oud music and Silent Spring. Civil rights and civil defense, fallout and sit-ins. ``Strangers in the Night'' and Dr. Strangelove. Free love and costly lessons. Camelot and Cambodia. ``Blue Christmas'' and Agent Orange. The Great Society and One Small Step. ``I Have a Dream'' but the dream becomes nightmare: John Kennedy and Lee Harvey Oswald, Martin Luther King and James Earl Ray, Robert Kennedy and Sirhan Sirhan.
In hindsight, at least, it is not surprising that the 1960s, which toppled many an ivory tower should jostle the nuclear foundations of ORNL.
In the tradition of the 1950s' Atoms for Peace initiative, the early '60s saw the rise of an ambitious new ORNL idea about the place of nuclear power in the world. That place was defined by sand and sea, where ocean met desert: Mammoth nuclear-powered desalination plants could coax fresh water from one, food from the other, figured the Laboratory, with electricity thrown in for good measure. The goal, according to ORNL director Alvin Weinberg, was nothing short of ``making the desert bloom with nuclear energy.''
The idea won the backing of John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson. Nuplexes, as the nuclear-powered desalination complexes were dubbed by the media, were planned for Israel, India, Puerto Rico, Mexico, and the Soviet Union. By late in the decade, though, nuclear power was facing tough times; construction costs were up, public confidence down, and Water for Peace quickly dried up.
Like the nuplex, the Laboratory's molten-salt reactor program faced both boom and bust times. The molten-salt reactor was an electricity-oriented version of the design tested for the Air Force's ill-fated nuclear plane, with the added benefit of breeding fuel for other reactors as it produced power. That feature looked essential, since scores of reactors were now being bought and the world's known reserves of uranium seemed quite limited. A small molten-salt reactor operated successfully at ORNL in 1966, and a larger one from 1968 to 1969, but by this time the AEC was leaning heavily toward a solid-fuel breeder, cooled by liquid sodium metal. For the solid-fuel breeder, designed by Argonne National Lab, ORNL studied coolant flow and temperatures and evaluated materials for the reactor's heat exchangers and steam generators.
Beginning in the late '50s, ORNL began conducting R&D on high-temperature gas-cooled reactors. This work, which continues today with ORNL as the lead laboratory, has included development and testing of the reactor's graphite core structure and ceramic-coated particle fuel, the key components that determine the reactor's exceptional safety and high fuel efficiency. The program, which has also included development of technology for components such as prestressed concrete pressure vessels, has long been characterized by close cooperation with industry, utilities, and other nations, including Japan, Germany, and other European countries.
As the ranks of reactors grew, so grew public worries about them, and nuclear safety became a fast-growing research field at ORNL. One program, begun in the 1940s, came into its own during this period: A group of researchers gathered and analyzed extensive data about nuclear reactors and their operation, logging and sharing information about problems with the new power source. Their journal, Nuclear Safety, is still the preeminent source in its field. At a more nuts-and-bolts level, engineers and metallurgists began testing the limits of reactor pressure vessels--the mammoth stainless-steel crucibles that contained the nuclear fire of commercial reactors--subjecting them to brutal extremes of heat, pressure, and cold to test their, well, metal.
Perhaps nuclear energy's brightest spots at ORNL in the 1960s were two reactors, one big and one small: the High Flux Isotope Rector and the Health Physics Research Reactor. The Health Physics Research Reactor, completed in 1962, had a core about the size and shape of a kitchen Crockpot. First hoisted up a 1,500-foot tower in Nevada, like a higher-flying version of ORNL's Tower Shielding reactor, it came the following year to Oak Ridge. Once settled here, it spent the next quarter century yielding radiation-exposure data that proved instrumental in refining occupational dose limits, designing dosimeters for nuclear workers, and devising shields for power plants and space craft.
At the other end of the spectrum was the High Flux Isotope Reactor, completed in 1965. It was HFIR (``HI-fur'') that made up, finally and spectacularly, for ORNL's loss of the Materials Testing Reactor to Idaho a decade and a half earlier. With world's most intense neutron flow (flux), HFIR quickly gained a reputation both as a powerful research tool and as a superb production plant for exotic isotopes such as berkelium, californium, einsteinium, and fermium. Besides shedding pure, academic light on nuclear reactors, these isotopes earned their keep in the pragmatic world: Some were employed to seek oil and minerals; others to seek cancer, and still others to destroy it--in tumor-killing needles, for example, made of the potent neutron source californium-252. For materials researchers, HFIR's neutron beams represented a major step beyond the Graphite Reactor, where the field of neutron research began. Coupled with sophisticated new detectors and other instruments developed by the Lab to measure how they were scattered by materials, HFIR's intense neutron beams revealed previously unknown (and otherwise unknowable) details about the structure and properties of plastics, metals, ceramics, magnetic materials, and components of living cells.
With the Iron Curtain dividing Berlin, nuclear missiles steaming toward Cuba, and Nikita Kruschev pounding his shoe at the United Nations, temperatures in the Cold War reached record lows during the early '60s. In 1964, as American adults dug backyard bomb shelters and schoolchildren dove beneath desks, ORNL began a serious study of civil defense, reasoning that the less vulnerable Americans were to nuclear attack, the less likely attack would be. Drawing on the Lab's expertise in shielding and radiation detection, the program evaluated protective measures such as civilian evacuation plans, underground networks of tunnels, and the effects of fallout on food crops and other vegetation--ecological work that would later bear fruit, so to speak, in the broader environmental programs of the '70s and beyond.
The 1961 publication of Rachel Carson's book Silent Spring signalled the beginnings of a new public awareness of the environment ... and the impact of human development on it. Concerns about chemical pollution gradually spawned new biochemical research, which built on the Lab's earlier studies of radiation effects.
Researchers focused increasingly on the cell nucleus--specifically, the genetic material that appeared most crucial to life and most vulnerable to damage. Using high-speed centrifuges first developed to enrich uranium for the Manhattan Project, ORNL biologists separated large-scale quantities of messenger RNA, whose protein-building function the Lab had deduced in 1956. The centrifuges were also adapted to separate other materials including blood, urine, and plasma from leukemia victims (leading to the Lab's discovery of virus-like particles within the leukemia plasma), and vaccines, which were purified in commercial versions of the research centrifuges. In an extension of the radiation-effects work begun years earlier, the Lab's biologists experimented with mice to investigate the health effects of chemicals such as pesticides, gasoline fumes, drugs, and tobacco.
By 1965, the growing international reputation of the Biology Division led to the creation of a graduate program in biomedical science at Oak Ridge, a joint venture of ORNL and the nearby University of Tennessee. Over the next three decades, this program would serve as a graduate and postgraduate training ground for hundreds of the nation's most promising biomedical researchers.
One of the most important findings to emerge from ORNL in the 1960s was almost accidental. To explore the fundamental physics of radiation damage--a problem dating back to the Lab's Manhattan Project days--two scientists laboriously programmed an early IBM computer to simulate the billiard-ball physics of charged atoms careening into crystalline metals. One day the computer kept running and wouldn't stop: A particle had entered a crystal and just kept going. The reason, they deduced, was that the particle had entered a tunnel, or channel, within the crystal's orderly stack of atoms. This insight paved the way, eventually, for precisely controlled implantation of electrically active impurities within crystals--the basis for the semiconductor chips that created the eletronics revolution.
In the end, despite growth progress in fields such as physics and biology, ORNL finished the 1960s on a gloomy note, one that bore more than a passing resemblance to the postwar letdown of the late forties: The AEC cut the Oak Ridge breeder-reactor program by two-thirds and killed plans for a powerful new particle accelerator; over the next five years, the Lab's staff plummeted by 30 percent, from 5,500 to 3,800. Once again a changing world would require changes at ORNL. ``Our vast scientific apparatus is deployed against scientific problems,'' lamented director Weinberg at one point, ``yet what bedevils us are strongly social problems.''
Still, given the buffeting other institutions weathered in the '60s, ORNL fared remarkably well. Camelot and the ivory tower may have fallen and the nuclear dome been shaken, but, deep down, ORNL's scientific foundations held firm.
Shooting for the Moon
Date posted 5/10/94 (cel)