orea and Kruschev. I Like Ike, but Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. The Red Scare and ``Blue Suede Shoes.'' Peter Pan and the Kinsey Report. June Clever and Joseph McCarthy. Edsel and Sputnik. Hula hoops and H-bombs.
After the feverish pitch of the Manhattan Project subsided and the AEC resolved the postwar, Hamlet-like question it had raised for ORNL--``to be or not to be''--the Laboratory settled in for the scientific long haul. By the time President Dwight D. Eisenhower made his historic ``Atoms for Peace'' speech to the United Nations in 1954, work was already beginning on America's first commercial nuclear plant (the first step toward electricity ``too cheap to meter''), and ORNL had long since hitched its scientific wagon to a constellation of nuclear stars: Fission for propulsion and electricity. Radioactive and stable isotopes for university science, industrial applications, and cancer research and treatment. New ways to separate and purify the exotic chemicals of the atomic age. The brave new physical and chemical worlds discovered during work on the bomb.
The fifties were the glory days of fission reactor development at ORNL. More nuclear reactors were built or designed at the Laboratory during this decade than in all other decades combined: The Low Intensity Test Reactor. The Homogeneous Reactor (1 and 2). The Bulk Shielding Reactor. The Aircraft Reactor Experiment. The Tower Shielding Reactor. The Molten Salt Reactor. The Oak Ridge Research Reactor. The Geneva Conference reactor. The Package Power Reactor. The Experimental Gas-Cooled Reactor.
At this distance, their names sound sterile, academic, but at the time they were a litany of hope and promise, of people's life work, and--in some cases--of dreams deferred or dashed outright.
Ironically, despite the lofty ideals behind the Atoms for Peace motto, it was the Cold War and the U.S. military that subsidized much of ORNL's reactor development during the 1950s. In the race to harness controlled fission, the Navy got out of the gate first, thanks largely to Captain Hyman Rickover, who spent a year learning reactor technology in Oak Ridge after World War II and went on to develop a fleet of nuclear-powered submarines and surface ships. But the Air Force made a determined bid to build its own nuclear fleet, of long-range bombers. And while the plane itself never got off the ground, it did launch three experimental ORNL reactors and a host of related work. It also subsidized the Laboratory's first particle accelerators, which long outlasted the airplane project, and its first computers, which were used for complex radiation and shielding calculations. ORNL's first computer was also the South's first computer; the Lab's second, a vacuum-tube machine called ORACLE, was for a time the world's finest computer--possessing a fraction of the speed and power of today's desktop machines.
Other, earthbound reactor programs fared better than the ill-fated plane.
For the U.S. Army, ORNL designed a transportable reactor to generate heat and electricity for remote military bases. Its modular fuel core, designed for easy replacement every two years, was smaller than a garbage can but generated as much power as 54,000 barrels of diesel fuel. The first of the ``package'' reactors, built in the mid-1950s by American Locomotive Co., was installed at Fort Belvoir, Va., to train operators; eventually a handful of the compact, modular units were built and flown to bases in such out-of-the-way places as Greenland, the Panama Canal Zone, and Antarctica.
In terms of public prominence and column inches, at least, the ORNL reactor with the greatest impact in the 1950s was a small ``swimming-pool'' reactor--one with a square, open tank of cooling water--shipped to Geneva, Switzerland, in 1955 for the first United Nations Conference on Peaceful Uses of the Atom. A sort of international science fair marked by Cold War competitive zeal, the conference was the first global showcase for the peacetime possibilities of nuclear energy. Although the Geneva reactor was small--a one-thirtieth scale model of the Materials Testing Reactor ORNL had hoped to build in the late 1940s--it stole the Geneva spotlight. After the conference, the nomadic reactor was sold and shipped to a research institute in Switzerland.
Two ORNL reactor programs in the 1950s were ambitious (but ultimately unsuccessful) bids to redirect the course of civilian nuclear power. In 1952 the Lab built a small (1-megawatt) ``homogeneous'' reactor, one in which a liquid uranium solution was used both as fuel and as the source of steam to spin a generator's turbine. Besides offering potentially higher generating efficiencies than solid-fuel designs, it offered and important operation advantage: Its fuel solution could be routed continuously through a processing plant for purification and replenishment so the reactor would not require shutdowns for refueling. In 1957 ORNL built a larger homogeneous reactor, one modified to irradiate thorium and ``breed'' uranium while it generated power. But by then work on a solid-fuel breeder was well under way, and the AEC soon abandoned the liquid-fuel alternative.
Undeterred, ORNL was soon exploring another new design, one that had recently been built in Britain: a reactor whose uranium-oxide fuel was cooled by a gas (helium) rather than a liquid. The AEC began building a large test reactor in Oak Ridge in 1959, but the project was plagued by delays, cost overruns, and dwindling technical relevance. The project was finally killed by the AEC in 1964, but not before its glistening silver containment dome had been erected: a monument to--or perhaps a forewarning of--the uncertainties looming over nuclear R&D and nuclear power.
Ultimately, ORNL's greatest impact on nuclear power during the 1950s came not from reactor design but reactor training: In 1950, at the AEC's request, the Laboratory established the Oak Ridge School of Reactor Technology to share nuclear know-how with visiting personnel from universities, industry, and the military. Over the next decade and a half, the school's one-year curriculum would train nearly 1,000 graduates, including many of the pioneers of commercial nuclear power.
In the late fifties, a new nuclear technology emerged as the hope for the energy future: thermonuclear fusion, the reaction that powers both the hydrogen bomb and the stars. Fueled by a hydrogen isotope found in ordinary water, fusion promised clean energy until the oceans ran dry. Fusion quickly became the holy grail of boundless energy.
By 1958, when the UN held its second conference on peaceful uses of the atom, fusion was taking the spotlight from fission. In a rush of optimism that would prove many decades premature, the AEC urged the Laboratory to demonstrate controlled fusion in time for the conference. Gamely, the Lab sent two fusion devices, which featured an actual fuel plasma consisting of magnetically confined ions--charged atoms--of the hydrogen isotope deuterium. In the years and decades to come, fusion, like fission, would prove far more challenging than at first glance.
In the end, perhaps the most successful product of ORNL's 1950s reactor-building spree was the most purely science-oriented one: the Oak Ridge Research Reactor, a 20-megawatt (later boosted to 30) ``swimming-pool'' reactor offering the nation's second-highest neutron flux. (The materials reactor ORNL had lost to Idaho offered higher neutron flux but far less experimental flexibility.) Completed in 1958, the reactor served for the next 30 years as a workhorse for studying the effects of radiation, probing the structure of materials, and turning out a steady supply of isotopes.
Throughout the fifties, ORNL built strongly on its wartime foundation of synthesizing and extracting plutonium. Spent fuel and other wastes from the mammoth plutonium-production reactors at Hanford contained valuable quantities of uranium and plutonium, and in the early years of the decade, ORNL refined a solvent extraction process called REDOX to mine the wastes for these precious commodities. The Lab devised a similar process to recover uranium from used fuel plates at the Materials Testing Reactor in Idaho and helped develop two other widely used extraction processes, PUREX (for plutonium and uranium extraction at the AEC's Savannah River and Hanford sites) and THOREX (for extracting thorium and the weapons isotope uranium-233). This work became the foundation for nuclear-fuel processing around the world.
By mid-decade, when nuclear energy ``too cheap to meter'' promised to create an insatiable hunger for fuel, ORNL was planning a massive plant to reprocess the nation's supply of spent reactor fuel and extract the uranium, thorium, and plutonium. The early nuclear-age recycling plant never got built; the AEC figured it would compete unfairly with similar, commercial facilities--facilities that likewise fell by the nuclear wayside.
In sharp contrast to the fluctuating fortunes of reactor development, ORNL's isotopes program grew steadily throughout the 1950s. The Graphite Reactor steadily expanded its menu of isotopes, and a cluster of radiochemical processing facilities sprang up to extract the new elements from the irradiated materials that spawned them. ORNL was the western world's only source of californium-252, a powerful isotope used widely in cancer therapy. In an early example of what would, three decades later, be called technology transfer, Abbott Laboratories built a radiopharmaceutical plant in Oak Ridge to be near its isotope source.
Within ORNL itself, isotopes found eager customers in the growing ranks of Laboratory biologists, who used radioactive tracers, or ``tags,'' to study the chemistry of life. One key finding, in 1956, was the functioning of messenger RNA within the nuclei of cells. Although less famous than its cousin DNA, messenger RNA is no less important: It ``reads'' DNA's genetic code and turns itself into a template for mass-producing proteins, in something of the way a photographic negative allows many duplicate pictures to be printed.
Other pioneering biological work focused on the health effects of radiation. Because of the genetic and structural similarities between mice and humans, ORNL scientists demonstrated that it was possible to use experiments with mice to estimate the effects of radiation doses on humans. Based in ORNL's ``Mouse House''--a facility inhabited by hundreds of thousands of carefully bred mice--this work was instrumental in establishing radiation dose limits for workers worldwide. And in a pioneering twist on one symptom of radiation sickness, ORNL biologists used high radiation doses to suppress the immune systems of mice, then performed the world's first successful transplants of bone marrow.
It's a Bird, It's a Plane, It's a...Reactor?!
Date posted 5/10/94 (cel)