Nuclear History


The legacy of Experimental Breeder Reactor-I

January 31, 2023, 9:30AMNuclear NewsJeremy Hampshire
On December 20, 1951, EBR-I became the first power plant to produce usable electricity through atomic fission. It powered four 200-watt light bulbs and eventually generated enough electricity to light the entire facility. (Photo: DOE)

"At 1:23 p.m. load dissipaters from the generator were connected—electricity flows from atomic energy.” These were the words Walter Zinn wrote in the log after the first four light bulbs were illuminated by nuclear energy. The year was 1951, and the EBR-­I was about to show the world what nuclear energy had to offer.

Project Rover: The original nuclear-powered rocket program

January 12, 2023, 3:02PMNuclear News
A diagram from the January 1963 story depicting a nuclear-powered rocket.

It’s Thursday, meaning it’s time to dig through the Nuclear News archives for another #ThrowbackThursday post. Today’s story goes back 60 years to the January 1963 issue of NN and the cover story “Review of Rover: A nuclear rocket” (p. 9), which reviews the first phase of the nuclear rocket program from Los Alamos National Laboratory.

Some quick digging online uncovers a lot of information about Project Rover, most notably, a short 20-minute film on the LANL YouTube page that reviews the project (Historic 1960s Film Describes Project Rover). The description of the video notes that the project was active from 1955 to 1973 and led to the design of multiple reactors suitable for testing, including Pewee 1, and that NASA has a modern nuclear thermal propulsion project based on the Pewee design. So it seems fitting to revisit Project Rover, given that there is today a lot of renewed interest in nuclear propulsion for space exploration.

The opening line from the January 1963 article seems to ring true today— “Provided the U. S. continues her space efforts, nuclear-powered rockets are inevitable”—although that probably didn’t seem likely to the nuclear community after the country’s attention shifted from the Space Race to the Vietnam War in the early 1970s when Project Rover was canceled. The introduction to the article lays out the argument for a nuclear-powered rocket and provides a review of the program since its launch in 1955.

The full article as it appeared in 1963 is reprinted below, but don’t forget, all ANS members have full access to the Nuclear News archives that has decades of great content about all topics on nuclear science and technology. Happy reading!

After 70 years, J. Robert Oppenheimer’s legacy is being rewritten

December 22, 2022, 9:30AMNuclear News

On December 16 the Department of Energy reversed a decision made nearly 70 years ago by leaders of its predecessor agency, the Atomic Energy Commission, to revoke the security clearance of J. Robert Oppenheimer, the scientist who led the first group of scientists and engineers at what would eventually become Los Alamos National Laboratory as they built the first atomic bomb. While it comes far too late for Oppenheimer, his family, and his colleagues to appreciate, the McCarthy-era campaign to discredit Oppenheimer is now itself officially discredited as “a flawed process that violated the Commission’s own regulations,” in the words of the DOE’s recent announcement.

Oppenheimer’s story has been told many times by biographers and chroniclers of the Manhattan Project; a new feature film is expected in July 2023. Today, we offer a #ThrowbackThursday post that examines the scant coverage of Oppenheimer’s life and work in the pages of Nuclear News to date and draws on other historical content—and the DOE’s recent move to correct the record—to fill a few of the gaps.

CP-1 at 80: The legacy of CP-1—and the scientist who created its neutron activity detector

December 8, 2022, 3:00PMNuclear News
A replica of the chianti bottle signed by many of those present on December 2, 1942, alongside the image of a document signed 20 years later by most of those present (Photo: ANL); a portion of a photo of CP-1 scientists taken on December 2, 1946 (Photo: ANL); January 1993 Nuclear News coverage of CP-1 50th anniversary commemorations during the 1992 ANS Winter Meeting.

Nuclear Newswire is back with the final #ThrowbackThursday post honoring the 80th anniversary of Chicago Pile-1 with offerings from past issues of Nuclear News. On November 17, we took a look at the lead-up to the first controlled nuclear chain reaction and on December 1, the events of December 2, 1942, the day a self-sustaining nuclear fission reaction was created and controlled inside a pile of graphite and uranium assembled on a squash court at the University of Chicago’s Stagg Field.

Nuclear energy remains transformational, 80 years after Chicago Pile-1

December 2, 2022, 6:56AMNuclear NewsJared Sagoff
On December 2, 1942, a group of 49 scientists led by Enrico Fermi created the world’s first controlled, self-sustaining nuclear chain reaction underneath the University of Chicago’s Stagg Field football stadium. Some of those present went on to found Argonne National Laboratory. (Image: Argonne)

At a moment of global crisis, in a windowless squash court below the football stadium bleachers at the University of Chicago, a group of scientists changed the world forever.

On December 2, 1942, a team of researchers led by Enrico Fermi, an Italian refugee, successfully achieved the world’s first human-­created, self-­sustaining nuclear chain reaction. Racing to beat Nazi Germany to the creation of an atomic weapon, the team of researchers, working as part of the Manhattan Project, split uranium atoms contained within a large graphite pile—Chicago Pile-­1, the first nuclear reactor ever built.

CP-1 at 80: The events of December 2, 1942

December 1, 2022, 12:01PMNuclear News

On the eve of the 80th anniversary of the first controlled nuclear chain reaction, Nuclear Newswire is back with the second of three prepared #ThrowbackThursday posts of CP-1 coverage from past issues of Nuclear News.

On November 17, we surveyed the events of 1942 leading up to the construction of Chicago Pile-1, an assemblage of graphite bricks and uranium “pseudospheres” used to achieve and control a self-sustaining fission reaction on December 2, 1942, inside a squash court at the University of Chicago’s Stagg Field.

Today we’ll pick up where we left off, as construction of CP-1 began on November 16, 1942.

The male business of nuclear diplomacy

November 30, 2022, 9:30AMANS Nuclear CafeMaria Rentetzi

Maria Rentetzi

An unusual event during the recent General Conference of the International Atomic Energy Agency distracted the delegations of member states and the press from the Russian war in Ukraine and the fear of the next nuclear disaster. It was a small exhibition, Building the IAEA Headquarters and its Laboratories, at the IAEA headquarters in Vienna, which brought to life the history of the agency’s laboratories through photographs, original letters and documents, explanatory texts, and timetables.

I was invited to participate in a related panel discussion that shed light on the early days of the “world’s first full-fledged laboratory of a truly international character” (in the words of an article about Seibersdorf Laboratory that ran in the January 1962 edition of the IAEA Bulletin) and its role in science diplomacy. There, I spoke of something that had struck me: Women were totally missing from the agency during this early period—making nuclear diplomacy an exclusively male business. To a large extent (as, for example, the recent IAEA missions to Ukraine show) nuclear continues to be a gendered endeavor.

The Aircraft Reactor Experiment at Oak Ridge National Laboratory

November 28, 2022, 9:30AMNuclear NewsJeremy Hampshire
The ARE building at ORNL. (Photo: ORNL)

Experimentation on the world’s first molten salt reactor to potentially power aircraft was already underway in November 1954, being carried out by the U.S. Air Force. Oak Ridge National Laboratory was the scene for the power-dense, high-temperature reactor experiment known as the Aircraft Reactor Experiment (ARE).

JNSI celebrates accomplishments on 10th anniversary

November 28, 2022, 6:59AMANS Nuclear Cafe
JANSI’s chairman William Edward Webster Jr. (left), and president and CEO Hiromi Yamazaki. (Photo: JANSI)

The Japan Nuclear Safety Institute (JANSI) marked its 10th anniversary on November 15 by publishing a letter that highlighted some of the organization’s greatest accomplishments of the past decade. In the letter, William Edward Webster Jr., chairman of the JANSI board of directors, and Hiromi Yamazaki, JANSI president and chief executive officer, expressed their “sincere gratitude to all our members and other stakeholders who have provided support and guidance over the past 10 years.”

CP-1 at 80: Preparing for the first controlled nuclear chain reaction

November 17, 2022, 3:08PMNuclear News
From left, the cover of the December 1962 issue of NN, featuring a model and a medal, both displayed at the 1962 ANS Winter Meeting; a photo of CP-1 during construction, as published in the November 1992 issue of NN; the opening page of a chronological account of CP-1, published in November 1992 to mark the 50th anniversary.

As we approach the 80th anniversary of controlled nuclear fission, Nuclear Newswire is prepared to deliver not one but three #ThrowbackThursday posts of CP-1 highlights unearthed from past issues of Nuclear News.

ANS was founded in 1954, nearly 12 years after the first controlled nuclear chain reaction was achieved on December 2, 1942, inside a pile of graphite and uranium assembled on a squash court at the University of Chicago’s Stagg Field. By 1962, ANS was prepared to “salute the 20th anniversary of the first chain reaction” at their Winter Meeting, displaying a model of Chicago Pile-1 and presenting a specially cast medal to Walter Zinn, a representative of Enrico Fermi’s scientific team. Over the years, ANS has continued to mark significant anniversaries of CP-1 at national meetings and in NN.

November 7: The unofficial day of women in nuclear science?

November 7, 2022, 12:00PMNuclear News
Curie and Meitner (Photos: Wikicommons)

Marie Curie was born in Warsaw in 1867 on this day, 155 years ago. Exactly 11 years later, in 1878, Lise Meitner was born in Vienna. November 7 is also the date when, in 1911, the Swedish Royal Academy of Science decided to award Curie a second Nobel Prize for her 1898 discovery of the elements radium and polonium (coincidentally, her 44th birthday). Curie, who at age 36 had shared the 1903 Nobel Prize in Physics with her husband, Pierre Curie, and Henri Becquerel, later accepted the chemistry prize on December 10, 1911, and remains to this day the only person—man or woman—to receive two Nobel Prizes in two different categories. On this unofficial day of women in nuclear science, let’s take a moment to acknowledge the fundamental discoveries of both Curie and Meitner.

Collectables on tour from an earlier nuclear era

November 2, 2022, 7:04AMANS News
One of two cases that display the impressive belt-buckle collection.

Collecting belt buckles from nearly every nuclear power plant in the U.S. wasn’t the goal for Don Hildebrant when he obtained his first one. Over time, it just turned out that way.

One day years ago, Hildebrant came across a buckle from the nuclear plant where he worked, and it seemed before he knew it, he had collected more than 250 of them—some from plants that were never even completed. “When you look at the collection, you will see an interesting story of where nuclear power has been, and how far it has come,” he said.

The story of the Windscale Piles

October 20, 2022, 11:44AMNuclear NewsJeremy Hampshire

The Windscale Piles, circa 1956. (Photo: DOE)

After the Atomic Energy Act of 1946 ended collaboration between the United States and its World War II allies (specifically, the United Kingdom and Canada), the British government felt it necessary to go down its own path in developing nuclear technology. As a result, the Windscale Piles, in Seascale, Cumberland, England, were planned and built with the aim of producing plutonium for the U.K.’s defense purposes. Windscale Pile No. 1 became operational in 1950, and Windscale Pile No. 2 followed shortly after in 1951.

Early in the design process, the U.K. government came to realize that it did not have an adequately expansive piece of land that could provide a safety barrier in case of an issue at a water-cooled reactor. If the flow of water coolant were to be interrupted, an evacuation and exclusion zone could require a large land area that Britain simply did not have. The government, therefore, decided to construct both reactors with a natural draft air convection core cooling system. A massive cooling chimney at each reactor would soar nearly 400 feet into the air.

The Leak: An account of Brookhaven’s HFBR, its leak, and its closure

October 18, 2022, 12:01PMANS Nuclear Cafe
Then energy secretary Bill Richardson decided to permanently shut down the HFBR in November 1999. (Photo: DOE)

“Why did a tiny leak bring down a hugely successful research reactor 25 years ago?”

That’s how Robert P. Crease, an academic who writes a regular column for Physics World, introduces The Leak: Politics, Activists, and Loss of Trust at Brookhaven National Laboratory, a book he wrote with former interim BNL director Peter D. Bond that was published this month by MIT Press.

“Were this story fiction, its characters, plot twists and ironies would be entertaining,” Crease writes in his October 5 Physics World post about the book. “But because it’s fact, it’s a tragicomedy.”

After six decades of IAEA research, NN revisits one scientist’s take on the agency’s early years

October 13, 2022, 3:05PMNuclear News
G. Robert Keepin, of Los Alamos Scientific Laboratory, author of a three-part feature on the IAEA published in Nuclear News in January, February, and March of 1966; the cover of the January 1966 issue, featuring the IAEA’s first headquarters in the Grand Hotel of Vienna, Austria; and a February 1966 IAEA photo of remote handling of radioisotope standard sources at the Seibersdorf laboratory.

A groundbreaking ceremony held last week at the International Atomic Energy Agency’s laboratories in Seibersdorf, Austria, marked the start of construction on a nuclear applications building that will host three state-of-the-art laboratories: Plant Breeding and Genetics, Terrestrial Environment and Radiochemistry, and Nuclear Science and Instrumentation.It was a significant achievement for the second phase of the Renovation of the Nuclear Applications Laboratories initiative, known as ReNuAL2—and a fitting way to observe the 60th anniversary of the nuclear applications laboratories at Seibersdorf, about an hour’s drive south the IAEA’s headquarters in Vienna. For Nuclear Newswire, it was all the reason we needed to dig into the Nuclear News archives and explore the bygone days of research at the IAEA.

The world watched as Queen Elizabeth II welcomed the U.K.’s Atomic Age

September 19, 2022, 9:11AMANS Nuclear Cafe
Queen Elizabeth II visits Calder Hall for its ceremonial opening in 1956. (Photo: U.K. Nuclear Decommissioning Authority)

As citizens of the United Kingdom and others around the world mourn the death of Queen Elizabeth II, many have reflected on how the world has changed during the seven decades of the queen’s reign—the same decades that saw the rise of civilian nuclear power.

Calder Hall was already under construction at the Sellafield site in West Cumbria when Princess Elizabeth became queen in 1953. Queen Elizabeth traveled to the site in October 1956 and declared, in a televised ceremony, that “It is with pride that I now open Calder Hall, Britain’s first atomic power station.” Watch the fanfare in a historical clip uploaded to YouTube by Sellafield Ltd below.

Cue ominous chords and fade in from black . . .

September 15, 2022, 2:52PMANS News

It’s 1976, and you’re watching TV when a public service announcement from the American Nuclear Society airs, showing the earth being squeezed dry of its last drops of oil by a giant hand as it urges more “safe, reliable, and economical” nuclear power plants. The narrator’s last words, intoned over a fading sunset, still ring true today: “Our world is hungry for energy, and we must move ahead to preserve our future. If we don’t, we could find ourselves in the dark ages of the seventies.”

Defending the nuclear discipline

July 18, 2022, 9:32AMNuclear NewsCraig Piercy

Craig Piercy
cpiercy@ans.org

If you keep tabs on nuclear in popular culture, you know that Netflix recently released a four-part series entitled Meltdown: Three Mile Island. Nominally listed as a “documentary,” the series starts out with a generally accurate chronology of the 1979 event. However, it soon veers off the rails into an uncorroborated conspiracy theory of how the cleanup team risked “wiping out the entire East Coast” in their haste to complete the job on time. Nuclear Newswire has done a fantastic job of unpacking the distortions and outright falsehoods in “Meltdown: Drama disguised as a documentary."

Netflix showrunners were clearly more interested in maximizing the number of eyeballs on their content than in the accuracy of the information they present. But should that make us angry? Netflix is not a news organization; they are a highly algorithm-driven purveyor of video entertainment. Their “recommendation engine” knows what we want, and we happily let them spoon-feed us our next binge watch.

Lake Barrett’s reality-grounded perspective on Netflix’s drama Meltdown: Three Mile Island

June 10, 2022, 7:00AMANS News

In an ANS-sponsored online event held on June 8, independent energy consultant Lake Barrett shared his perspective on the Netflix docudrama series Meltdown: Three Mile Island. Barrett, who was the Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s on-site director and senior federal official for the cleanup of the TMI Unit 2 accident in the early 1980s, countered inaccuracies in the series during an interview with ANS Executive Director/CEO Craig Piercy.

The Kemeny Commission Report from the pages of Nuclear News

May 26, 2022, 3:15PMNuclear News

This week’s Throwback Thursday post is again about Three Mile Island—this time looking at the coverage from the pages of the December 1979 issue Nuclear News about the Kemeny Commission. The twelve-person commission, announced by President Carter immediately after the accident in April 1979, was headed by John Kemeny—then president of Dartmouth College—with orders to investigate the causes and any consequences of the accident.