ORNL: THE FIRST 50 YEARS--CHAPTER 6: RESPONDING TO SOCIAL NEEDS
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By the 1970s, after 30 years of steady progress in nuclear reactor
design and technology, growing public concern over problems with
nuclear waste disposal, the environmental and health effects of
radiation, and the possibility of accidents at nuclear power plants
had undermined public confidence in both the AEC in particular and
nuclear energy in general. These concerns, which shook the nuclear
energy industry, led to dramatic changes in leadership within the
From the early 1960s until the early 1970s, the AEC was led by
Chairman Glenn Seaborg, a Nobel laureate chemist associated with
the Metallurgical Laboratory in Chicago during World War II. The
AEC was led subsequently by an economist and then a marine
biologist, before being split into the Energy Research and
Development Administration (ERDA) and the Nuclear Regulatory
Commission (NRC) in 1974. In addition, the Joint Committee on
Atomic Energy, which had directed AEC activities for decades,
disbanded. This transition confirmed that the institutional
framework, which had served nuclear power well in the years
following World War II, would no longer be sufficient to meet the
challenges of the future.
The Laboratory reacted to the dramatic transitions within the AEC
with its own critical changes. Although not sundered like the AEC,
it expanded its traditional focus on uranium fission to undertake
broader missions that encompassed all forms of energy. At the same
time, Laboratory leadership passed from the hands of a fission
expert to a nuclear fuel reprocessing specialist and, finally, to
an expert in fusion energy.
As more powerful research reactors and accelerators were added
during the 1960s, the Laboratory became a premier international
center for producing and separating transuranic elements.
Researchers studied the structures and properties of transuranic
elements and nuclei using accelerated particles that range in mass
from protons to curium ions. In support of the AEC reactor program,
the Laboratory pursued development of a molten salt reactor and
also investigated liquid-metal and gas-cooled reactor technologies.
By 1970, in response to the new political realities that the
nuclear industry faced, the Laboratory also became a center for
exploring the safety, environmental, and waste disposal challenges
presented by nuclear energy.
The Laboratory's advance into new research frontiers was both a
response to necessity and a deliberate effort to assume new
challenges. Budget shortfalls between 1969 and 1973 shelved plans
for new reactors and reduced staff from nearly 5500 in 1968 to
fewer than 3800 by 1973. Moreover, wartime veterans, now in their
50s and 60s, began to retire as the Laboratory's 30th anniversary
neared in 1973. The departure of Oak Ridge's Manhattan Project
engineers and scientists left a void in the institutional culture
that was progressively filled by a new generation who brought their
own interests and experiences to the research agenda. Having come
of age in the 1960s, this new generation carried somewhat different
priorities and sensibilities to the workplace than had the original
scientists, for whom World War II had served as the defining period
in their careers.
To meet these challenges, Laboratory management reorganized and
launched a series of retraining programs designed to transcend the
traditional uranium fission focus. These new efforts led to
investigations into all forms of energy--a broadening of research
that made the Laboratory more responsive to the political and
social changes sweeping the nation.
In the aftermath of Earth Day in April 1970 and passage of a series
of environmental laws and regulations intended to bring
environmental concerns to the forefront of the nation's policy
agenda, the public clamored for more "socially relevant" science
that would address everyday concerns. In 1973, as Americans lined
up to purchase gasoline and turned down their thermostats because
of shortages of imported oil, the desire for relevant science was
never more urgent.
Laboratory efforts to explore new, non-nuclear energy issues proved
both timely and critical. Born at the dawn of the nuclear age and
nurtured to maturity during nuclear power's great leap forward in
the 1950s, the Laboratory was not about to abandon its ties to
nuclear research. Nevertheless, as it experienced and then
responded to the dramatic changes of the 1970s, it emerged from
this tumultuous decade a multipurpose science research facility,
ready to tackle the increasingly complex issues of energy and the
The high-flux reactor designed under Eugene Wigner's supervision in
1947 and built in Idaho provided the highest neutron flux then
available. By the late 1950s, however, the Soviets had designed a
reactor that surpassed it.
"We do not believe the United States can long endure the situation
of not having the very best irradiation facilities in the world at
its disposal," commented Clark Center, Union Carbide chief at Oak
Ridge. "Therefore, we would like to suggest that the Atomic Energy
Commission undertake actively a design and development program
aimed at the early construction of a very high-flux research
reactor." Glenn Seaborg, an expert in transuranic chemistry,
concurred with Center and urged the AEC to build a higher-flux
With these statements of support echoing in Washington, ORNL
embarked on the design of what Weinberg labeled a "super-duper
cooker." Trapping a reactor neutron flux inside a cylinder encasing
water-cooled targets, the proposed High Flux Isotope Reactor would
make possible "purely scientific studies of the transuranic
elements" and augment the "production of . . . radioisotopes."
Weinberg also insisted that the reactor be built with beam ports to
provide access for experiments.
Charles Winters, Alfred Boch, Tom Cole, Richard Cheverton, and
George Adamson led the design, engineering, and metallurgical teams
for this 100-megawatt (MW) reactor, completed in 1965 as the
centerpiece of the Laboratory's new transuranium facilities.
Seaborg, having been appointed AEC chairman by President Kennedy,
returned to the Laboratory in November 1966 for the dedication. He
declared that the exotic experiments made possible by the new High
Flux Isotope Reactor would "deepen our comprehension of nature by
increasing our understanding of atomic and nuclear structure."
Built in Melton Valley across a ridge from the main X-10 site in
Bethel Valley, the High Flux Isotope Reactor irradiated targets to
produce elements heavier than uranium at the upper and open end of
the periodic table. At the heavily shielded Transuranium Processing
Plant adjacent to the reactor, A.L. (Pete) Lotts of the Metals and
Ceramics Division led the teams that fabricated targets. Placed in
the high neutron flux of the reactor, atoms of the target materials
absorbed several neutrons in succession, making their way up the
periodic table as they increased in mass and charge. Then, under a
program managed by William Burch, the irradiated targets were
returned to the processing plant for chemical extraction of the
heavy elements berkelium, californium, einsteinium, and fermium.
The Laboratory distributed the heavy elements to scientists
throughout the world and to its own scientists housed in the new
Transuranium Research Laboratory. Previously available only in
microscopic quantities, the milligrams of heavy elements produced
at the High Flux Isotope Reactor proved valuable for research.
"Our main effort at ORNL," said Lewin Keller, head of transuranium
research, "is directed toward ferreting out their nuclear and
chemical properties in order to lay a base for a general
understanding of the field."
Of the transuranic elements, an isotope of element 98 garnered
greatest attention. Named for the state where it was discovered,
californium-252 fissions spontaneously and is an intense source of
neutrons, able to penetrate thick containers and induce fission in
uranium-235 and plutonium-239. It could provide short-lived,
on-site isotopes in hospitals for immediate use in patients.
Cancerous tumors could be treated by implanting californium needles
instead of the less effective radium needles used previously. Other
transuranic elements afforded practical applications such as
tracers for oil-well exploration and mineral prospecting.
Thanks to Weinberg's foresight in demanding beam ports, Wallace
Koehler, Mike Wilkinson, Henri Levy, and their associates in the
Solid State and Chemistry divisions could use the high-flux
reactor's intense neutron beams for materials studies. Of
particular significance were materials investigations that focused
on the magnetic interactions of neutrons with materials, which
helped to explain unusual magnetic properties of rare earth metals,
alloys, and compounds.
The High Flux Isotope Reactor served science, industry, and
medicine for more than a quarter century. Although shut down
because of vessel embrittlement in November 1986 and subsequently
restarted at 85% of its original power, by 1991 it had gone through
300 fuel cycles that provided benefits ranging from advancing
knowledge of materials to enhancing understanding of U.S. history.
In 1991, neutron activation analysis of hair and nail samples from
the grave of President Zachary Taylor indicated he had not been
poisoned by arsenic while in office, as one historian suspected.
Americans can rest assured knowing that President Taylor died of
natural causes--thanks to the Laboratory's High Flux Isotope
Reactor and to the analysis made there by Larry Robinson and Frank
Dyer, both of the Analytical Chemistry Division.
The Last Reactors
Between the 1940s and 1960s, new reactor construction was part of
the Laboratory's ever-changing landscape. Those built in the 1960s,
however, would mark the end of the Laboratory's "bricks and mortar"
reactor era. No new reactors would be built during the 1970s and
1980s, a remarkable dry spell given the rapidly changing nature of
Before being forced to close its doors on new reactor construction,
the Laboratory (in addition to its work on the High Flux Isotope
Reactor) completed the Health Physics Research Reactor,
experimented with a molten-salt reactor, and conducted research for
AEC's liquid-metal fast breeder reactor and for high-temperature
gas-cooled reactors that stirred the interest of the private
sector. Next to the High Flux Isotope Reactor, the longest-lived
Laboratory reactor built during this decade was the Health Physics
Known originally as the "fast burst reactor," the Health Physics
Research Reactor was installed in the new Dosimetry Applications
Research facility in 1962. John Auxier, later director of the
Health Physics Division, managed the design and operation of this
small, unmoderated, and unshielded reactor.
Composed of a uranium-molybdenum alloy and placed in a cylinder 20
centimeters (8 inches) high and 20 centimeters in diameter, its
operation required insertion of a rod into the cylinder to release
a neutron pulse used for health physics and biochemical research.
In particular, the reactor, which remained operational until 1987,
provided data that guided radiation-instrument development and
dosage assessment. During the 1960s, for example, it helped
scientists estimate the solar radiation doses to which Apollo
astronauts would be subjected.
By the mid-1960s, light-water reactors had become the option of
choice for the commercial nuclear industry. As a result, the AEC
suspended work on the Experimental Gas Cooled Reactor in 1966 in
Oak Ridge. When Gulf General Atomic Corporation obtained orders for
four high-temperature gas-cooled reactors in 1972, however, the AEC
renewed its interest in this reactor technology and boosted
Laboratory funds for additional research. The program, which has
been managed successively by Robert Charpie, Herbert MacPherson,
William Manly, Don Trauger, Paul Kasten, and Frank Homan, has
focused most recently on passively safe modular designs.
Laboratory research into the liquid-metal fast breeder reactor,
which had been developed at Argonne National Laboratory, expanded
during the late 1960s. William Harms coordinated the Laboratory
breeder technology program. His staff simulated the fast breeder's
fuel assemblies, using electric heaters, and tested reactor coolant
flows and temperatures. A metallurgical team headed by Peter
Patriarca evaluated the materials to be used in the fast breeder's
heat exchangers and steam generator. Several Laboratory teams lent
support to the effort. For example, William Greenstreet and
associates devised a structural design assessment technology to
ensure the operational integrity of fast breeder components.
Work on the breeder accelerated in 1972, when the AEC made Oak
Ridge the site of the AEC's demonstration Clinch River Breeder
Reactor Project. Laboratory efforts continued until Congress
canceled the project in the mid-1980s, following more than a decade
of political controversy and debate fueled by concerns about
plutonium weapons proliferation and the gradual realization that
the United States would not need a breeder reactor for at least 20
years because of the low cost and availability of uranium.
"Dark Horse" Breeder
"A dark horse in the reactor sweepstakes." That's how Alvin
Weinberg once described the Laboratory's Molten Salt Reactor
Experiment to Glenn Seaborg. Weinberg explained that if Argonne's
fast breeder encountered unexpected scientific difficulties, Oak
Ridge's molten-salt thermal breeder could serve as a backup that
would help keep the AEC's research efforts on track.
Based on technology developed for the Aircraft Nuclear Propulsion
project, an experimental molten-salt reactor was designed and
constructed in the same building that had housed the aircraft
reactor. Its purpose was to demonstrate key elements needed for a
civilian power reactor. Operation of the Molten Salt Reactor
Experiment (MSRE) using uranium-235 fuel began in June 1965 under
the supervision of Paul Haubenreich. Program directors Herbert
MacPherson, Beecher Briggs, and Murray Rosenthal successively
supervised efforts to develop a molten-salt breeder reactor. In an
uninterrupted six-month run, the MSRE demonstrated the practicality
of this exotic breeder concept. Fuel salt was processed at the
reactor, and all the uranium-235 was removed.
When the fuel was changed to uranium-233 in October 1968, AEC
Chairman Seaborg joined Raymond Stoughton, the Laboratory chemist
who co-discovered uranium-233, to raise the reactor to full power.
"From here," said Rosenthal, "we hope to go on to the construction
of a breeder reactor experiment that we believe can be a stepping
stone to an almost inexhaustible source of low-cost energy."
Weinberg and the Laboratory's staff pressed the AEC for approval of
a molten-salt breeder pilot plant. They hoped to set up the pilot
plant in the same building that had housed the AEC's Experimental
Gas Cooled Reactor until that project was suspended in 1966.
Argonne's fast breeder had the momentum, however, and Congress
proved unreceptive to Laboratory requests to fund large-scale
development of a molten-salt breeder. Appealing personally to
Seaborg, a chemist, Weinberg complained: "Our problem is not that
our idea is a poor one--rather it is different from the main line,
and has too chemical a flavor to be fully appreciated by
Meanwhile, the Molten Salt Reactor Experiment operated successfully
on uranium-233 fuel from October 1968 until December 1969, when the
Laboratory exhausted project funds and placed the reactor on
standby. The Laboratory continued molten-salt reactor development,
as limited funding allowed, until January 1973, when the AEC
Reactor Division abruptly ordered work to end within three weeks.
In the wake of the energy crisis in late 1973, however, new funding
for molten-salt reactor research was found and continued until
1976. A unique Laboratory project, the molten-salt reactor, in
Weinberg's opinion, was ORNL's greatest technical achievement. He
maintained that the molten-salt reactor was safer than most other
reactor types. As late as 1977, an electric utility executive
advised President Carter of his company's interest in a commercial
demonstration of the molten-salt breeder reactor. The government's
preoccupation with the liquid-metal fast-breeder reactor, however,
drove Oak Ridge's thermal breeder into obscurity. To Weinberg's
chagrin, the "dark horse" reactor never emerged from the pack to
lead the nuclear research effort.
An evolution similar to the molten-salt breeder program marked the
Laboratory's accelerator program of the 1960s. The Laboratory's
advanced particle accelerators, an isochronous cyclotron and an
electron linear accelerator, moved it to the fore-front of the
nation's research efforts in accelerator physics. However,
competition from other accelerator projects, as well as funding
constraints, would stall the program in the early 1970s.
The Oak Ridge Isochronous Cyclotron (ORIC) began operating in 1963,
firing protons, alpha particles, and other light projectiles into
various targets to produce heavy ions. Instead of the uniform
magnetic fields used in the Laboratory's first cyclotrons, ORIC
employed tailored sectors with a varying magnetic field. This
design compensated for increases in the mass of ions as they
accelerated, both focusing their paths and keeping them in
resonance at high energies. In its day, ORIC's design was
considered a major technological breakthrough.
ORIC provided ion beams of nitrogen, oxygen, neon, and argon,
making them available for research in physics and chemistry. Built
on the east side of the X-10 site in Bethel Valley, the new
cyclotron brought Robert Livingston's Electronuclear Division to
the Laboratory from the Y-12 Plant. In 1972, the Electronuclear
Division consolidated with the Physics Division under the direction
first of Joseph Fowler and later of Paul Stelson and James Ball,
all of whom reported to Alex Zucker, the associate director for
A year after ORIC obtained its first heavy-ion beam, the Laboratory
completed the Oak Ridge Electron Linear Accelerator (ORELA). Except
for an office and laboratory building, this accelerator was
underground, covered by 6 meters (20 feet) of earth shielding.
Electron bursts traveled 23 meters (75 feet) along the accelerator
tube to bombard a water-cooled tantalum target, producing more than
10 times as many neutrons for short pulse operation than any other
linear accelerator in the world. From the target room, the neutrons
passed through 11 radial flight tubes to underground stations for
A joint project of the Physics and Neutron Physics divisions, with
Jack Harvey and Fred Maienschien as co-directors, ORELA's main
purpose was to obtain fast-neutron cross sections for the
fast-breeder reactor program-that is, to determine the probability
that a given fuel, shielding, or structural material would absorb
fast neutrons. It served this purpose admirably, and it still
contributes a great deal to fundamental physical science. In 1990,
for example, ORELA's intense neutron beams bombarded a lead-208
target, allowing researchears to measure the size of the force
holding together the three quarks composing a neutron. This
research effort, led by Jack Harvey, Nat Hill, and researchers from
the University of Vienna, advanced scientific understanding of the
strong force that glues a neutron together.
By the time ORIC and ORELA were fully operational in 1969, the
Laboratory had planned to build another machine capable of
accelerating heavy ions into an energy range where superheavy
transuranic elements could be investigated. With the support of
universities throughout the region, this accelerator began as a
southern regional project. In fact, the Laboratory considered
naming it CHEROKEE (after one of the Southeast's most noted Native
American tribes), but top scientists could not find the words to
form an appropriate acronym; so it was named APACHE, the
Accelerator for Physics And Chemistry of Heavy Elements.
Balking at its $25-million cost, President Richard Nixon's budget
office rejected the Laboratory's regional APACHE concept in 1969.
Discussing the administration's unfavorable decision at AEC
headquarters, Alex Zucker learned the budget office and the AEC
would consider only national, not regionally sponsored,
accelerators. To secure approval for an advanced accelerator, it
would be necessary for the Laboratory to explain the unmet
challenges of heavy-ion research, show that it served "truly
important national needs," and demonstrate that it would protect
the United States from being surpassed in scientific research by
other nations, particularly the Soviet Union.
Asserting that the proposed accelerator would advance understanding
of "the behavior of nuclei in close collision and the properties of
highly excited, very heavy nuclear aggregates," Zucker recommended
that the Laboratory recast its new accelerator project in broader
terms, naming it the National Heavy Ion Laboratory. Accepting this
counsel, Weinberg established a steering committee headed by Paul
Stelson to reformulate the proposal. The committee's efforts were
fostered by university physicists who saw value in having the
accelerator located in Oak Ridge.
Led by physicists Joseph Hamilton of Vanderbilt University and
William Bugg of the University of Tennessee, a consortium formed in
1968 to unite physicists from 18 universities interested in
heavy-ion research at ORIC and the Laboratory's proposed national
accelerator. Working with Robert Livingston and Zucker, the
consortium obtained combined funding from their universities, state
government, and the AEC to finance construction of an addition to
the ORIC building. The addition housed the University Isotope
Separator of Oak Ridge (UNISOR) that interfaced with beam lines
Only the Soviet Union had another on-line separator connected to a
heavy-ion accelerator. Equally important, this effort represented
the first combined funding project for nuclear research hardware in
the United States. When the separator facility was completed in
1972, UNISOR's consortium scientists initiated research into new
radioisotopes for medical and industrial applications and
heavy-nuclei generation in the stars.
UNISOR and ORIC's ongoing research and widespread academic
participation gave the Laboratory proof that its proposed National
Heavy Ion Laboratory would serve national needs. Budgetary
constraints, however, delayed approval of this new facility until
1974. Named the Holifield Heavy Ion Research Facility after
Congressman Chet Holifield, chairman of the Joint Committee on
Atomic Energy for many years, this project, under the direction of
Jim Ball, became operational in 1980. The new 25-million-volt
tandem accelerator, with its tower dominating the landscape, served
as the centerpiece of the Laboratory user facilities during the
1980s, attracting scientists from all over the world.
Although the Laboratory's proposals for a molten-salt breeder and
APACHE accelerator hit fiscal walls in 1969, its fusion energy
research continued to receive funding under the stimulus of
international competition. In 1969, the AEC authorized the
Laboratory to construct a gold-plated fusion machine called ORMAK.
After a wildly optimistic, but essentially unsuccessful, entry into
fusion energy research in the 1950s, the world's scientists
recognized that better understanding of hydrogen plasma behavior
was necessary before any real progress could be made. As a result,
fusion scientists settled into the computer trenches during the
1960s hoping to improve the theoretical underpinnings of fusion
energy. When it came to fusion, scientists faced a fundamental
shortcoming: although confident of their theoretical calculations,
they were unsure of how to make it work in practical terms.
At the Laboratory, attention focused on the electric-field
microinstabilities found within the plasma of fusion devices.
Empirical experiments continued both with a second Direct Current
Experiment and a steady-state fusion device conceived by Raymond
Dandl and given the odd name ELMO Bumpy Torus. ELMO's electron
cyclotron heating set a record for steady, stable hot-electron
Optimism about fusion resurfaced in 1968, when Soviet scientist
L.A. Artsimovich of Moscow's Kurchatov Institute announced his
doughnut-shaped tokamak had confined a hot plasma. When Artsimovich
visited the United States in 1969, Herman Postma, Laboratory chief
of fusion research, dispatched a Laboratory team to discuss
tokamaks with him.
Enthusiastic about what they heard, Postma's team proposed to the
AEC construction of a tokamak at the Laboratory. They received
quick approval, together with a mandate to have it operational by
1971. While the Oak Ridge tokamak, called ORMAK, brought the
Laboratory back into a race with the Soviets, Artsimovich and other
Soviets, in the unique cooperative spirit that characterized fusion
research even during the Cold War, provided helpful information for
Sometimes working three shifts daily, the Laboratory's
thermonuclear staff, with assistance from skilled craftsmen at the
Y-12 Plant, rushed ORMAK's construction. The plasma was created
inside a doughnut-shaped vacuum chamber (torus) of aluminum with a
gold-plated liner. Coils of electrical conductors cooled by liquid
nitrogen provided the magnetic field. Michael Roberts, ORMAK's
project leader, described the assembly of this complicated machine
as an unusual exercise like "putting an orange inside an orange
inside an orange, all from the outside."
In the summer of 1971, ORMAK generated its first plasma and
experiments began, with encouraging results achieved by 1973.
Herman Postma worried, however, whether the high-speed neutrons
generated in the plasma would destroy the fusion reactors.
Materials had to be found to make fusion reactor walls that would
withstand the particle damage and stresses before the ORMAK or
other fusion devices could generate even a glimmer of interest
among commercial power producers.
More optimistic, Weinberg noted that the ORMAK design permitted
installation of a larger vacuum chamber ring (torus) that would
become ORMAK II. "With great good luck," he forecast, "ORMAK II
might tell us that it would be a good gamble to go to a big ORMAK
III, which might be the fusion equivalent of the 1942 experiment at
Stagg Field in Chicago." Elusive plasma slipped from ORMAK's golden
grip, however, and neither ORMAK nor subsequent fusion machines has
yet achieved a self-sustaining fusion reaction.
Nuclear Energy and the Environment
While basic science and experimental reactor as within the
Laboratory, political, legal, and popular protests far from the Oak
Ridge Reservation contributed mightily toward reorienting its
missions after 1969. Although dozens of reactors for commercial
power production were then in the planning and construction phases,
the nuclear industry remained troubled by three concerns: reactor
safety, power-plant environmental impacts, and safe disposal of
radioactive wastes. These concerns also challenged the Laboratoy.
After 13 years of study, the Laboratory proposed entpombing
high-level radioactive wastes in deep salt mines near Lyons,
Kansas. In 1970, the AEC provided $25 million to proceed with the
salt mine repository.
Noting that the wastes would be hazardous for thousands of years,
Weinberg warned, "We must be as certain as one can possibly be of
anything that the waste, once sequestered by the salt, can under no
conceivable circumstances come in contact with the biosphere."
Laboratory scientists concluded that the salt mines, located in a
geologically stable region, would not be affected by earthquakes,
migrating groundwater, or continental ice sheets that might
reappear during the wastes' long-lived radioactivity.
People living near Lyons supported the Laboratory's salt vault
plan, but environmental activists and Kansas state officials
opposed use of the salt mines on several grounds. Their concerns
extended beyond questions of technical capability to deep-seated
worries about sound and effective administration over the long
haul. Activists claimed that underground disposal for millennia
would require creation of a secular "priesthood" charged with
warning people never to drill or disturb the burial grounds. "It is
our belief that disposal in salt is essentially foolproof," replied
Weinberg, although conceding that a "kind of minimal priesthood
will be necessary."
During intense design studies in 1971, the Laboratory and its
consultants found that the many well holes already drilled into the
Lyons salt formation in some circumstances might allow groundwater
to enter the salt mines, thus raising technical questions about the
site's long-term suitability. The salt mine disposal plan also
became a heated political issue in Kansas. In 1972, the AEC
authorized the Kansas geological commission to search for
alternative salt mines in Kansas and directed the Laboratory to
study salt formations in other states. For the moment, the AEC
announced, radioactive wastes would be solidified and stored in
aboveground concrete vaults at the site of their origin. That
moment has turned into decades, as scientific and political debates
concerning radioactive waste disposal issues continue to this day.
They are not likely to be resolved soon.
In the 1970s, the public became concerned about the health effects
of exposure to wastes at the other end of the nuclear fuel
cycle--the uranium mine. In 1973 ORNL health physicists Fred
Haywood, George Kerr, Phil Perdue, and Bill Fox traveled to Grand
Junction, Colorado, to determine the radiation hazards in buildings
constructed with or on materials containing uranium mine tailings,
which are a source of cancer-causing radon daughter products. In
the 1980s, a new office called ORNL West was established in Grand
Junction. Managed by Craig Little, this office worked with the
Instrumentation and Controls Division to develop a field survey
technique using triangulated ultrasound signals and a computer for
mapping concentrations of radioactivity to determine where
remediation is needed or if it has been effective.
Because of the Laboratory's research on the health effects of
radiation from nuclear energy, including cancer, ORNL played a role
in President Nixon's "war on cancer." With additional support,
researchers in the Laboratory's Biology Division focused on
radiation and chemicals and later viruses and genes, including
genes that promote tumors and those that suppress them. Consumer
advocates who worried about the safety of hot dogs were especially
interested in the findings of ORNL's Willie Lijinsky, who
demonstrated that the nitrites widely used as food preservatives
react with amines in food and drugs to form cancer-causing
nitrosamines during digestion in the stomach.
Laboratory researchers were well positioned to attack the cancer
problem because they had long sought to understand how organisms
prevent or recover from the damaging effects of radiation and how
to stimulate these self-protective mechanisms. They had discovered
that cells can repair radiation-induced damage after radiation
exposure ceases and that deficiencies in cellular repair mechanisms
can predispose the organism to cancer.
Public and legal concerns about the environmental effects of
nuclear power brought the Laboratory's studies of terrestrial and
aquatic habitats to the forefront of its research agenda during the
early 1970s. Using the "systems ecology" paradigm pioneered by
Jerry Olson, Laboratory ecologists investigated radionuclide
transport through the environment. Olson examined the migration of
cesium-137 through forest ecosystems by inoculating tulip poplar
trees behind the Health Physics Research Reactor with cesium-137,
thereby establishing the first such experimental research center
for forest ecosystem studies.
In 1968, the National Science Foundation placed Stan Auerbach in
charge of a deciduous forest biome program in which the Laboratory
contracted with universities for studies of photosynthesis,
transpiration, soil decomposition, and nutrient cycling in forest
systems in the eastern United States. That same year, David Reichle
led a Laboratory forest research team that initiated large-scale
forest ecosystem research. This work was a forerunner of subsequent
Laboratory programs that investigated acidic deposition, biomass
energy production, and global climatic change.
Environmental studies at the Laboratory received an unexpected
boost in 1971 when a federal court, in a decision on a planned
nuclear plant at Calvert Cliffs, Maryland, ordered major revisions
of AEC environmental impact statements as an essential part of
reactor licensing procedures. Required to complete 92 environmental
impact statements by 1972, the AEC asked for help from its Battelle
Northwest, Argonne, and Oak Ridge national laboratories. Giving
this effort the highest priority, Weinberg declared, "Nuclear
energy, in fact any energy, in the United States simply must come
to some terms with the environment."
The Laboratory's skeleton staff for environmental impact
statements, headed by Edward Struxness and Thomas Row, expanded in
1972 to include about 75 scientists and technicians. Staff working
on these reports formed the nucleus of the Energy Division,
established in 1974 under Samuel Beall's leadership.
The Calvert Cliffs decision required the AEC to consider the
effects of nuclear plant discharges of heated water on the aquatic
environment. Chuck Coutant led a Laboratory team assigned the task
of developing federal water temperature criteria to protect aquatic
life. For these and related studies, the Laboratory initiated
construction of an Aquatic Ecology Laboratory, completed in 1973.
Only the Pacific Northwest Laboratory had a similar laboratory. Its
initial equipment consisted of 20 water tanks, each containing
various fish species, and a computer-controlled heated-water system
to supply water of proper temperature to the tanks; outside were
six ponds for breeding fish and conducting field experiments. Early
experiments at the aquatics laboratory investigated the survival
rate of fish and fish eggs at elevated temperatures.
To determine the water temperature preferences of fish in streams,
Coutant and Jim Rochelle of the Instrumentation and Controls
Division developed a temperature-sensitive ultrasonic fish tag. The
"electronic thermometer," which can be surgically implanted into a
fish, transmits temperature information as high-pitched sound waves
of varying frequencies to a hydrophone in a boat or on shore. It
has been used by private utilities and government agencies for fish
An indirect result of the aquatic studies came during licensing
hearings for Consolidated Edison's Indian Point-2 nuclear plant on
the Hudson River, just north of New York City. Because the
Environmental Sciences Division (following recommendations by
environmental groups) identified Indian Point as a spawning ground
for striped bass, the impact statement for Indian Point-2 called
for closed-cycle cooling towers to protect aquatic life from the
adverse effects of thermal degradation. Thus, cooling towers, which
now serve as the towering symbol of nuclear power plants, were
built at Indian Point.
The legal battle that led to the Indian Point decision took 10
years to complete. During this litigation, Laboratory staff
provided technical information to all participants--environmental
groups, utility company officials, the Environmental Protection
Agency, and other state and federal agencies.
The high cost of environmental mitigation, reflected both in
lengthy courtroom dramas and construction of elaborate cooling
systems, concerned many nuclear power advocates. They were troubled
as well by stringent reactor safety standards that the Laboratory
staff proposed in 1970. Under the direction of Meyer Bender of
General Engineering Division, the Laboratory had recommended nearly
100 interim safety standards. Many of these standards were based on
investigations by the Heavy Section Steel Technology Program
conducted in the Reactor and Metals and Ceramics divisions. Other
standards relating to reactor controls were developed by the
Instrumentation and Controls Division.
William Unger and his associates, for example, designed and tested
shipping containers for radioactive materials to determine the
design that could best withstand collisions during transport.
Richard Lyon and Graydon Whitman assessed the ability of reactors
to withstand earthquakes, joining with soil engineers who simulated
mini-earthquakes by detonating dynamite near the abandoned
Experimental Gas Cooled Reactor. George Parker's team studied
fission product releases from molten fuels, and Philip
Rittenhouse's team investigated the failure of engineered
safeguards, particularly the effects of interruptions in water flow
Emergency Core Cooling Hearings
"We find ourselves increasingly at those critical intersections of
technology and society which underlie some of our country's primary
social concerns," Weinberg declared in 1972. He also noted that
Laboratory veterans longed for the days when "what we did at ORNL
was separate plutonium, measure cross sections, and develop
instruments for detecting radiation." Those days were part of the
Laboratory's history and were overshadowed in the heated climate of
political discourse and public opinion that emerged during the
Emergency Core Cooling Systems (ECCS) hearings in 1972.
The AEC Hearings on Acceptance Criteria for Emergency Core Cooling
Systems for Light-Water-Cooled Nuclear Power Reactors, or the ECCS
hearings for short, proved a critical event, one that forced the
Laboratory to face the harsh realities of the new nuclear era of
controversy, conflict, and compromise.
In 1971, President Nixon appointed James Schlesinger, an economist
from his budget office, to succeed Glenn Seaborg as AEC chairman.
Schlesinger aimed to convert the AEC from an agency that
unabashedly promoted nuclear power to one that served as an
unbiased "referee." When protest greeted the AEC's interim criteria
for emergency core-cooling systems, he convened a quasi-legal
hearing for comments from reactor manufacturers, electric utility
officials, nuclear scientists, environmentalists, and the public.
The hearing began in Bethesda, Maryland, in January 1972 and would
continue the entire year.
To present their views, environmental groups hired attorneys and
scientific consultants, who joined attorneys for reactor
manufacturers, utilities, and the government to pack the ECCS
hearings. Witnesses were subjected to dramatic
cross-examinations--a new experience for most scientists, who were
accustomed to establishing scientific truth through publications
subject to sedate peer review, not through raucous adversarial
For reactors with less than 400 MW of capacity, containment vessels
can confine radioactive fuel melting even in the event of a serious
accident, rendering impossible what is popularly known as the China
Syndrome. For reactors with more than 400 MW of capacity,
containment vessels are important, but no longer sufficient. An
elaborate cooling system must also be built to ensure safety.
Weinberg thought it unfortunate that some AEC staff members had not
been impressed by the seriousness of this requirement until forced
to confront it by antinuclear activists.
Now that the AEC and nuclear industry had been called into account
on this issue, Weinberg urged Laboratory staff to offer their
expertise fully and without reservation, regardless of whether they
agreed with the existing criteria. Schlesinger agreed. Weinberg
complained, however, that his staff should have been involved as
fully in preparing the criteria as they would be in testifying at
Among Laboratory staff participating in these lengthy, sometimes
contentious, sometimes tedious hearings were William Cottrell,
Philip Rittenhouse, David Hobson, and George Lawson. They and
other witnesses were grilled by attorneys for days. More than
20,000 pages of testimony were taken from scientists and engineers,
who often expressed sharp dissent on technical matters concerning
the adequacy of the safety program. Laboratory experts generally
considered that existing criteria for reactor safety were based on
As a result of these showdown hearings, in 1973 the AEC tightened
its reactor safety requirements to reduce the chances that reactor
cores would overheat as a result of a loss of emergency cooling
water. This measure, however, failed to placate critics who
preferred a moratorium on nuclear reactor construction.
The Laboratory's emphasis on reactor safety and environmental
protection made it and Director Weinberg unpopular among some
nuclear power advocates and members of the AEC staff--a strange
turn of events for Laboratory scientists who had devoted their
careers to inventing and advancing practical applications of
nuclear energy. Opponents of nuclear power, on the other hand,
enjoyed quoting Weinberg's chilling declaration:
Nuclear people have made a Faustian contract with society; we
offer an almost unique possibility for a technologically
abundant world for the oncoming billions, through our
miraculous, inexhaustible energy source; but this energy
source at the same time is tainted with potential side effects
that, if uncontrolled, could spell disaster.
Although other events and considerations also played a part, the
ECCS hearings of 1972 no doubt influenced major management shifts
in 1973 at the Laboratory and AEC. More fundamentally, they
influenced the federal government's subsequent decision to dissolve
the AEC and to place its regulatory responsibilities and research-
and development-related activities into two separate entities.
These changes would mark the most profound transition in energy
research and development since 1946.
Another crisis--not in public confidence but in energy
supplies--threatened the nation during the early 1970s. To meet
this challenge, Weinberg sought to reorient and broaden the
Laboratory's mission. He was encouraged both by the National
Science Foundation (NSF) and the AEC, which in 1971 received
congressional approval to investigate energy sources other than
nuclear fission. At AEC headquarters, James Bresee, who had headed
the Laboratory's civil defense studies, became head of a general
energy department, which managed funding for Oak Ridge's innovative
When Congress authorized the AEC in 1971 to investigate all energy
sources, Weinberg appointed Sheldon Datz and Mike Wilkinson as
heads of a committee to review opportunities for non-nuclear energy
research. In addition, he made Robert Livingston the head of an
energy council assigned the task of considering new Laboratory
At the AEC, James Bresee reviewed Laboratory proposals for broad
energy research. Among these were studies of improved turbine
efficiency, alternative heat disposal methods at power plants, coal
gasification, high-temperature batteries, and synthetic fuels made
from coal and shale to supplement petroleum and natural gas.
As these innovative energy studies began, Weinberg also moved the
Laboratory into broader environmental programs. He brought David
Rose from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology to the
Laboratory to manage multidisciplinary research on broad societal
problems. The study teams for these innovative research efforts,
which Rose hoped would tackle national issues, included such "young
turks" as Herman Postma, Bill Fulkerson, and Jack Gibbons.
James Liverman and Pete Craven drew up a proposal to the National
Science Foundation to fund environmental studies at the Laboratory.
With support from Congressman Joe Evins, Weinberg and Rose took
this proposal to the NSF and received funding from the NSF Research
Applied to National Needs (RANN) program for a 1970 summer study.
Using regional modeling, social indicators, and system analysis,
Rose and his team examined national environmental challenges, such
as renewable energy resources.
This first attempt at the Laboratory to look at national problems
holistically evolved during late 1970 into the NSF Environmental
Program managed by Jack Gibbons. Out of this program a few years
later came the Laboratory's Conservation and Renewable Energy
program, which by 1993 had become the Laboratory's largest energy
When the NSF first announced its RANN program, Weinberg advised NSF
director William McElroy that the Laboratory had "rather
miraculously" identified many national needs for research that it
could conduct. A poll of Laboratory staff produced 150 new energy
and environmental research proposals, a few of which were approved
by the NSF.
Noting that many environmental problems arose as a result of
increasing energy use, Roger Carlsmith, Eric Hirst, and their
associates initiated studies that examined ways to reduce energy
demand by promoting energy conservation. In 1970, they emphasized
the importance of better home insulation in substantially cutting
energy use for home heating. Moreover, they concluded that
increasing the efficiency of transportation and home appliances
could significantly lower levels of energy consumption. For design
of more efficient central power stations, the Laboratory
investigated improved turbine cycles, cryogenic power transmission
lines, and "power parks" to cluster power stations outside of urban
Interest in solar energy flared in 1971, when solar energy advocate
Aden Meinel visited the Laboratory and proposed using solar energy
to heat liquid sodium and molten salts for large-scale generation
of electricity. Murray Rosenthal, who managed the Laboratory's
Molten Salt Reactor Program, led a group that assessed the
economics of using energy from the sun to produce electricity.
Although the group concluded that solar power generation would cost
more than nuclear or fossil fuel power, Rosenthal recommended
additional studies because solar energy could ultimately prove
economically attractive if two possible scenarios became a reality:
"One is that environmental concerns or other factors could increase
coal and nuclear energy costs more than we can foresee; the other
is that the collection and conversion of solar energy could become
much less costly than we assume."
With NSF backing, the Laboratory examined solar energy as a
potential long-term backup for other energy sources. In addition,
David Novelli and Kurt Kraus studied the use of solar heat to
enhance biological production of hydrogen and methane fuels as
petroleum substitutes. The Laboratory's knowledge of surface
physics and semiconductors eventually led to investigations of ways
to improve the efficiency of photovoltaic cells by Richard Wood and
associates in the Solid State Division as part of the Laboratory's
modest solar program.
The Laboratory's 1971 venture into non-nuclear energy research did
little to ease its fiscal woes. Successive annual budget reductions
in its nuclear energy programs forced corresponding reductions in
staff and continuous efforts to lower overhead. As one cost-cutting
measure, the Laboratory closed its food service canteens scattered
about the complex for employee convenience and replaced them with
Typical of his management style, Weinberg appointed long-range
planners to identify supplemental Laboratory missions. Commenting
that he felt at times "like a man with a canoe paddle trying to
change the course of an ocean liner," David Rose, the Laboratory's
first long-range planner, returned to MIT. Robert Livingston
succeeded Rose as head of the program planning and analysis group,
which included Calvin Burwell and Frank Plasil. Squarely facing the
transition in Laboratory missions, this group proposed a staff
education program to retrain fission specialists in broader energy
and environmental issues.
Musing on this proposal, Weinberg recognized the dilemma of having
experts trained in one field while funding opportunities were
becoming more prevalent in other fields. He noted that a similar
redirection had marked the experience of Manhattan Project
personnel during and after World War II. Wigner, a chemical
engineer, switched to nuclear physics. Cosmic-ray specialist Ernest
Wollan became a health physicist and neutron diffraction expert,
and biochemist Kurt Kraus became highly skilled in plutonium
chemistry. Weinberg himself had started his career as a
biophysicist, only to become a reactor physicist.
"Enrico Fermi once told me that he made a practice throughout his
scientific career of changing fields every five years," Weinberg
recalled. He added that, although "there are few Fermis, I think we
all easily recognize that the spirit of his advice can well be
In an effort to enhance internal viability and flexibility, in 1972
the Laboratory initiated a school of environmental effects aimed at
producing physical scientists conversant with biology and ecology.
This effort stalled, however, because most members of the school
were laid off during the massive reduction in force of 1973. Taking
cues from his own observations about the Laboratory's future,
Weinberg, after a quarter century of service at Oak Ridge, also
embarked on a new career.
The long-time Laboratory director joined Herbert MacPherson and
William Baker, president of Bell Laboratories, to form a "think
tank" dedicated to coherent long-range energy planning. With
support from the AEC and John Sawhill of the Federal Energy Office,
they created the Institute for Energy Analysis in late 1973. Oak
Ridge Associated Universities served as the institute's contract
operator. It opened in January 1974 with Herbert MacPherson as
director because Weinberg had been called to Washington to lend his
expertise to resolving the national energy crisis.
Throughout 1973, Floyd Culler served as acting director of the
Laboratory. Described as a "muddy boots type," Culler had received
acclaim at the fourth Geneva conference on atomic energy in 1971
for objecting to plans by other nations to store liquid nuclear
wastes in tanks. He contended that bequeathing radioactive wastes
to future generations without providing a permanent, safe disposal
system posed serious political and moral questions.
Culler's year as Laboratory director resembled a roller coaster
ride, which he later described as a "year of many transitions." In
January 1973, Milton Shaw, chief of AEC reactor development
programs, mandated a quick end to the Laboratory's molten-salt
reactor studies because he was deeply committed to development of
the liquid-metal breeder reactor. This decision precipitated what
Culler described as the "largest and most painful reduction of
employment level at the Laboratory in its history." It also
undermined the morale of the nearly 3800 personnel who remained.
In March 1973, President Nixon appointed Dixy Lee Ray, a marine
biologist, as AEC chairman to replace James Schlesinger, who became
Secretary of Defense. Ray has been credited with saving the
Laboratory from those in the AEC and Congress who were bent on
The highlight of Culler's year was the Laboratory's participation
in the national energy strategy. When the president asked Ray to
review energy research and recommend an integrated national policy,
she called on the national laboratories to assist in undertaking
these urgent studies. Murray Rosenthal, who was acting as Culler's
deputy director, Jere Nichols, and others spent most of the summer
in Washington, providing background information for Ray's report.
Titled The Nation's Energy Future, it advocated energy conservation
to reduce demand as well as research into new technologies and
strategies to increase supplies. The report's ultimate goal was to
make the nation energy independent by eliminating its need for
imported oil by 1980.
The turnaround for Laboratory programs came on the heels of the
Israeli-Arab "Yom Kippur War" in the Middle East and the related
Arab oil embargo imposed on the United States in October 1973. As
disgruntled Americans lined up at filling stations to purchase
gasoline, Nixon established the Federal Energy Office. With William
Simon as director and John Sawhill as deputy director, the office
was responsible for allocating scarce oil and gas supplies during
the emergency and for planning long-range solutions to the nation's
At Sawhill's request, Weinberg went to the White House to head the
Office of Energy Research and Development. Because Nixon did not
appoint a presidential science advisor as had Presidents
Eisenhower, Kennedy, and Johnson, Weinberg became science's
presence in the White House during the late Nixon and early Ford
Floyd Culler noted that the oil embargo and energy crisis made the
Laboratory "whole again" by the end of 1973. Reacting to this
crisis, Congress pumped new funding into energy research and even
approved a modest resumption of molten-salt breeder studies at the
Laboratory. "Throughout ORNL's evolution, its central theme has
continued to be the development of safe, clean, abundant economic
energy systems," Culler said at the end of the year. "The
Laboratory is now in a uniquely strong position to undertake a
multimodal attack on the nation's energy problems."
In December 1973, President Nixon proposed a reorganization of the
federal energy agencies. As part of this effort, he divided the AEC
into two new agencies. AEC responsibilities for energy research and
development went to the Energy Research and Development
Administration, while AEC regulatory responsibilities were assumed
by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.
With this new administrative structure in place, Eugene Wigner
recommended a Laboratory reorganization paralleling the division of
the AEC. He urged that Weinberg be returned to the Laboratory to
manage its energy research and development programs and that Culler
be assigned responsibility for the Laboratory's safety and
environmental programs. "Alvin and Floyd Culler have collaborated
for several years," Wigner asserted. "They understand, like, and
respect each other." As a result, he said, "conflicts are most
unlikely to arise."
Wigner's recommendation was not accepted. Weinberg served the White
House until formation of the Energy Research and Development
Administration in late 1974 and then became director of the
Institute for Energy Analysis in Oak Ridge. Culler stayed at the
Laboratory as deputy director under Herman Postma until 1977, when
he became president of the Electric Power Research Institute.
Life at the Laboratory may have become more tumultuous during the
1970s, but changes in the Laboratory's workplace were no more--or
less--than a reflection of dramatic changes in American society.
Isolated in the serene hills of East Tennessee, the Laboratory
could not avoid being caught in the vortex of a changed energy
world. Its future would depend on how well it could respond to the
new world "energy" order that suddenly emerged in the aftermath of
the Arab oil embargo of 1973 and the ensuing energy crisis.
EARTH DAY 1970
This has been the year of the environment," Laboratory Director
Alvin M. Weinberg said in his 1969 State of the Laboratory address.
"On every hand we are being told the fruits of technology are
endangering our living space...The ecologists have displaced the
physicists as high priests in this new era of environmental
Weinberg, in his usual fashion, not only captured a new national
trend but also pinpointed a new target for public concern and
research. Public interest in the environment manifested itself
dramatically in 1970, culminating in Earth Day on April 22.
Laboratory researchers participated in Earth Day's national and
local celebrations. On the national scene, three staff members
delivered speeches at various universities. Stanley Auerbach,
director of the Ecological Sciences Division, gave a talk at the
University of Illinois; Dan Nelson, assistant director of the same
division, spoke at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology; and
David Reichle, Laboratory ecologist and member of the Oak Ridge
Regional Planning Commission, made a presentation at the University
of Tennessee in Knoxville.
At the Earth Day Fair at Oak Ridge High School, the Laboratory's
Ecological Sciences Division set up an exhibit describing its
ecological research. Examples were the effect of fertilizer on the
Walker Branch Watershed, retention of radioactive fallout by
agricultural crops, the study of bedded geologic deposits as
disposal sites for radioactive wastes, and Laboratory management of
the Eastern Deciduous Forest Biome Research Program for the
International Biological Program. On hand to explain the exhibit to
the 500 people who attended the fair were John Gilbert, L. C.
Landry, Ronald Rahn, and Robin Wallace.
ORNL researchers contributed to Earth Day observances in Oak Ridge
in other ways. Gilbert's article on Oak Ridge's environmental
problems was published on the front page of The Oak Ridger. He
noted that the city had problems with water, air, and visual
pollution; litter; and pesticides, including mercury compounds and
Two Laboratory staff members participated in a panel discussion
held at Oak Ridge High School on "Appalachian Coal and Nuclear
Energy--Their Effects on Our Environment and Their Future Use."
Bill Russell, the noted geneticist and a founder of Tennessee
Citizens for Wilderness Planning, spoke of the harmful
environmental impacts of increasing energy production.
James Liverman, ORNL's associate director for Biomedical and
Environmental Sciences, summed up Oak Ridge's observance of Earth
Day by saying, "Ultimately, improving the quality of life will
depend on you and me in our daily lives, on our making a commitment
to the environment."
NUCLEAR PHYSICS RESEARCH: LITTLE THINGS MEAN A LOT
Little things mean a lot, but in nuclear physics, big things are
needed to discover them and find out what they mean. At the
Laboratory, the chief goal of nuclear physics research has been to
determine the structure of the nucleus of the atom and to
understand the course of reactions between nuclei. Detailed
information on the properties of tiny atomic nuclei can be obtained
only by the use of huge accelerators. A beam of particles from an
accelerator is propelled against a target; the effect of the
bombardment on the projectile beam and the resulting emission of
particles from the collision shed light on the structure and
behavior of the target nuclei and on the reaction mechanisms.
Early nuclear physics research at the Laboratory made use of
reactors. Later, the original Physics Division relied on a series
of electrostatic, or Van de Graaff accelerators and the Oak Ridge
Electron Linear Accelerator (which was operated by the Neutron
Physics Division mainly to determine the neutron-absorbing
abilities of nuclei of candidate breeder-reactor shielding
materials). The Electronuclear Division depended on an
increasingly sophisticated series of cyclotrons, which accelerated
charged particles in circular orbits.
In the late 1940s a landmark experiment by Arthur Snell and Frances
Pleasanton provided the first accurate measurement of the lifetime
of the neutron. They also measured the gravitational force on the
Using newly built cyclotrons in the 1950s, laboratory physicists
studied the reactions between heavy projectile ions and target
nuclei that collided at high energies. Alex Zucker and Harry
Reynolds pioneered in research on heavy-ion reactions using the
63-inch cyclotron, which produced the world's first multicharged
At the Van de Graaff Laboratory, Paul Stelson and Francis McGowan
carefully measured the Coulomb excitation-the energized state in a
nucleus resulting from its interaction with the projectile
particle's electric field-in a wide range of nuclei. This seminal
work showed clearly that the classical interpretation of low-energy
nuclear collisions was inadequate, setting the stage for the
development of a quantum-mechanical model.
Using 22-MeV protons from the 86-inch cyclotron to generate
particles of higher energies, Bernard Cohen and his associates
showed that transfer reactions (in which a nucleon-neutron or
proton-is transferred from the target to the projectile nucleus) at
these energies did not result as expected from the decay of a
compound nucleus formed during the collision between the incident
and target nuclei. Instead, the transfer resulted from a direct
nuclear reaction in which the projectile particle passing through
the target nucleus interacts with only part of the nucleus. This
"direct" process also was not well described in terms of a
Work by Cohen also resulted in the discovery of a new low-lying
collective mode in nuclei. This collective mode is a low-energy
state of the nucleus that causes it to vibrate as a single system,
just as the tone from a ringing bell results from the vibration of
the entire bell structure. Originally dubbed "anomalous inelastic
scattering," these low-energy states appeared even stronger than
the well-known low-lying "quadrupole vibrational states" in which
the vibrating nuclei alternate between shapes resembling an egg and
the earth. These newly discovered states proved to arise from
"nuclear octupole vibration" in which the vibrating nuclei are
alternately spherical and pear-shaped. This observation helped
affirm the picture that the nucleus, as a system, could support
many modes of collective resonant behavior.
In the early 1950s, the shell model was developed to explain many
features of nuclei. In this model the nucleons are considered to
occupy shells and subshells (like electrons in the atom) and act
independently according to a preassigned set of shell energy
levels. A model to explain direct nuclear reactions was also
formulated. Neither of these models could be fully used until the
advent of large, fast digital computers a decade later. The
Laboratory was a pioneer in developing mathematical methods and
using computing facilities to refine these models to interpret
experimental measurements at ORNL and elsewhere.
In the 1960s ORNL theorists led by Ray Satchler pioneered the
application of the distorted-wave Born approximation with which he
and Bob Bassel and Dick Drisko made great advances in understanding
nuclear reactions. They developed methods for extracting
quantitative information from single-nucleon transfer reactions and
inelastic scattering-scattering resulting from a collision in which
the total kinetic energy of the colliding particles is not the same
after the collision as before it. Results of their work include
two computer codes to extract information from nuclear reactions in
experiments-SALLY and JULIE. The latter became the world standard
for extraction of nuclear structure data from direct nuclear
At the same time, Francis Perey and Brian Buck developed a computer
program that was applied extensively to the understanding of
neutron-scattering measurements. Perey developed the global
optical model search code GENOA, which became the standard for use
in calculations of the distorted-wave Born approximation, which was
set down by Satchler (who is also known for his widely used college
textbook on angular momentum). A long series of detailed
measurements of scattering and transfer reactions done at the
EN-tandem accelerator by Perey, Kirk Dickens, and Bob Silva served
as critical benchmarks in the early development of these computer
programs, validating their usefulness to a worldwide community.
In the late 1960s the interpretation of the shell model's low-lying
nuclear levels (low-energy shells) was given a big boost with the
development of the Oak Ridge-Rochester Multi-Shell Program.
Completed under the direction of Edith Halbert, this was the most
sophisticated program of its type for years and was used
extensively for computing detailed nuclear properties and for
understanding the general applicability of the nuclear shell model.
Also in the late 1960s at ORNL, measurements of the
neutron-absorption crosssection in the energy region from 5,000 to
200,000 electron volts for nuclei from fluorine (mass 19) to
uranium (mass 238) were made. These measurements by Jack Gibbons,
Dick Macklin, and their colleagues proved useful not only to
nuclear theorists and nuclear engineers but also to astrophysicists
seeking to understand the process of nucleosynthesis in stars,
which builds heavy elements from light ones and governs the
relative amounts of elements in the universe.
By the early 1970s, the Laboratory nuclear physicists had available
to them the higher-energy ions produced by the Oak Ridge
Isochronous Cyclotron (ORIC) accelerator. One of the most
fundamental discoveries to emerge from this program was the work of
Fred Bertrand, Monte Lewis, and their collaborators, who made the
first observation of the nuclear giant quadrupole resonances-types
of a giant resonance in which an appreciable fraction of the
nucleons move together in a collective mode when selectively
excited by the appropriate nuclear reactions. This work opened up
the new field of using charged particles and heavy ions to excite
the multipole resonant modes of the nucleus, making it deform as it
alternately expends and compresses in different directions.
As heavy ions became available from the ORIC, transfermium elements
could be produced using its beams on transuranium targets prepared
at the High Flux Isotope Reactor. Particularly notable was a
series of complex experiments by Curt Bemis, Pete Dittner, Dick
Hahn, and Bob Silva using coincident alpha and X-ray detection to
provide the first unequivocal identification of elements 102, 103,
104 and 105.
The history of major contributions by ORNL researchers to the field
of nuclear physics has been marked by the development of
sophisticated instruments and by the use of large-scale computers
and the development of long, complex computer codes to interpret
and analyze experimental phenomena. This tradition of using big
things to better understand little things continues to this day.
Y NOT SWANS
In the spring of 1964, three years after a pond was created near
the Engineering Physics and Mathematics Division buildings,
physicist Frances (Tony) Pleasonton of the Physics Division
organized a campaign to buy a pair of mute swans for the pond. She
was assured that the Laboratory would take care of the swans if her
fund-raising effort proved successful. Within two weeks, 200 people
contributed an average of 65 cents each to buy and ship the swans
from Holland to Oak Ridge.
The idea for the names of the swans came from the engineer who drew
up plans for the pond's island. When asked why he was designing an
island, he would answer, "Why not? Tony says the swans will need
it." The same response was also a frequent reaction to Pleasonton's
requests for donations.
As a result, when the swans finally arrived, they were named "Y"
and "Not." They became permanently identified with Pleasonton, the
"Swan Lady." In fact, some people thought Y and Not were named
after her (Tony spelled backward).
The swans' first winter at Oak Ridge was cold. A groundsperson,
called in for special duty on a Saturday, unsuccessfully tried to
pick up the swans as the temperature sank below zero. The swans
survived, however, and even walked happily on the ice.
Pleasonton was pleased by the number of young swans (cygnets)
produced at the pond. "We have been extremely fortunate to have had
cygnets," Pleasonton wrote in 1976, "since it is claimed that mute
swans seldom breed successfully in captivity."
By 1976, Y and Not were almost 13 years old and had bred for at
least nine years, producing 18 to 20 cygnets. Because it was
thought that the pond could support only two adult swans, some
cygnets were given to the Knoxville Zoo, the Fermi National
Accelerator Laboratory, and the Huntsville Garden Club. Proceeds
from the sale were deposited in a credit union savings account for
"Altogether, this venture has turned out to be a most successful
and satisfying example of good employee-management relations and
cooperation," Pleasonton wrote.
Retiring at the end of 1976, Pleasonton announced that Vivian
Jacobs of the Information Division would be the new "mentor of
swans." "Before I could say anything," Jacobs once wrote, "Tony
noted that she had already cleared this transfer of responsibility
with Herman Postma, then Laboratory director. . .I was committed to
being the new mentor of the swans, which quickly changed to several
other titles. I called myself Swan Mama, and I was once referred to
on an index card as SOB, which I assumed meant Supervisor of
In 1980, a month after being treated for a deep gash on his left
side, Not came out of the pond on his own, a rarity for him, and
died while being transported to the UT Veterinary Hospital. The
autopsy, corroborated by the Centers for Disease Control and by the
National Fish and Wildlife Health Laboratory, indicated that he
died from a rare amoebic disease caused by a parasite that attacked
the cells of the brain. A veterinarian said the death was not
preventable, but suggested stocking the pond with mallards, which
feed on the snails that are the intermediate host for this
parasite. So mallards joined the swans in the pond.
Three months after Not died, Y became tangled in the nylon line
leading to a turtle trap on Swan Lake. She was removed from the
water and taken to UT, where nothing terribly wrong was found other
than a few scrapes and bruises. Unfortunately, the inhalation of
water, the trauma, and perhaps the loss of Not were too much for
her, and Y died the next day.
In 1990, the remaining swans hatched by Y and Not were 10 years
old. Each spring, they would build nests and lay eggs that didn't
hatch. Today, only three white mute swans remain. Nevertheless, the
Swan Pond, its white mutes, and their more than 50 cygnets have
become symbolic of Oak Ridge's tranquility and the natural beauty
that surrounds the Laboratory.
ORNL AND NUCLEAR CRITICALITY SAFETY: FROM STANDARDS TO SOFTWARE
Nuclear criticality safety--ensuring the safe storage, handling,
and transportation of fissionable materials--is one of several
areas of science and technology upon which ORNL has had a major
In any activity involving sizeable quantities of fissionable
materials, a nuclear criticality safety program must seek to
prevent an unintentional, uncontrolled fission chain reaction that
results from an excess of fissionable materials (e.g., uranium-235
and plutonium-239) in close proximity during processing, storage,
or transport. The aim is to protect against the consequences of an
inadvertent nuclear chain reaction. The need for industrial
controls at sites where fissionable materials were prepared,
produced, or processed was recognized in the earliest days of the
nuclear program. Early sites needing these controls included the
K-25 and Y-12 plants and the facilities at Hanford and Los Alamos.
The K-25 gaseous diffusion plant was the focus for the earliest
criticality studies. In the mid-1940s, Edward Teller and his
colleagues reviewed the plans for this plant for potential unsafe
accumulations. In late 1945, Art Snell of the Laboratory
investigated the safety of "product drums" for transferring uranium
hexafluoride enriched in low amounts of uranium-235. It was
determined that criticality might be achieved in a drum if the
enrichment were greater than 10%.
In the late 1940s, experimental results were obtained at Oak Ridge
and later at Los Alamos, Hanford, and Rocky Flats to guide safe use
of fissionable materials in storage and transport, chemical
processes being designed and operated, and metallurgical operations
including machining and disposal of scrap. Of even greater
importance has been the experimental data used as benchmark
information to verify and validate calculation methods that are
only now reaching maturity.
In 1949 the demand for this information by the rapidly growing
nuclear community resulted in expansion of the Critical Experiments
Laboratory. The team that operated this Y-12 Plant facility was
transferred into the ORNL organization because its chief mission
was to guide new reactor designs using data from critical
experiments. However, it had an opportunity to assess the effects
of a criticality safety accident in its own backyard.
In June 1958 the first critical accumulation of a fissionable
material in an industrial process occurred within the Y-12 Plant.
The cause was a leaky valve that allowed a solution containing
uranium-235 to flow into a large vessel, resulting in exposure of
eight men to radiation. A study at ORNL's Critical Experiments
Laboratory of the energy released by the chain reaction confirmed
early medical observations that the exposures were not as severe as
first feared. Prompt evacuation by the personnel from the area
where the reaction persisted minimized their exposures. None
suffered any ill effects.
In 1950 Dixon Callihan and Sidney Visner established the ORNL
Criticality Review Committee to review and approve Laboratory
operations that involve potentially critical quantities of
fissionable materials. The committee was headed by Joe Thomas
The Laboratory supported the effort to develop national standards
within the nuclear community through the American Nuclear Society
program. A committee, first chaired by Callihan in the early 1960s
and subsequently by Jack McLendon and Thomas, produced the first
nuclear standard that gave quantitative guidance in 1964. It is one
of a family of more than 20 national standards on criticality
safety prepared by this international group still administered out
For more than 20 years, staff members at ORNL have been developing
criticality safety software. The most internationally recognized
software of this type is KENO, which was developed by Elliott
Whitesides and Nancy Landers. The results of ORNL's critical
experiments provided the benchmark data against which the results
of the computer code calculations could be checked.
John Mihalczo recently has developed a technique for determining
the margin by which a quantity of fissionable material is
subcritical. DOE's Nuclear Criticality Technology and Safety
Project, which has been managed at ORNL, created an "apprentice
program" to train future experts in criticality safety.
STRUCTURE AND SOUNDNESS
A reactor pressure vessel in a nuclear power plant springs a leak.
Water used to cool the nuclear fuel escapes. The fuel overheats,
causing localized melting of the thick vessel wall and a discharge
of radioactivity into the containment building.
Although such a scenario has never occurred in the United States,
preventing it has been a prime concern of the Laboratory's Heavy
Section Steel Technology (HSST) Program for 25 years.
The HSST program was established in response to a November 1965
letter by William Manly of the Advisory Committee on Reactor
Safeguards to the Atomic Energy Commission, which recommended a
more sophisticated approach to evaluation of the structural
soundness of pressure vessels. In March 1967 the HSST program,
sponsored by the AEC's Division of Reactor Development and
Technology, came into being under Laboratory management. Its first
director was F. J. Witt; successors have been Grady Whitman, Claud
Pugh, Bill Corwin, and Bill Pennell. Today the HSST program, which
continues as a major effort in the Engineering Technology and
Metals and Ceramics divisions, is sponsored by the U.S. Nuclear
Regulatory Commission (NRC).
Using large-scale testing procedures, the HSST program demonstrated
that the thick steel walls of new reactor pressure vessels possess
enough ductility--the ability to accommodate stresses caused by
pressurization, heating, and cooling--to prevent vessel failure. In
the late 1960s, the program also initiated a fracture toughness
data base for reactor vessel materials. This information, detailing
the ability of materials to resist cracking, is essential to all
fracture-margin assessments for reactor pressure vessels.
During manufacture of steel plates for vessel walls, flaws may
develop and spread into cracks as the walls become brittle.
"Thermal shock" may occur when the heated walls of a vessel are
suddenly subjected to cold water as a result of loss of pressure
and the operation of safety injection systems to cool the nuclear
fuel. In the late 1970s, ORNL researchers led by Dick Cheverton
discovered that thermal shock, combined with repressurization
(during emergency cooling, for example), could drive a crack
through the vessel wall under postulated conditions.
More recently, Laboratory researchers have turned their attention
to the problem of vessel aging. Over many years, as the vessel
interior is bombarded by neutrons from nuclear reactions in the
fuel, the walls tend to lose their ductility. Such
radiation-induced embrittlement can occur in older
pressurized-water reactors and, to a lesser extent, in
For older nuclear power plants, radiation-induced embrittlement is
an issue that must be addressed if plant operating licenses are to
be renewed. The HSST program provides the NRC with guidance on this
issue by estimating the probability that a reactor vessel will fail
over a specific operating time. The embrittlement rate in each
reactor vessel is monitored, and operating limits are imposed by
NRC regulations and regulatory guides that the Laboratory has
helped to establish.
Today, the HSST program continues to investigate the properties of
materials for pressure vessels to develop and evaluate ways to
predict fracture, fatigue, and creep. It also conducts vessel and
material tests to assess the validity of the predictions, which
help to set and update national codes, standards, and regulations.
HSST researchers intend to carry on the tradition of the past 25
years by providing the NRC with information that will help the
agency respond to the new challenges of reactor safety.
THE ECCS HEARINGS
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
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!"
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."
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.
ENVIRONMENTAL IMPACT ASSESSMENTS
In his State of the Laboratory address for 1971, Director Alvin
Weinberg suggested that "the most important event of the year in
nuclear energy was legal, not scientific or technical."
Weinberg was referring to a July 1971 decision by the U.S. Court of
Appeals for the District of Columbia requiring the Atomic Energy
Commission (AEC) to fully examine the environmental impacts of
nuclear power plants. The judge invoked the National Environmental
Policy Act as the basis for his decision.
Weinberg summarized the intent of the decision, which would have
far-reaching implications for the Laboratory.
The Commission is now required to examine thermal as well as
radiological effects of reactors; it must consider alternatives to
the use of nuclear power plants; it must evaluate all of these
things independently and not depend on local regulations and
standards; and it must summarize its findings in a cost-benefit
analysis that weighs such imponderable costs as the destruction of
a stand of timber against the economic benefit of lower-cost
energy. What makes the whole matter so critical is that such
environmental impact statements have now become so essential a part
of the reactor licensing procedure. There is at stake about 100
million kilowatts of nuclear electricity, almost 25 percent of the
total U.S. central station load.
Weinberg reported that the AEC sought help from three of its
laboratories--Battelle Northwest, Argonne, and Oak Ridge. "The
job," he said, "is formidable: 91 environmental impact statements
to be completed by July of 1972 or as quickly thereafter as
possible. Of these, the Laboratory already is working with the AEC
Washington staff on 13, with another dozen or so expected. This
task has been given the highest priority in the Commission and, in
consequence, at the Laboratory."
A full-time team of 75 people led by Ed Struxness was assembled
from 14 Laboratory divisions. Tom Row was selected as the deputy
leader. Bill Fulkerson took over leadership of this effort in
1974. The team was helped by many part-time reviewers and
consultants from almost every part of the Laboratory. Altogether
about 130 members of the scientific staff and 50 support personnel
were involved in preparation of environmental impact statements in
the early 1970s.
The impact statements, predicted Weinberg, "undoubtedly will create
demands for more knowledge in several areas besides
ecology--cooling tower technology, micrometeorology, possibly
regional modeling, and the like. I would venture to suggest,
therefore, that what may seem at the moment to be an awkward
diversion from our main interests will, in fact, create new and
more valid interests for many of the divisions at ORNL."
Weinberg's prediction proved correct. The Laboratory became a
national leader in environmental impact assessments. Since the late
1970s, the Laboratory has examined socioeconomic as well as
environmental impacts of nuclear power plants (fission and magnetic
fusion) and of non-nuclear energy projects such as geothermal,
solar, fossil, synthetic-fuel, biomass conversion, and hydropower
projects. Other assessment projects included disposal of chemical
weapons at U.S. Army sites, disposal of low-level radioactive
waste, renewal of nuclear power plant licenses, remediation of
contaminated sites, Air Force low-level flying operations, and
research activities in the pristine environment of Antarctica.
Today, as many as 100 persons at the Laboratory work on
environmental impact statements and assessments, including risk
assessments. For more than 20 years, the Laboratory has been a
leader not only in developing energy technologies but also in
assessing their benefits and risks to society.
FLOYD CULLER: DIRECTED WITH HIS BOOTS ON
Acting Laboratory Director Floyd Culler came to Oak Ridge in 1943
from Johns Hopkins University. He worked at the Y-12 Plant during
the war and joined the Laboratory in 1947 as design engineer for
nuclear-fuel recycling plants. Rising through the ranks, he became
section chief and later director of the Chemical Technology
Culler managed the Laboratory's development of solvent extraction
and other processes for recovery of uranium, plutonium, and fission
products from spent nuclear fuels. His team established
nuclear-fuel reprocessing techniques used worldwide.
Culler served as the Laboratory's assistant and later associate
director for nuclear technology in 1964 and as its deputy director
from 1970 to 1977. When Alvin Weinberg retired in 1972, Culler was
appointed acting Laboratory director. In 1977, he moved to
California to become president of the prestigious Electric Power
Often described as a "muddy boots type," Culler enjoyed working
directly with craftsmen and with the people of Oak Ridge.
Active in the community, he chaired the Oak Ridge Regional Planning
Commission, which was responsible for the alphabetical naming of
the city's streets and helped govern the community before it was
(keywords: Oak Ridge National Laboratory, history)
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Date Posted: 2/22/94 (ktb)