Fiat’s research reactor

Italy’s early (1950s) history is fascinating but weirdly complex. Reflecting a turbulent post-war political landscape, different state and private sector players sought to build different types of reactors, ranging from large to small. In particular, Fiat, the Italian car company we nowadays forget as being a postwar European success story, tried to build a power reactor, mainly due to the ambitions of its charismatic CEO, Vittorio Valletta. His efforts came to naught, really, perhaps due to no fault of his own, but he did lead a private sector push to build Italy’s second tiny research reactor, called Avogadro. This little machine is now forgotten, but I was intrigued to see how much press mileage Valletta extracted from the November 1959 startup of this contraption. Historian Barbara Curli’s words:

The inauguration ceremony of the first private nuclear research center in Europe celebrated Fiat’s and Italy’s entry into modernity. Represented at the ceremony were figures from the government, from the nuclear establishment and Italian industry, and from Euratom. Valletta, who gave the opening speech, noted the “pride” Fiat and Montecatini felt for their success while also crediting the fundamental support provided by national authorities (CNRN) and the important role of international cooperation, in particular with Euratom and the European Economic Community (the treaties establishing both international bodies were signed on 25 March 1957). In Valletta’s words, Avogadro was “an Italian—and a European—great achievement.” Hirsch was particularly keen to stress how SORIN demonstrated that industrial applications of nuclear research were not limited to electricity production but opened new industrial and scientific prospects for the well-being of humanity. Endeavors like Avogadro also had political significance, contributing to “faire l’Europe.” In blessing the reactor, Monsignor Francesco Imberti, the archbishop of Vercelli, went even further. The achievement of SORIN’s scientists and technicians celebrated God, and God’s blessing would “fall down on Fiat and Montecatini”—all the more so given that Avogadro was a reactor “for peaceful uses,” thus serving “the peaceful well-being of this troubled mankind.”

Curli, Barbara. 2023. “The early nuclear activities of Fiat and the Atoms for Peace program in Italy, 1956-1959.” Journal Of Cold War Studies 25 (Summer): 68-88.

I’m not sure any other reactor I’ve come across has garnered the explicit blessing of God.

Saluggia laboratory

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