James Mahaffey and beginnings…

Here’s a simple (perhaps simplistic) point made by nuclear historian James Mahaffey (from his Atomic Awakening): K-25 enrichment plant at Oak Ridge At the end of World War II, the United States had the only uranium enrichment plant in the world, turning out U-235 in any desired concentration in quantities limited only by the amount of material loaded into the front-end. The availability of. . .

Technology’s march

In 2011 I went through the website of the Atomic Heritage Foundation and ordered three DVDs at great cost. They duly arrived and in 2013 I laboriously watched them and transcribed the parts that seemed useful. On this particular DVD were interviews with seven very old men who had begun their careers in the Manhattan Project. Five were interesting but irrelevant. Ralph Lapp, a physicist with a. . .

The politics of tech siting

I was writing up the highly politicized selection of Thurso, up in the very top tip of Scotland, for the Dounreay Fast Reactor, back in the early 50s. Remoteness was necessary: the DFR would be a fast reactor, very dangerous. But from all the remote sites on the island of Britain, Christopher Hinton, overlord of new reactors, was told to go for remote Scotland. Why? Job, jobs, jobs. Just as I was. . .

Joys and mires of American archival work

I limited my archival work to two forays of a fortnight each in the United Kingdom and three U.S. trips, ranging from two to three weeks. The National Archives in College Park, Maryland were the mainstay but I also went to Chicago’s branch of the National Archives, and I visited the Library of Congress in Washington a couple of times. I blitzed my visits, trying to extract as much archival. . .

The fine writers I read…

This jumble of book offcuts has been silent lately. I’m in Darwin, working on the reactor design ferment in the 50s, and it’s not a field that has attracted much attention, so nearly everything I have goes in the book rather than this blog. But here’s a thought: one of the pleasures of history reading is discovering fine writers waxing on about my topic. One such is American nuclear. . .

Occupation of Japan

For some reason, I’ve struggled to understand the genesis of nuclear power in Japan. The standard narrative is that the country was and is short of internal fuel sources, so it gravitated naturally towards the atom, and there is good logic in that picture. But the situation was more nuanced and fluid. One aspect was simply that the country was occupied by the United States for over half a. . .

Saint Petersburg’s absence in the history of nuclear power

If you visit both Saint Petersburg (which was called Leningrad for nearly three quarters of a century, before the collapse of the Soviet Union) and Moscow, their differences and rivalry are readily apparent. The “father of the Soviet bomb” and also the launcher of its early power reactor efforts, Igor Kurchatov, began his career at the Leningrad Physico-Technical Institute, which was. . .

Why we longed for the peaceful atom: A flashback of Armageddon

Tuesday’s New York Times contains a William J. Broad article, “New video shows largest hydrogen bomb ever exploded,” explaining that Russia’s Rosatom has released a previously secret video of exactly that. In October 1961 the Soviet Union set off Tsar Bombya in remote Novaya Zemlya, an explosion almost unthinkably stupendous at 50 megatons, over 3,000 Hiroshima. . .

Russian secrecy

The Bulletin of Atomic Scientists can always be relied upon to explore unfolding events. On August 21, Cheryl Rofer reported (in an article titled “Radiation detections in northern Europe: what we do and don’t know“) on three minor, puzzling radiation releases detected over the last three years, the latest in mid June, all of them probably (but not definitively) located in Russia. . .

A leader who believed in science

Still trying to understand David Ben-Gurion’s, Israel’s first prime minister. I thought I knew enough but I don’t, so I’m working through two biographies. One is, of course, Israeli historian/journalist Tom Segev’s masterful book from a couple of years ago (see my review of it here, as a book rather than as a reference source). “He saw science as the pursuit of. . .

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