theory
to a real possibility.
Planning for a second United Nations Conference on Peaceful Uses of
Atomic Energy coincided with the Laboratory's advance in fusion
research. AEC Chairman Lewis Strauss, determined that the United
States should achieve a triumph equal to that of 1955 at the 1958
scientific olympics, threw the AEC's full support behind fusion
research. He hoped that American scientists could display an
operating fusion energy device at the 1958 Geneva conference, just
as they had displayed a successful nuclear reactor three years
"I have received a letter from Chairman Strauss exhorting the
Laboratory to do everything it possibly can to have
incontrovertible proof of a thermonuclear plasma by the time of
Geneva," Weinberg informed Laboratory staff. He went on to say:
We are now engaged in this enterprise; we have mobilized
people from every part of the Laboratory for this purpose and,
with complete assurance of unlimited support from the
Commission, we have put the work into the very highest gear.
I can think of few things that would give any of us as much
satisfaction as to have Oak Ridge the scene of the first
successful demonstration of substantial amounts of controlled
1958 GENEVA CONFERENCE
By the time of the second United Nations Conference on Peaceful
Uses of Atomic Energy in September 1958, intense media attention
oergy in September 1958, intense media attention on the miracles of
nuclear energy had jaded the public. Saturated for years with news
about the potential miracles of nuclear energy, Americans turned
their attention to other matters. Moreover, Soviet scientists, so
prominent at the 1955 conference, were no longer subjects of great
public curiosity., the second Geneva conference turned out to be
less a media circus and more a conventional scientific conference.
In 1958, only schemes and devices for achieving controlled
thermonuclear reaction through fusion enjoyed the glamour linked to
the first conference.
The second conference, however, was the largest international
scientific conference ever held. Exhibits filled a huge hall built
on the grounds of the Palais des Nations. Sixty-one nations
participated, and 21 exhibited fusion devices, fission reactors,
atom smashers, or models of nuclear power plants.
The United States, Great Britain, and the Soviet Union declassified
their fusion research at the time of the conference, and Chairman
Lewis Strauss resigned from the AEC to lead the American delegation
to Geneva. It took nearly 10 hours to view the United States
exhibit alone. The most popular attractions were models of the
Laboratory's DCX fusion machine.
The Laboratory provided two full-scale working models of its DCX
machine to display its operating principles. Through viewing
windows, visitors could see the beam, and the ring of ions wound
around it like a ball of yarn. Using a bit of showmanship, the
Laboratory made the trapped ring visible by dusting it with
tungsten particles from above.
Soviet fusion specialists took intense interest in the DCX display
because they were also pursuing a molecular-ion-injection approach
to fusion. After the conference, other nations, drawing on the
Laboratory's experience, built DCX-type machines, making them
fundamental tools for plasma research.
Optimism over the future success of fusion energy, however, soon
faded. The supposed British achievement of fusion with a pinch-type
device proved premature, and the ability of pinch machines to
provide a stable plasma was questioned. Unstable plasma escaping
the magnetic field also plagued the Princeton stellarator, and by
the end of 1958, Laboratory scientists learned that their carbon
arc lost trapped ions, forcing the DCX staff to study different
types of arcs and to plan an improved device, called DCX-2.
In 1959 Alvin Weinberg, a proponent of nuclear fission and thorium
breeding reactors, compared Project Sherwood to "walking on planks
over quicksand." Plasma physics was so novel then that solid spots
remained unknown, nor was it fully apparent that any existed.
"Working in this field requires a rugged constitution," Weinberg
concluded, "but I'm told that those who can stand it find it
Eugene Wigner reported that Soviet scientists were more cooperative
at the 1958 Geneva conference than they had been in 1955, perhaps
because of the successful launch of the Sputnik satellite into
orbit in 1957. Wigner found them open about their nuclear fission
and fusion energy research but unwilling to share information about
their space missions or their particle acceleration program. "Pure
science in the Soviet Union still seems to be far from an open
book," he observed.
Early Soviet achievements in space exploration sent shock waves
throughout American political and scientific circles. Following the
Soviet Union's successful launch of Sputnik, international
scientific competition shifted from fission and fusion energy
research to the race for space. As international scientific
interests shifted, so did the focus of the federal government from
the AEC to the new National Aeronautics and Space Administration
(NASA). Nuclear research remained an important aspect of America's
scientific agenda, but it now had to share the policy spotlight
with space issues. Geneva conferences on the atom were held
occasionally after 1958, but none ever gripped the public
imagination as had the first and second stellar events.
AFTER THE GOLD
Nuclear reactor development at the Laboratory reached a pinnacle in
1956 and began a slow descent in 1957 with the cancellation of its
aircraft reactor program and troubles with its second experimental
homogeneous reactor. In 1956, when the Laboratory budget was $60
million and its staff reached 4369, Weinberg boasted: "We are the
largest nuclear energy laboratory in the United States, and we are
among the half-dozen largest technical institutions in the world."
With cancellation of the aircraft reactor in September 1957, the
Laboratory budget was slashed 20% and its staffing cut to 3943. The
1957 reduction would have been even steeper if the Laboratory had
not absorbed some people into the molten-salt reactor, gas-cooled
reactor, and Sherwood programs. Moreover, the Eisenhower
administration froze the Laboratory's budget in 1957, forcing
postponement of a major building expansion program that included an
east wing of the general research building, an instruments
building, and a metallurgy and ceramics building, which together
would have added a half million square feet of work space. Weinberg
called these actions "cataclysmic setbacks" that ranked with the
loss of the Materials Testing Reactor in 1947.
After successful operation of the first aqueous homogeneous reactor
in 1954, the Laboratory proceeded with design of a larger
homogeneous reactor on a pilot-plant scale. Whereas the first
reactor had been a one-time experiment to prove yet unproven
theoretical principles, the second reactor, sometimes identified as
the Homogeneous Reactor Test, was designed to operate routinely for
The second homogeneous reactor was fueled by a uranyl sulfate
solution containing 10 grams of enriched uranium per kilogram of
heavy water, which circulated through its core at the rate of 400
gallons (1450 liters) per minute. Its fuel loop included the
central core, a pressurizer, separator, steam generator,
circulating pump, and inter-connected piping. Its core vessel was
approximately a meter in diameter and centered inside a 60-inch
(152-centimeter) spherical pressure vessel made of stainless steel.
A reflector blanket of heavy water filled the space between the two
Perhaps the most exotic nuclear reactor ever built, it gave
Laboratory staffers trouble from the start. During its shakedown
run with pressurized water, chloride ions contaminated the
leak-detector lines, forcing replacement of that system and
delaying the power test six months.
In January 1958, the Laboratory brought this reactor to critical
mass and operated it for many hours into February 1958, when it
became apparent that its outside stainless steel tank was corroding
too rapidly. In April the reactor reached its design power of 5 MW.
Then, in September, a hole suddenly formed in the interior zircaloy
tank. Viewing the hole through a jury-rigged periscope and mirrors,
operators determined that it had been melted into the tank--that
is, the uranium had settled out of the fuel solution and lodged on
the tank's side.
By the end of 1958, the AEC considered abandoning the Homogeneous
Reactor Test, and Eugene Wigner came to the Laboratory to inspect
it personally. "The trouble seems to be that the rich phase adsorbs
to the walls and forms a solid layer there," Wigner reported to the
AEC staff, relaying the findings of the Laboratory staff. He
thought altering the flow of fluid through the core would provide
the velocity needed to prevent the uranium from settling on the
tank walls. "It is my opinion that abandoning the program would be
a monumental mistake," he warned, pointing out that the reactor
could convert thorium into uranium-233 to supplement a dwindling
supply of uranium-235.
The AEC allowed the Laboratory to alter the reactor flow and
continue its testing in 1959. These activities were accomplished by
interchanging the inlet and outlet to reverse the fluid flow
through the reactor. Several lengthy test runs followed in 1959,
and the reactor operated continuously for 105 days--at the time, a
record for uninterrupted operation of reactors. The lengthy test
run demonstrated the advantages of a homogeneous system in which
new fuel could be added and fission products removed during reactor
Near the end of the year, a second hole burned in the core tank.
Laboratory staff again patched the hole using some difficult remote
repairs and started another test run. Because of these
difficulties, Pennsylvania Power and Light Company and Westinghouse
Corporation abandoned their proposal to build a homogeneous reactor
as a central power station.
During the shutdown and repairs, Congress viewed the aqueous
homogeneous reactor troubles unfavorably, and in December 1960, the
AEC directed the Laboratory to end testing and turn its attention
to developing a molten-salt reactor and thorium breeder. The last
aqueous homogeneous reactor test run continued until early 1961.
For months, the reactor operated at full power until a plug
installed earlier to patch one of the uranium holes disintegrated.
Although the homogeneous reactor never found direct commercial
applications, the Laboratory's efforts to test its long-term
usefulness ultimately strengthened its capabilities for maintaining
and repairing highly radioactive systems.
The rapid pace of reactor development at the Laboratory prompted
research in detecting flaws in reactor materials that could be
signs of impending failure. In short, Laboratory staff
investigated not only how reactors would run, but whether materials
in reactor components could withstand the stresses of radiation
over the long term.
In 1955, for example, R.B. Oliver was given responsibility for
developing and applying new techniques to detect welding flaws.
Nuclear reactors, on a commercial scale, would contain miles and
miles of piping and machinery seamed together by an endless series
of welds, which would prove critical to a reactor's operation and
safety. Moreover, the materials used for the pumps, piping, and
containment of a nuclear reactor all would be subject to long-term,
sometimes intense, radiation.
"Material" concerns had been a major focus of the nuclear airplane
program and it remained a key research initiative throughout the
Laboratory's reactor development era between the 1950s and 1970s.
In fact, by developing and demonstrating non-obstrusive techniques
to test the integrity of materials (for example, ultrasonic waves
and penetrating-radiation), the Laboratory became a world leader in
"nondestructive" materials testing. Robert McClung headed this
Laboratory program from the 1960s to the 1980s.
Health physicists continued to seek a better understanding of how
radiation from reactors and other sources interacts with solids and
liquids. In the early 1950s ORNL scientists measured energy losses
of swift electrons after penetrating thin metal foils. Rufus
Ritchie launched the quantitative understanding of electron energy
losses in irradiated solids and liquids by discovering the surface
plasmon, a motion of electrons in matter. In this motion, electrons
move collectively in response to the electric field of a
penetrating charged particle. This surface motion remains a major
topic of research because it helps explain surface phenomena. Only
now are the potential applications of this knowledge being realized
in computing, communications, laser technology, environmental
monitoring, and medical diagnosis and treatment.
Even as the Laboratory moved forward with its nuclear energy
program, unmet challenges relating to nuclear fission and the
Laboratory's missions arose--most notably, the threat of
radioactive fallout from atmospheric testing of nuclear bombs and
the need to deal more effectively with radioactive wastes called
for research by the Laboratory's scientists. The need to broaden
the Laboratory's base and avoid competition with private industry
also challenged its management.
Until 1963, fission and fusion bomb tests were conducted in the
atmosphere, causing much public concern about radioactive fallout.
A principal concern during the early 1950s was the fallout of
strontium-90, a calcium-mimicking, bone-seeking fission product
that fell from windblown clouds to the soil below, where it could
be taken up by grass and eaten by cows to wind up in milk consumed
To study this and other issues of radiation ecology, the
Laboratory, responding to the recommendation of Edward Struxness,
hired Orlando Park, an ecologist from Northwestern University, as
a consultant in 1953. The Laboratory subsequently asked Park's
student, Stanley Auerbach, to join its Health Physics Division.
Both Park and Auerbach were expert investigators of the effects of
radioactivity on ecological systems, particularly how radioactive
nuclides migrate from water and soil to plants, animals, and
humans. A major issue in the early 1950s was how quickly
strontium-90 in the soil was taken up by plants. In fact, this and
other questions about radioactive fallout became issues in the 1956
presidential election. During the same year, the Laboratory
expanded its scientific studies of radioactive fallout into a
Radiation Ecology Section in the Health Physics Division, and
Auerbach was named section leader.
Auerbach and his colleagues found a ready field laboratory for
their work in the bed of White Oak Lake, a drained reservoir where
the Laboratory once had flushed low-level wastes. Examining the
native plants and even planting corn in the radioactive lake bed,
the ecologists studied the manner in which vegetation absorbed
radionuclides from the environment. Investigations of insects,
fish, mammals, and other creatures followed, enabling Laboratory
ecologists to establish international reputations in aquatic and
Taking advantage of the Laboratory's isotopes, the ecologists used
radioactive tracers to follow the movements of animals, the route
of chemicals through the food chain, and the rates of
decom-position in forest detritus. Sponsoring national symposia on
ecosystems and related subjects, their work added much to the study
of radioecology, an emerging scientific field that counts Auerbach
and his colleagues among its founders. When atmospheric bomb
testing ended in 1963 and interest in fallout waned, the ecologists
refocused their studies, forming the nucleus of the Ecological
Sciences Division, established at the Laboratory in 1970 and later
renamed the Environmental Sciences Division.
During World War II, the Laboratory stored its radioactive wastes
in underground tanks for later recovery of the uranium and released
its low-level wastes untreated into White Oak Lake. To reduce the
level of radioactivity entering White Oak Creek and eventually the
Clinch River, the Laboratory built a waste treatment plant during
the 1950s to remove strontium and other fission products from its
drainage. Uranium and other materials were recovered from
underground tanks, and the remaining wastes were pumped into
In 1953, the Laboratory initiated a multipronged remediation
program designed to address its higher-level waste disposal
problems. The Chemical Technology Division devised a pot
calcination strategy that heated high-level liquid wastes in steel
pots, converting the wastes into ceramic material for easier
handling and storage. The Health Physics Division, under the
direction of Edward Struxness and Wallace de Laguna, explored the
hydrofracture disposal method used by the petroleum industry. The
strategy consisted of drilling deep wells, applying pressure to
fracture the rock substrata, and pumping cement grout mixed with
radioactive wastes down the wells into the rock cracks, where the
mixture spread out and hardened. Struxness and Frank Parker of the
Health Physics Division initiated studies of waste disposal in salt
mines, which were believed to be isolated from water. In 1959 the
Laboratory tested this method by storing electrically heated,
nonradioactive wastes in a Kansas salt mine. Under pressure from
the state of Kansas, the AEC asked the Laboratory to stop the
Kansas studies after wells were found near the salt mines. This and
other methods that seemed promising during the 1950s presented
difficulties, and none permanently resolved the disposal
As the Laboratory's operating nuclear reactors increased in number
and its fuel processing program burgeoned, the safety of equipment
and the health of its personnel became a growing concern. Such
concerns came to the forefront after a serious nuclear mishap in
England during the late 1950s.
At Windscale, England, a British graphite-moderated reactor caught
fire in 1957 when its operators attempted to anneal it to release
the energy stored in the graphite as a result of the "Wigner
disease." (Annealing is a process of heating and slow cooling to
increase a material's toughness and reduce its brittleness.)
Herbert MacPherson and a Laboratory team visited Windscale to
review the accident and consider its implications for operation of
the Laboratory's Graphite Reactor. MacPherson reported that the
Laboratory's reactor operated at lower power and higher temperature
than the Windscale reactor and that a similar accident could not
occur in Oak Ridge. In the early 1960s, the Graphite Reactor was
annealed three times without difficulties by reversing and reducing
its air flow and slowly raising power.
Although ORNL had experienced no reactor accidents, in 1959 it
encountered three threatening situations involving radioactive
materials. First, fission products accidentally entered the liquid
waste disposal system from the THOREX pilot plant, and they were
trapped in a settling basin. Second, ruthenium oxide trapped on the
brick smokestack's rusty ductwork shook loose during maintenance at
the pilot plant, forcing installation of more filters and scrubbers
in the stack. And, third, a chemical explosion in the THOREX pilot
plant during decontamination released about six-tenths of a gram of
plutonium from a hot cell, spreading it onto a street and into the
Graphite Reactor building next to the plant.
Largely by chance no personnel suffered overexposure from these
accidents, and the Laboratory immediately stopped its radiochemical
operations for safety review. Improved containment measures
followed, and Frank Bruce took charge of the Laboratory's radiation
safety and control office to implement stricter safety precautions.
P. R. Bell and Casimir Borkowski also devised ingenious compact
radiation monitors, including the "pocket screamer," which was worn
in the pocket and chirped and flashed at a speed proportional to
gamma dosage rate. These devices were supplied as needed to
Laboratory personnel who worked with reactors and hot cells.
In addition to these challenges, the Laboratory found it
increasingly difficult to keep background radiation at acceptable
levels because the amount of radioactivity handled by the
Laboratory increased during the 1950s, while government regulators
steadily reduced the permissible levels to which workers could be
exposed. Karl Morgan and other Laboratory health physicists
maintained that the maximum permissible levels should be so low
that hazards resulting from radiation were no greater than other
occupational hazards. Laboratory biologists, however, had obtained
differing results in studies of the effects of background
radiation. Arthur Upton, for example, found that mice subjected to
chronic low-level radiation seemed to have an improved survival
rate from infections or other biological crises.
In 1955 ORNL's Health Physics Division became involved in helping
to determine the health effects of various levels and types of
radiation from the atomic bomb. With researchers from Los Alamos
Scientific Laboratory, ORNL health physicists conducted the first
major field experiment to measure levels of neutron and gamma
radiation at various distances from the hypocenter of bomb blasts
at the Nevada Test Site.
In 1956 health physicists Sam Hurst and Rufus Ritchie made the
first of a series of Laboratory visits to Japan to correlate the
Laboratory's information from the Nevada tests with data developed
by Japan's Atomic Bomb Casualty Commission. Laboratory researchers
evaluated the shielding capabilities of Japanese houses and other
structures and recommended a dosimetry program to determine whether
the survivors were properly shielded from radioactive materials in
The Laboratory faced not only international competition during the
late 1950s but also increasing competition at home from private
nuclear companies. By 1959, the rapidly growing nuclear industry
questioned the role of national laboratories, urging that some of
their work be contracted to private industry or even that the
laboratories be closed. Partly as a result of these pressures, the
AEC circumscribed Laboratory programs in the late 1950s. For
example, the AEC canceled the power reactor fuel reprocessing
facility that the Chemical Technology Division hoped to build in
Oak Ridge. In 1959, the Laboratory also recognized that it could
soon lose its homogeneous and gas-cooled reactor programs.
In response to the expected decline in its nuclear reactor and
chemical reprocessing programs, the Laboratory conducted an
advanced technologies seminar in 1959 to identify possible missions
beyond nuclear energy. The seminar recommended additional study of
nationally valuable research programs that had not been
commercially exploited. Desalination of sea water, meterology,
oceanography, space technology, chemical contamination, and
large-scale biology were mentioned as potential broad avenues of
Although convinced that federal investment in national laboratories
was too great to permit their abandonment, Weinberg recognized that
a realignment of their missions was in order. Asked to forecast the
role of science and national laboratories during the 1960s,
Weinberg expressed his hope that they "will be able to move more
strongly toward those issues, primarily in the biological sciences,
which bear directly upon the welfare of mankind."
The Olympics of antiquity had begun as a single event: a long
distance race between the best runners of competing Greek
city-states. The modern Olympics, particularly in the post-World
War II era, have been transformed into a sports carnival where
athletes display their diverse skills as runners, swimmers,
equestrians, weight lifters, skeet shooters, and volleyball and
In the same way, the scientific olympics in which the Laboratory
competed began as a contest comparing the scientific prowess of the
Soviet Union and the United States. The Laboratory, as one of
America's primary institutions for scientific research, had a
simple goal: display the nation's scientific talent and
accomplishments in the most dramatic way possible.
As the 1950s unfolded, however, the contest became more diverse and
complicated. Space issues eclipsed the importance of nuclear
research as the most important symbol of a nation's scientific
capabilities; other goals began to compete for the Laboratory's
resources and energies; and the initial successes of fission and
fusion research proved difficult to replicate. In short, like
Olympic runners who followed in the path of their earliest
brethren, Laboratory scientists by the end of the 1950s found they
would have to share the arena with other figures and other events.
As the Laboratory entered the 1960s, its work would be less
dramatic but no less important, and its focus more diverse but no
VIPS AT THE ORR
In the late 1950s and early 1960s, the Oak Ridge Research Reactor
(ORR) attracted a host of famous people, including a queen, two
kings, and three future U.S. presidents--Gerald Ford, Lyndon
Johnson, and John F. Kennedy.
Senator Kennedy's visit to Oak Ridge on February 24, 1959, was
described in great detail by The Oak Ridger, but no details were
included on his visit to the ORR. From the available photos and
newspaper stories, we know that he visited the reactor in the
afternoon with his wife Jacqueline, Tennessee Senator Albert Gore
Sr., and ORNL Director Alvin Weinberg.
Weinberg says the following about Kennedy's visit: "John Swartout,
the deputy director of ORNL, and I accompanied our visitors. Since
I was director, I chose to accompany Jackie. John was left to show
Jack and Senator Gore around."
Before visiting ORNL, Senator Kennedy had told 300 people at the
Oak Terrace Restaurant in Grove Center that he was planning to run
for president in 1960. He expressed support for peaceful uses of
atomic energy and praised Senator Gore for being a leading exponent
in the Senate for this cause.
Kennedy, who was described as "youthful and personable" by The Oak
Ridger, said in his talk, "Here in Oak Ridge this nation has
demonstrated the vast power which results from the combination of
many talents and resources--abundant power, scientific personnel,
industrial capabilities, fuel supplies, and zealous government
Senator Lyndon Johnson visited the ORR in 1958, and U.S.
Representative Gerald Ford toured it in 1965. Vice President Hubert
Humphrey was a guest at the ORR on February 4, 1965, and Senator
John Pastore visited the reactor in January 1963.
At the Oak Ridge Research Reactor, Weinberg hosted several members
of royalty. King Leopold, former ruler of Belgium, visited the ORR
in September 1957, and King Bhumibol Adulyadej of Thailand came in
Queen Frederika of Greece toured the reactor on November 7, 1958,
prompting a flurry of photographs. She was the first queen ever to
visit ORNL. The ORNL News reported that the queen "revealed a keen
sense of knowledge of the nuclear energy field in her conversations
with ORNL scientists."
The March 30, 1959, visit of King Hussein of Jordan, only 23 years
old at the time, prompted an article in The ORNL News detailing the
young monarch's life story to date.
Other distinguished visitors to the ORR included Sardor Mohammed
Davd, prime minister of Afghanistan (June 28, 1958); Sir Ahmadu
Bello, premier of Northern Nigeria (1960); and Ambassador Indira
Nehru of India (October 26, 1963), who later became the country's
prime minister. The heads of a Soviet Union laboratory and the
Soviet Academy of Science were guests at the ORR in 1959, and Nobel
Laureate Glenn Seaborg visited the reactor in 1963.
Why was the Oak Ridge Research Reactor such an attraction for
royalty and famous politicians? At the time, according to Weinberg,
research reactors were a novelty, and peaceful uses of nuclear
energy were considered an unquestionable boon to humankind. The ORR
was especially appealing because it was the most powerful research
reactor in the world and because the beautiful blue glow from
Cerenkov radiation that suffused its core was unlike anything the
visitors had ever seen. For all these reasons, the ORR was a
standard stop on all VIP tours of the Laboratory.
1955 GENEVA CONFERENCE
As a result of President Eisenhower's "Atoms for Peace" program,
the United Nations in August 1955 conducted the first International
Conference on Peaceful Uses of Atomic Energy in Geneva,
For display at this conference, the Laboratory designed and built
a small nuclear reactor in just three months and transported it by
air to Geneva. Called Project Aquarium because it was a "swimming
pool" type reactor, it served as a prototype for research reactors
overseas that could be fueled with the low-enrichment fissionable
material contributed by the United States to the international
In Geneva, President Eisenhower took personal interest in the
reactor, received a full briefing, and pressed the control button
that activated it. Afterward, the Laboratory staff designated him
an "honorary reactor operator."
More than 62,000 people, including kings, queens, presidents, and
other dignitaries, queued up to see the reactor's blue glow during
the two-week-long conference. It became the most popular exhibit at
the conference. Enrico Fermi's wife subsequently labeled it the
world's "most beautiful little reactor."
CROSSING THE SWORDS
The first step in understanding the details of chemical processes
was taken at the Laboratory in 1954 when Sheldon Datz and Ellison
Taylor invented a technique for studying chemical reactions by
crossing a beam of one kind of molecule with that of another.
Before Datz and Taylor's pioneering work, scientists had to be
content with examining molecules before or after their reactions,
not during the transitional phase.
Understanding the dynamics of elementary physical and chemical
processes at the molecular level requires fundamental
investigations of the movement of molecules and the results of
their encounters--in brief, what happens during a chemical
reaction. The reactions occur so incredibly fast, however, that
observing and understanding a reaction's transition phase seemed
impossible before Datz and Taylor invented their technique.
Datz and Taylor believed that much could be learned about chemical
reactions if two reactants could be brought together as crossed
beams, creating a shower of new molecules. Because each new
molecule would result from a single collision, this process avoided
the complications of accounting for chain reactions and collisions
with container walls common to simpler experiments.
In 1954, they "crossed the swords" of two accelerated, collimated
(focused) beams, one composed of potassium atoms and the other of
hydrogen bromide molecules. They found that they could measure the
products' angular distribution. As a result, they could draw
conclusions about the relative effectiveness of the various
orientations of the colliding reactants.
Datz and Taylor's crossed-beam scattering technique energized the
science of chemical dynamics when their results were published in
1955. The technique was recognized by the 1986 Nobel Prize in
chemistry, which went to three men who refined the Oak Ridge
technique. Applying infrared-emission spectroscopy, laser probes,
and other modern tools to the crossed-beam scattering technique,
modern scientists have begun to understand the dynamic interchange
of atoms during chemical reactions.
ELLISON TAYLOR: PLAYER-COACH OF CHEMISTRY
Just as player-coaches are rare in sports, so are laboratory
division directors who continue their scientific research. Ellison
H. Taylor, director of ORNL's Chemistry Division for 20 years,
found time to pursue his own research interests during his
directorship. Fortunately, he was division director from 1954 to
1974 when the demands of the federal bureaucracy were not as great
on managers as they are today.
Taylor joined the Chemistry Division in the fall of 1945, after
conducting research on gaseous diffusion for uranium isotope
separation for the Manhattan Project at Columbia University. He
served in interim positions as acting director of the Chemistry
Division and associate director of the Laboratory. When he took
over the position of Chemistry Division director, he succeeded his
friend and associate Samuel C. Lind, who had served as acting
Besides molding the physical science programs of the Chemistry
Division, Taylor participated in them. He had a general interest in
the chemical applications of molecular beams and began to
investigate and refine various approaches. In 1951 he began
collaborating with new staff scientist Sheldon Datz, who brought a
familiarity with beam techniques from Columbia University. This
collaboration grew into a major research activity. In 1955 their
landmark publication on crossing molecular beams introduced a
powerful new method of studying reaction mechanisms.
Taylor collaborated with Ralph Livingston and Henry Zeldes in the
first unambiguous identification by electron-spin resonance
spectroscopy of a radiation-produced free radical, the hydrogen
atom, in certain frozen acids. Working with J. A. Wethington,
Taylor was the first to successfully study the effect of ionizing
radiation on solid catalysts, stimulating a new area of research.
In the late 1960s, a flurry of scientific activity suggested the
existence of a new form of water, called polywater or anomalous
water. Taylor was intrigued by these reports and carried out his
own investigations in the 1970s. The original reports of anomalous
water were discredited in the literature, and Taylor terminated his
studies with a paper arguing against polywater's existence.
Taylor and W. C. Waggener studied a novel approach to measurement
of the adsorptive forces of gases on solids and published a report
on the subject. His research activities continued until his
retirement from the Laboratory in 1978, and subsequently he became
a consultant to the Chemistry Division. His long-term service as a
player-coach--dedicated to both the management and practice of
research--makes Ellison Taylor the most influential figure in the
(keywords: Oak Ridge National Laboratory, history)
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Date Posted: 2/22/94 (ktb)