Can a reactor be simple?

Christopher Hinton was the engineering overlord of Britain’s huge world-leading push into power reactors from the early 1950s. He was a towering personality. Somehow he managed to combine blistering honesty (he battled bureaucrats all his life) with an anxious need to preserve a hallowed reputation. A number of years ago, I came across a classic invited speech he made in 1954, in which he described the very first Windscale reactors, designed not to produce electricity but to produce plutonium for the nation’s atomic bomb breakout. The speech is a model of precision and concision, couched in his usual eloquent prose. One paragraph that caught my attention, outside the technical explication was this:

In looking at the Windscale piles with such details as have been given of them, you will be struck by their essential simplicity. This is, indeed, the key to pile design. The problems as initially presented to the designers rarely looked simple, sometimes they looked almost frightening in their high content of the unknown. The main skill in pile design has been in reducing such problems to terms in which they could be interpreted into engineering structures so simple, so well understood, that even the unknown ceased to give cause for alarm.

Hinton, Christopher. 1954. “Nuclear reactors and power production.” Engineer, Mar. 5 & 12, pp. 357-360, 374-377.

I had thought to make use of this sage advice in the book. The trouble is, I think Hinton dreamed up “essential simplicity” out of nothing. The paragraph above is, I believe, a construct, something to believe in after the event. The history of Windscale and Britain’s other reactors was always tough and turbulent. The “unknown” never “ceased to give cause for alarm,” as was illustrated aptly when Windscale Unit 1 burnt out of control nearly four years later. So … I still enjoy the above passage (isn’t “their high content of the unknown” neat?) but view it as akin to presidents dressing up their autobiographies to present deeds in the best light.

Christopher Hinton article