Nuclear Power History

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

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. . .

Mastering shielding against radiation

Nobody debates or even talks about how reactors should be shielded, for the simple reason that through much thinking, research, and experimentation, the topic was mastered by the 1960s. Hyman Rickover, father of the world’s most popular reactor design, was a difficult man (to say the least) but dissimulation of quality information was one of his strengths. One of his faithful lieutenants. . .

Sometimes you think “huh?”

Shimon Peres, ex-PM and ex-President of Israel, who died just two years ago, put out fascinating if coy memoirs in 1995. I spotted the following memorable quote: I use the term “engineering” advisedly: there is a difference between the scientist and the engineer, akin perhaps to the difference between a lover and a husband. Surely, since my book often contrasts engineers and scientists, I can use. . .

Designing a new reactor is tough

I don’t know much at all about E. N. Shaw, the author of an obscure 1983 book about an obscure reactor. I liked the insight from this paragraph, showing an example of why advanced reactor development is so arduous: Fuel development is a lengthy process, complicated by the fact that the fuel under test is, as already noted, an integral part of the core. From the definition of the particular. . .

The web of linkages

Another of those fascinating interconnections between the reactor pioneers, of little import but fascinating anyway. Samuel Untermyer, a protégé of one of my main characters, reactor pioneer Walter Zinn, left Zinn’s laboratory in the early 50s to join General Electric. Here in 1958, he writes a polite letter to British reactor pioneer John Cockcroft, asking: Our European representative sent. . .

Sniping across borders

The reactor pioneers visited their overseas contemporaries/competitors often and reading their trip reports offers plenty of interest. At a more general level, one aspect I’ve observed is that if you’re a British physicist visiting U.S. laboratories, your eventual report will imply, if not state, that the British are further advanced. The converse is also true, as I noticed in this. . .

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