Cockcroft on the “dark side”

Are nuclear bombs linked to reactors? An ancient question. One aspect of this is covered in a very low-key speech given by Nobel laureate Sir John Cockcroft in 1948: Nor have I spoken about the dark side of the picture – the Atomic Bomb. Workers in atomic energy are indeed always aware of this potential danger of their work. They feel, however, that the problems cannot be solved by a retreat into. . .

A gruesome accident

One of the more analyzed and described nuclear accidents was that of Stationary Low-Power Reactor Number 1 (SL-1) at the very beginning of 1961. The reactor was an army one, so it’s not terribly relevant to me. SL-1 was a strange concept from the start, a self-contained building, 14 meters high and 11 meters in diameter, meant to house a handful of soldiers in remote snowbound areas. Power. . .

Khrushchev envisioned by Iannucci in The Death of Stalin

I’ve spent some time trying to understand Nikita Khrushchev’s role, during his 1953-1964 reign as the head of the Soviet Union, in the history of nuclear electricity. Armando Iannucci’s black-as-pitch satire, The Death of Stalin, messes with chronology to depict Khrushchev’s triumph over Lavrenti Beria after Josef Stalin’s 1953 death. As I’ve noted before. . .

Swedish safety education

In 1957, in the very early days of power reactors, Christopher Hinton, head of reactor building in England, visited Sweden. On his return, he wrote to Frank Farmer, the UK expert on reactor safety. Sweden was planning to build a small reactor, of the sort then being built in Canada, to provide community heating by warming up water piped into a town. “It follows,” wrote Hinton. . .

What about planes crashing into reactors?

I was intrigued to find that as early as May 1956, the threat of an airplane crashing into a power reactor, with its load of radioactive fission products, was considered. In fact a British politician asked the United Kingdom Atomic Energy Authority about this risk. An engineer drafted a response that summed up: In general terms, we think that any such incident is unlikely except by the remotest. . .

What were they thinking?

A now-forgotten reactor design path was the bright idea of General Electric in the late 1940s to build what they called an “intermediate breeder,” cooled by liquid sodium. This is not the time or place to explore the intermediate breeder concept but suffice to say that it didn’t really work, so GE modified what they had to attempt a submarine reactor, at a time when there were. . .

Atomic utopia in The Reader’s Digest

Looking back, it’s tempting to apply today’s cynicism to yesterday’s words, but often the words mean what they say. Lewis Strauss, Chairman of the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission from 1953 to 1958, was mostly a pernicious influence on the history of reactors, but this August 1955 quote (surplus to my requirements) from a fulsome interview by that bellwether magazine, The. . .

Corporate histories

Unless you’re lucky, it’s almost impossible to get behind the facades erected by most companies. Westinghouse and General Electric dominated global reactor sales over the 1950s to 1970s, and while there is plenty of public material about them, the real skinny is nigh impossible to get. However, John Simpson, who headed up Westinghouse’s reactor business for years, wrote a book. . .

Oh those pioneers

Historian Dick van Lente managed to track down a nifty paean to the pioneers of nuclear power, a tribute too many for my book. (I found I could get hold of some issues of Life Magazine but not all.) He writes (p. 64): Life on August 8, 1955, reflected on the hope of the atomic age as it had been imagined immediately after Trinity. Tellingly, the magazine chose Trinity as its touchstone, not. . .

Science blogging from Iida Ruishalme

Watching pro-nuclear and antinuclear polemics play out in the ideas marketplace is very interesting to me. My son alerted me to a Facebook share from a neat blog called The Logic of Science, whose author prefers anonymity, that mostly targets unscientific nonsense. The Logic of Science suggested taking seriously a blog on radioactive waste from a young Finnish scientist, Iida Ruishalme (photo. . .

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