A British physicist’s opinion

Terence Price was an English nuclear physicist, born in 1921. In 1947, aged 26, he joined John Cockcroft’s startup laboratory in the English countryside. When he published his autobiography (titled Political Physicist) in 2004, I was at first agog with the data implications for me. “A month after joining Harwell,” he writes about a fifth of the way through the book, “I became a member of the Production Pile Design Committee, which had already held five monthly meetings under the chairmanship of Leonard Owen. He was a Yorkshire engineer whose feet were firmly planted on the ground. Two and a half years and thirty-one meetings later the committee’s job was done. I had not missed a meeting.” Put simply, Price was there, in a junior but vital role, for the big decisions that set the United Kingdom on a divergent reactor design path to the eventual U.S. direction. Surely this would be a goldmine!

Terence Price Political Physicist

Not so. Price had written a most informative semi-technical book, Political Electricity: What Future for Nuclear Energy, back in 1990, so I knew he could write lucidly. But he left Harwell in 1960, without ever having huge macro design input, and his subsequent lengthy nuclear career was, as his book title implies, mainly politically focused.

In his autobiography, Price does spend three pages looking back at the British gas-cooled, graphite-moderated design decisions that set them apart from the rest of the world. Here’s a snippet: “With half a century of hindsight it is clear that it was at this early stage we became committed, almost accidentally, to gas-cooled power-reactor policies, which were destined to be overtaken by the more competitive water-cooled system in America. In 1947 we do not seem to have considered the possibility of a reactor system in which water acted as both coolant and moderator.” Reading this, I don’t find it terribly useful. If in 1947 John Cockcroft and Christopher Hinton might not have contemplated a light water design, by 1953, when the gas-cooled decision was cemented for nuclear electricity, both of them were fully aware of Rickover’s LWR design.

I’m not slighting Price’s memoirs (he died in 2013), for they’re interesting enough from a different perspective that doesn’t match mine. The reason I’m ruminating here about Political Physicist is a practical reflection: you never can tell from a first glance whether a book or article or archival manuscript will sway your own work or remain a sideline.