Tribute to Alvin M. Weinberg

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Former ORNL Director Alvin Weinberg (left) chats with Nobel Laureate Cliff Shull, who performed his prize-winning work at ORNL when Weinberg was Laboratory research director.
Former ORNL Director Alvin Weinberg (left) chats with Nobel Laureate Cliff Shull, who performed his prize-winning work at ORNL when Weinberg was Laboratory research director.

He asked penetrating questions and made tough requests. That's how former Laboratory staff members remembered former ORNL Director Alvin Weinberg at his 80th birthday celebration on April 20, 1995. Bill Fulkerson, former ORNL associate director, called Weinberg "our spiritual leader."

In honor of the occasion, ORNL Director Alvin Trivelpiece announced the inauguration of the annual Alvin M. Weinberg Lecture Series. The first lecture, "On Plutonium" (summarized below), was presented by Wolf Häfele, scientific director of the Research Center at Rossendorf-Dresden, Germany. Several persons recalled that Weinberg used to sit in the front row at ORNL division information meetings and ask the first question after each scientific talk--often a very penetrating question. For a young scientist giving his first information meeting presentation, the experience was frightening but also exciting and stimulating.

Trivelpiece acknowledged that he is not always able to attend information meetings and ask questions. "How did you find the time?" he asked Weinberg. The former ORNL director replied in jest, "We didn't have a DOE in those days."

Sam Beall, director of ORNL's old Reactor Division, recalled Weinberg's requests that led to the development of several new reactors and "criticality parties" when the reactors were started. "Fifty years ago, I was called to his office and asked, `Can we convert the Materials Testing Reactor mock-up to a real reactor?' He wanted something for nothing." The result was ORNL's Low Intensity Test Reactor (LITR), or the "Poor Man's Pile." Experiments at the LITR supplied data that aided the design of both pressurized-water and boiling-water nuclear reactors, the dominant reactor types in commercial nuclear power plants.

Weinberg performs classical music during his 80th birthday celebration. in Oak Ridge.
Weinberg performs classical music during his 80th birthday celebration. in Oak Ridge.

Weinberg then asked the reactor engineers to design a reactor that used fluid fuel instead of solid fuel. It was called "Alvin's 3P reactor" because it required a pot, a pipe, and a pump. The Homogeneous Reactor Experiment (HRE), as it was called, went into operation in 1950. At the criticality party, Weinberg pulled a bottle with a black label from his briefcase. Beall recalled that Alvin told him, "Sam, when piles go critical in Chicago, we celebrate with wine. When piles go critical in Tennessee, we celebrate with Jack Daniel's."

The HRE had a 105-day run and then was closed despite Weinberg's attempts to sell the merits of the reactor to powerful people in Washington. In fact, Weinberg even invited Senator Jack Kennedy and Jackie Kennedy and Senator Albert Gore, Sr., to visit the reactor. Weinberg recalled the event: "I invited John Swartout to be in charge of Jack Kennedy so I could be in charge of Jackie."

Information gained from operation of the HRE and the Aircraft Reactor Experiment (for 100 hours) led to the design and operation of the Molten Salt Reactor Experiment. It set a record for continuous operation of a reactor, and it was the first reactor to use uranium-233 as fuel.

Ellison Taylor, former director of ORNL's old Chemistry Division, said, "Reactors were the centerpiece of the Laboratory in the Weinberg era." But he called the Molten Salt Reactor Experiment "a chemist's reactor" because the "make-or-break problems" of the reactor required chemical solutions.

Howard Adler, former director of ORNL's Biology Division, recalled that under Weinberg this division was the largest, "five times the size of the next largest division." Its mission, he said, was to understand how radiation interacted with living things and to find ways to help organisms survive radiation damage, such as with bone marrow transplants.

Weinberg offers birthday cake to his wife Gene.
Weinberg offers birthday cake to his wife Gene.

Fulkerson remembered Weinberg as an environmentalist. "He viewed national laboratories as tools for achieving social progress." Fulkerson said that once the nuclear era was under way, Weinberg thought that ensuring sufficient food, clean water, and biological survival were important missions. Thus, in the 1960s Weinberg pursued new missions for the Laboratory, such as using nuclear energy to desalinate seawater and "make the deserts bloom." Philip Hammond was recruited to the Laboratory from Los Alamos to push this mission.

Weinberg then invited David Rose from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology to come to ORNL and provoke discussion of the future of national laboratories. One result was a controversial publication "A Case for a National Environmental Laboratory." U.S. Representative Chet Holifield, chairman of the Joint Congressional Committee on Atomic Energy, opposed the idea. "Holifield," Fulkerson said, "didn't want nuclear labs tainted with the environmental brush."

Under Weinberg's leadership, the first big ecology project in the United States was started in 1970 at ORNL as the National Science Foundation-Research Applied to National Needs Environmental Program. Rose was the first director; when he left, his successor was physicist Jack Gibbons, now President Clinton's science adviser. Concerning this program, Gibbons has said, "We were ahead of our time."

"The exciting activity that Alvin stimulated in the late 1960s and early 1970s transformed the Laboratory," Fulkerson said. "Now, a quarter of a century later, another Alvin--Alvin Trivelpiece--suggested to the Galvin Commission that the new mission for the national labs should be sustainable development in the areas of the three E's--energy, the environment, and the economy."

Häfele, who in 1959-60 was a guest scientist with ORNL's Neutron Physics Division and an assistant to Weinberg ("a highlight of my professional life"), spoke on plutonium as a future resource, a future investment. Some people, he said, are "religiously against plutonium" because of its toxicity and potential for use in weapons. Because 200 tons of scrap plutonium exist in the United States (80 tons) and former Soviet Union, people are looking for ways to deal with it. One proposal is to burn it in reactors; another is to "hide it" by isolating it permanently from the environment.

Häfele sees plutonium as a resource to be guarded and proposes subsurface storage of plutonium. He said it should be kept in this "bank" for later use when nuclear power becomes more acceptable and energy needs necessitate a second nuclear era. Various countries would withdraw the plutonium they own from the bank as they need it for reactor fuel in accordance with international guidelines. Nuclear power will be more acceptable, he says, once waste disposal is addressed by an international group and once people have experienced problems in using alternative nonnuclear energy sources and the adverse environmental and climatic impacts of fossil fuel use.

"Plutonium is neither waste nor fuel," Häfele said. "It is an endowment."

In his remarks at the end of the birthday celebration, Weinberg complimented Häfele on his proposal for a global plutonium regime. He then spoke of the previous day's car bomb explosion at the federal office building in Oklahoma City, which killed or injured hundreds of adults and children. The worst bomb attack ever in the United States, he said, raises "grave questions and concerns for a world that finds existence of plutonium to be threatening. How does the world deal with senseless acts if nuclear bombs come into the possession of people like that? I don't really have an answer."

He noted that a possible solution to the scrap plutonium-238 problem is to blend it with plutonium-240 so that the nuclear material could not be used to make an atomic weapon. But he did not know if enough plutonium-240 exists to fully "denature" plutonium-238.

"Ultimately, the issue is organizational," Weinberg said. "Is the regime of terrorism the bitter fruit of today's technology? Is there no longer order in our society? It has been said that if society has a choice between freedom and order, it will choose order. Is it possible to have both?" More penetrating questions from Alvin.

Weinberg called for the strengthening of the International Atomic Energy Agency and for defensive systems as the number of nuclear weapons for each superpower drops from the thousands to a few hundred.

The main job of the Laboratory director, Weinberg said, is to keep money coming in to support research, not to sit in the front row at scientific meetings and ask questions. He noted that the recent publication of the Clinton administration, Science in the National Interest, proposed that 3% of the national budget be allocated to support research and development. But, he said, this report is not being taken seriously as was Vannevar Bush's report 50 years ago that called for strong government support for science.

Now that he is 80, Weinberg said he looks to the next generation to take over. "The problems they will face will be monumental. They will have large opportunities to deal with problems and bring on the second nuclear era. I hope they will make a better world than we oldtimers were able to produce."

So spoke Weinberg, whom former Tennessee Senator Howard Baker called "the master of the majestic concept" and whom Oak Ridge Associated Universites President Jon Veigel called "a citizen of the world who is our neighbor and friend." Even on his 80th birthday, Weinberg made sure we had some intellectual meat to chew on before we helped him eat his birthday cake.

Confessions of a Nuke: A Book Review

Alvin M. Weinberg, The First Nuclear Era: The Life and Times of a Technological Fixer, American Institute of Physics, New York, 1994, 291 pages.

By Alex Zucker

We at ORNL think of Alvin Weinberg as our first long-time Laboratory director with a vision: to make nuclear power practical, to ensure cheap and clean electrical energy for the immediate and distant future. We saw a Laboratory director who cared, who knew all our names, and who set high standards for us and for himself, and we tried to live up to those standards. It was a matter of pride: we were all working for Alvin.

Weinberg's new book, The First Nuclear Era: The Life and Times of a Technological Fixer, is a personal memoir of his life in the world of nuclear technology. It begins with the first nuclear chain reaction at the University of Chicago and ends with a search for the rebirth of fission reactors as an acceptable energy source.

It soon becomes obvious how much more than a laboratory director Weinberg was. In approximate chronological order, he was a reactor physicist, a pioneer in nuclear energy, a reactor builder, a laboratory director, a lecturer, a writer, a thinker, a policymaker. The astonishing thing is that in all these fields he was near the top, honored, sought after, respected, and listened to. The book, then, describes a life full of accomplishment but also a life that contains its measure of disappointments and, at least during one period, despair.

The book starts with a very personal account of Weinberg's origins, his early education and his youth. By an accident of circumstances he is drawn into the Manhattan project at the University of Chicago, where he has earned a Ph.D. degree in what his adviser called mathematical biophysics. At this point personal history is narrowed to the technical and political domains, and purely personal reactions appear far too seldom. On finishing the book I am left with the thought that there is yet another book in Alvin Weinberg, a book about the private thoughts of a very public person.

After Chicago comes his 26-year career as research director and then director of ORNL. Weinberg had the simple idea that the management function at the Laboratory was "first, to maintain standards, and, second to show that it (management) cares." Hence Weinberg's unbroken record, sitting in the front row at division information meetings, asking penetrating questions, and making comments that could well influence the direction of an entire research program. I recall that, when I gave reports at information meetings, I always felt that I was speaking directly to Weinberg and that I had better have something interesting to say and be prepared to answer difficult questions.

Weinberg used his position at ORNL as a bully pulpit for nuclear energy. He was carried away when in 1964 General Electric "published . . . a catalog listing guaranteed prices of boiling water reactors ranging from 50 to 1000 megawatts." Cheap nuclear power seemed to have arrived, and Weinberg embarked on two quests. One was to ensure mankind unlimited energy for a very long time through development of the breeder reactor, which in large numbers would provide fissionable material far beyond what was then thought to exist in natural uranium deposits. The other was the application of nuclear energy to solve social or political problems--the technological fix. The most ambitious such fix was the agro-industrial complex, which would use giant reactors to supply cheap electricity and desalted seawater to overpopulated and underfed regions of the world and thus ensure peace and plenty to their struggling peoples. Clearly, Weinberg was going for the long ball. Big problems have always tempted him, and in the 1960s he was captured by a nuclear euphoria and became one of nuclear energy's most eloquent exponents.

But the devil is in the details. Fermi saw a problem as early as the Chicago days. In the book, Weinberg quotes him as saying, "It is not clear that the public will accept a source of energy that produces so much radioactivity or that might be subject to diversion of bomb material by terrorists." As in so many other cases, Fermi turns out to be right. Perhaps nuclear energy was developed too rapidly. Because of the pressing need for a nuclear navy, reactors became an article of commerce before engineers could examine in depth such issues as nuclear waste, reactor safety, fuel reprocessing, and the economics of energy production and use. Weinberg points out that the choice of the light-water reactor system was really driven by the naval reactor programs, and that other systems, and there are plenty of them, never had a chance. In their euphoria, reactor entrepreneurs forgot Fermi's warning. "During my years at ORNL," Weinberg says, "I paid too little attention to the waste problem. Designing and building reactors, not nuclear waste, was what turned me on . . . had I to do it over again, it would be to elevate waste disposal to the very top of ORNL's agenda."

A chain oWeinberg and Eugene Wigner stroll up the aisle of Oak Ridge High School after one of Weinberg's State of the Laboratory addresses.
Weinberg and Eugene Wigner stroll up the aisle of Oak Ridge High School after one of Weinberg's State of the Laboratory addresses.

When Weinberg became convinced that reactor safety was an issue of the greatest importance, that loss-of-coolant accidents were not unthinkable, he was punished by the nuclear advocates. In the book Weinberg quotes what, to me, is the most bizarre statement of the whole story. In a conversation about reactor safety, Chet Holifield, then chairman of the Congressional Joint Committee on Atomic Energy, told him, "Alvin, if you are concerned about the safety of reactors, then I think it might be time for you to leave nuclear energy." Soon after, Weinberg was fired from his job as director of ORNL. That was in 1972. In 1979 Three Mile Island fully justified Weinberg's concern, setting in motion events that led to much enhanced safety of U.S. reactors but also leading to cancellation of many reactor sales. No new reactor orders have been placed by U.S. utilities since then.

Did Weinberg acknowledge defeat? Not at all. From his position as director of the Institute for Energy Analysis at Oak Ridge Associated Universities, he redoubled his efforts to make nuclear energy a viable source of power. He initiated among the first government-funded studies of global warming caused by increased atmospheric levels of carbon dioxide from burning fossil fuels to produce electricity. He examined a new class of reactors, the so-called inherently safe reactors, whose safety does not depend on engineered systems but rather on processes based on laws of nature. His intellectual curiosity led him into arms control issues, high-level waste storage, and eventually to the nub of the question: Why are people afraid of nuclear energy? And, why are they so averse to certain very small risks?

There is much to read in this book for those who are interested in the history of ORNL. Buy the book and get the inside scoop on the X-10 pile (Graphite Reactor), the Aircraft Nuclear Propulsion program, the Materials Testing Reactor and its progeny, the thermal breeder, the Homogeneous Reactor Experiment, the Experimental Gas-Cooled Reactor, the Molten Salt Reactor Experiment, and other projects nuclear.

On the whole, Weinberg thinks nuclear energy has done reasonably well, progressing in "50 years . . . from a miraculous dream into a major source of electric energy." But he recognizes that there is a pause in its further development and that not much is likely to happen in the next several years. Weinberg is ever the optimist, especially when it comes to the ability of mankind to rise to the occasion. "To deny rebirth of nuclear energy is to deny human ingenuity and aspiration. This I cannot do. During my life I have witnessed extraordinary feats of human ingenuity. I believe that this struggling ingenuity will be equal to the task of creating the Second Nuclear Era." Whenever it comes, Weinberg's labors will be there to light the way.

Alex Zucker, now retired, was acting director of ORNL in 1988 and ORNL associate director for the Physical Sciences and later for the Reactor and Engineering Technologies for many years. He has taught courses at Roane State Community College. He is writing a book about scientific literacy.

A Glimpse at Weinberg's Career

  • Born in Chicago in 1915
  • Received Ph.D. degree from the University of Chicago in mathematical biophysics in 1939
  • Worked at the Metallurgical Laboratory at the University of Chicago in 1942
  • Named director of ORNL's Physics Division in 1946
  • Appointed research director at ORNL in 1948
  • Named director of ORNL in 1955
  • Weinberg and Nobel Laureate Eugene Wigner's classic The Physical Theory of Neutron Chain Reactors is published in 1958
  • Elected president of the American Nuclear Society in 1959
  • Began service on President's Science Advisory Committee in 1960
  • Appointed vice president in the Union Carbide Corporation's Nuclear Division in 1965
  • Retired from ORNL in 1973 after 18 years as director
  • Named director of the U.S. Office of Energy Research and Development in Washington, D.C. in 1974
  • Founded and became director of Institute for Energy Analysis at Oak Ridge Associated Universities (ORAU) in 1975
  • Retired from ORAU and became ORAU distinguished fellow in 1985
  • Named chairman of International Friendship Bell Committee in 1992

Weinberg is author or coauthor of these books: The Physical Theory of Neutron Chain Reactors, Reflections on Big Science, The Second Nuclear Era: A New Start for Nuclear Power, Continuing the Nuclear Dialogue, Strategic Defenses and Arms Control, Stability and Strategic Defenses, Nuclear Reactions: Science and Trans-Science, and The First Nuclear Era: The Life and Times of a Technological Fixer.

Among the honors he received were the Atomic Energy Commission's E. O. Lawrence Memorial Award and its highest award, The Enrico Fermi Prize.

Famous Weinberg phrases: Big science, little science, first nuclear era, second nuclear era, trans-science, Faustian bargain, technological fix, burning the rocks and burning the seas.