Nuclear Power History

Offcuts and curios from my research, in aid of an upcoming book, on the history of nuclear power reactors

The reckless days?

The New Yorker, one of my favorite magazines, has published several long articles on my subject over the last three quarters of a century. Mostly I’ve found them readable, as ever, but of not much practical use to me. Such is the case with Daniel Lang’s 1959 article “A most valuable accident” (which I had trouble sourcing and is hard to read in my files). That said, it. . .

Rust

In 1974, around the time the Atomic Energy Commission was disbanded, to be replaced by other bureaucracies, two of its longest standing managers, wrote a quirky summary of their organization. I didn’t find it terribly useful but it has a few pithy lines such as this marvellous one pointing out that corrosion is just a fancy word for rusting: Believe it or not, we’ve had a lot easier time. . .

Water behaving like an acid?

When you think of water, do you picture it sizzling through metals. I didn’t. One of my most valuable reference finds, a retrospective by a key nuclear engineer, enlightened me: Strange as it may seem, pure water under high temperature and pressure is a most corrosive liquid, as corrosive as some acids. We set up an extensive program to develop the alloys needed for the components –. . .

Safer costs more?

The International Conference on the Peaceful Uses of Atomic Energy held in Geneva in 1955 had a profound effect on technology history. America’s nuclear trade journal Nucleonics reported just after the event. An oddity on its editorial summary of a huge program is this: The U.S. AEC spends about $100/yr/man on radiation protection. This is about 1% of the total operating expenses. To. . .

Concorde: Part of the same tale?

The 2017 BBC documentary “Concorde: Designing the Dream” at last reaches Australia, screening on SBS. The only reason I’m drawn to it is that I caught a Concorde flight in the early 90s, but as soon as I begin watching, I realize aspects of it fit into my book. The British push the button for a supersonic commercial plane in 1956, around the time they take the lead in. . .

Chuck the wastes out of a satellite porthole?

In April 1954 the New York Times reported: Prof. Ira M. Freeman, physicist of Rutgers University, thinks he has found the best solution of this “hot” waste problem. He would dump the wastes on Mars, or Venus or some other planet. . . . If there are objections Professor Freeman sees no reason why we should not throw the wastes overboard somewhere between the earth and the moon, whereupon they. . .

A reactor whizzing around Earth for 4,000 years!

One  of my most useful references doesn’t sound all that relevant. Gail Marcus’s Nuclear Firsts might seem like a Guinness Book of Records but is chock full of entrancing facts. For example: The first nuclear reactor to operate on a spacecraft was launched on the SNAP-10 satellite developed as part of this program. SNAP-10A was launched by an ATLAS Agena D rocket on April 3, 1965, and. . .

Unloading a reactor’s spent fuel

I came across an obscure 1955 article by two American engineers in a firm long vanished: In solid-fuel reactors, fuel is held in containers, usually called assemblies, and must be removed by a batch method. Ideally, solid-fuel handling equipment would load and unload the reactor without interrupting neutron production. Actually, many considerations prevent attaining the ideal. The foremost. . .

We must find out

April 1955 and the British hear of a radical new reactor design, the Boiling Water Reactor. David Goodlet, an energetic engineer working at Harwell, is heading over the ocean and tells his boss, nuclear czar John Cockcroft, that “boiling reactors are possible but not particularly attractive. . . . The boiling reactor thus appears attractive and simple only to people who have not thought. . .

We’re safer

In August 1953, one of the big hitter U.S. scientists, John West from Argonne, called in on a senior U.K. physicist, John Dunworth. They would meet a number of times over their careers and clearly had the greatest respect for each other. Yet Dunworth, in documenting to file their meeting, could not resist claiming that British reactor safety work was more advanced than the American work: It is. . .

Archives