he Brady Bunch and the Watergate Five. Presidential privilege, pardon, and peanuts. Earth Day and the EPA. Peace with honor, Big Mac with fries. Bell bottoms and halter tops. Walking on Earth Shoes. Running on empty.
Within the realm of science and energy, the defining events of the 1970s were oil shortages: first in 1973, then again in 1977. Waiting in long lines for short supplies, many Americans realized for the first time how central a role energy plays in the good life ... and how vulnerable some forms of energy are to political vagaries. Thus began, after the Mideast oil embargo of 1973-74, a rush to diversify America's energy base and to reduce U.S. dependence on imported oil.
Even before the embargo, some steps toward diversification had already been taken. In 1970, Congress told the AEC to broaden its nuclear horizons to include other energy sources. In 1974, the AEC split into two agencies: the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, to oversee nuclear power, and the Energy Research and Development Administration, to cultivate new energy sources and technologies. Finally, in 1977, a bitter winter and a heating-oil shortage moved President Jimmy Carter to proclaim energy crises ``the moral equivalent of war'' and to retool ERDA into the cabinet-level Department of Energy.
ORNL, for its part, had already foreseen the future of energy. In a series of planning sessions in the early '70s, Laboratory staff identified a number of looming issues and opportunities, including recycling, conservation, synthetic fuels, and solar power.
The first Earth Day, held in April 1970, catapulted environmentalism from society's fringes to its mainstream. If the 1961 book Silent Spring represented the seed-sowing of the environmental movement, Earth Day symbolized the first big harvest, followed swiftly by broad environmental laws.
Fittingly, or ironically--perhaps both--ORNL galloped into the environmental field on the broad back of nuclear power. In 1971 a federal court issued a decision that would reshape, literally, nuclear power: In resolving a lawsuit opposing construction of the Calvert Cliffs nuclear plant in Maryland, the court ordered the AEC to detail the environmental impacts of every nuclear power plant in operation, under construction, or on the drawing board. Charged with completing 92 environmental impact statements by 1972, the AEC looked to Oak Ridge for help.
One key issue was how aquatic life would be affected by hot water discharged from nuclear plants into the nearby rivers. To find the answer, ORNL built an aquatic ecology lab, where fish were subjected to a range of water temperatures. After studies showed that high temperatures lowered the survival rates of fish and their eggs, the government imposed strict temperature limits on nuclear plant discharges. As a result, Calvert Cliffs and dozens of other plants installed the massive cooling towers whose shape is visually synonymous with nuclear power.
Technically, too, the 1970s were a challenging decade for nuclear power. In the interests of safety, ORNL found itself complicating life for the very technology it had helped create. In the early 1970s, ORNL wrote nearly 100 interim safety standards for the AEC, addressing such needs as earthquake protection, rugged fuel-shipping casks, and emergency cooling systems.
Emergency cooling proved the hottest issue. In 1972 the AEC held a series of public hearings on the topic. Nuclear-power opponents vigorously challenged nuclear engineers--an unnerving new experience for some scientists. The hearings produced reams of testimony--and stiffer safety criteria.
ORNL Director Alvin Weinberg summed up the dilemma this way: ``Nuclear people have made a Faustian contract with society,'' he wrote. ``We offer ... [a] miraculous, inexhaustible energy source; but this energy source at the same time is tainted with potential side effects that if uncontrolled, could spell disaster.''
The prescience of Weinberg's words was underscored in 1979, when a reactor at the Three Mile Island nuclear plant overheated and badly damaged its core. ORNL played a key role in analyzing the accident and assessing core damage; Laboratory scientists also helped prevent the release of radioactively contaminated gases and devised ways to decontaminate thousands of gallons of emergency coolant. Although little contamination escaped from the plant--testimony to the multiple layers of safety that ORNL's earlier work had helped establish--the highly publicized accident reinforced public fears about nuclear power.
Finally, in a blow to the future of nuclear power (and ORNL nuclear programs), the Clinch River Breeder Reactor ground to a halt at the end of the decade. The project--a joint venture of DOE, the Tennessee Valley Authority, and the nuclear industry--was plagued by spiraling costs, slow progress, and concerns over terrorist diversion of the plutonium it would breed.
Conservation, meanwhile, thrived on the decade's energy austerity. A barrel saved is a barrel, well, saved--in this case, from importation. Recognizing the major role that heating and cooling buildings plays in energy consumption--one-fourth of the U.S. total--ORNL led the development of insulation standards that were later adopted by federal agencies, mobilehome makers, and trade associations. ORNL studies also guided utility-sponsored efforts to retrofit existing homes with better insulation, storm windows, and heat pumps.
On the home front, ORNL studied the energy consumption of refrigerators, furnaces, water heaters, ovens, and heat pumps. The program contributed to efficiency standards and improved appliances, including heat-pump water heaters and better refrigerators. Within a decade, most U.S. homes would have at least on appliance made more efficient by the Lab's conservation research.
The U.S. contains nearly half the world's coal. By 1975, ERDA had decided to tap this abundant resource. The goal: a million barrels of synthetic oil per day by 1985.
ORNL undertook fundamental studies of the structure, properties, and chemistry of coal, one of nature's most complex and byzantine minerals. Researchers began developing alloys and ceramics equal to the heat and corrosion expected in synfuel plants; they also designed high-efficiency furnaces, coal-processing techniques, and waste treatments to help coal come clean.
And, in the tradition of earlier research on radiation's health effects, ORNL launched studies of the chemistry and physics of coal liquids, their biological effects, and possible harm to the environment. At the Mouse House, the mutagenic (gene-changing) properties of synfuels proved worrisome.
As if to confirm the adage that ``a rising tide lifts all boats,'' even fusion--a distant prospect at best--benefited from the decade's energy urgency. After the 1960s' slow fusion progress, the '70s saw a resurgence of hope. Soviet scientists had recently managed to confine fusion's elusive plasma in a device called a tokamak. By 1971, ORNL's tokamak, ORMAK, began its own series of plasma experiments. After two years of encouraging results, ORMAK was enlarged and renamed ORMAK II; Weinberg hoped it would lead, in turn, to ORMAK III, ``which might be the fusion equivalent of the 1942 [fission] experiment at Stagg Field.''
ORMAK III was never built, but other devices were built for further plasma studies. So were systems to fuel them (by shooting frozen hydrogen pellets into the test chambers) and to heat their plasmas (by zapping them with microwaves and beams of hydrogen particles). With near-symbolic aptness, fission pioneer Alvin Weinberg was succeeded in 1974 by Herman Postma, a fusion physicist who would head the Laboratory for the next 14 years.
In 1977, with an eye to future fusion reactors, ORNL began building a facility to test large, superconducting electromagnets. The six test magnets, measuring 20 feet high, would be nearly half the size of those that might someday be needed for power-producing reactors. In a program marked by strong international cooperation, three magnets would be built by U.S. manufacturers, three by foreign partners--Japan, Switzerland, and the European Community. Once sealed in a vacuum tank, the magnets would be supercooled by liquid helium; their molecules would become virtually motionless, making the magnets free of efficiency-robbing electrical resistance. The facility would prove to be one of ORNL's most ambitious and successful fusion programs.
While the Lab, like the nation, focused strongly on energy during the 1970s, ORNL's basic research scientists were reaping the benefits of sophisticated facilities acquired over the past decade. Beginning in the early 1960s, the High Flux Isotope Reactor established Oak Ridge as a world leader in isotope production and neutron research. Two powerful physics facilities completed in the 1960s--the Oak Ridge Isochronous Cyclotron (ORIC) and the Oak Ridge Electron Linear Accelerator (ORELA)--allowed new research into heavy elements and ions. A university consortium linked an on-line isotope separator to ORIC's beams, yielding new radioisotopes for medical and industrial use, heavy nuclei such as those in stars, and other exotic nuclear phenomena.
In ORELA, electrons were fired through a 75-foot tube at a water-cooled tantalum target, where the collision produced neutron bursts 10 times as intense as those from any other linear accelerator. (In 1990, scientists would use ORELA to confirm the existence of separate positive and negative electrical charges--quarks--within the neutron.) In 1975, work began on a still more powerful accelerator, one that would become a world center for heavy-ion research in the 1980s. And, building on the previous decade's insights into crystal structure, ORNL physicists became adept at rearranging the surface and near-surface atoms in materials--a research feat that would lead to high-efficiency solar cells, diamond-hard optical coatings, and longer-lasting artificial joints.
Although it was the 1960s that brought radical changes to the nation, it was the 1970s--the nuclear-bashing, tree-hugging, energy-starved '70s--that transformed ORNL from an atomic laboratory into a complex R&D center, one embracing an array of interrelated energy, environmental, and scientific challenges.
Life on Ice
Date posted 5/10/94 (cel)