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THE FUTURE BECKONS
I grew up on a dairy farm in northern New Jersey among hard-working farm people who helped one another survive the Depression. I wanted to be an engineer so I could use my skills to help people improve their living conditions. I knew no engineers. To me at that time an automobile represented the epitome of engineering, and a great boon to those who could afford one. With luck, perseverance, and the help of many people, I became an engineer.
During the Second World War I worked on steam turbines and helped design and build the first American designed gas turbines for the propulsion of aircraft. Bill Bollay was the representative of the US Navy's Bureau of Aeronautics on the jet engine project on which I was employed. At the end of 1946, Bill Bollay became head of a new space propulsion laboratory at North American Aviation in Los Angeles. Bill invited me to join his laboratory to study "peacetime" uses of nuclear energy. I was pleased to accept an invitation to participate in so promising a new development. Nuclear reactors seemed to promise the ultimate technology for the solution of human problems.
The power of nuclear energy for military destruction had been demonstrated at Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Now its enormous potential for peacetime purposes was to be developed by a civilian agency, the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC), cooperating with and guiding American power companies. It was claimed by almost everyone in a position to know that nuclear energy would provide limitless energy for peacetime purposes, from generation of electricity to propulsion through outer space. Thousands of reactors were to be built. All highways in cold country would be underlain with electric wiring for melting winter ice and snow - no more accidents on icy roads.
I hadn't the information and judgment to know that much of what was claimed for the potential of nuclear energy was nonsense. The statements came from prominent scientists, winners of the Nobel Prize, university heads. David Lilienthal, Chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission, spoke of "---- almost limitless beneficial applications of atomic energy." Robert Hutchins, Chancellor of the University of Chicago, said "---- utilities will be so cheap that their costs can hardly be reckoned." The desirability of nuclear reactors was almost never in question. One exception, James Bryant Conant, the President of Harvard University and science adviser to President Eisenhower, commented that peacetime nuclear power "is not worth a candle."
The people to whom I talked foresaw a bright future and said they could use my engineering help to reach the goal. My experience with steam and gas power plants would help in this new field.
I moved with my family into a new housing development in former bean fields, under a flight path of the nearby Los Angeles airport. We planted orange and lemon trees, banana plants, and ice plant. We were pleased to be in California at the beginning of a new era for all of us.
NORTH AMERICAN AVIATION
North American Aviation, at the edge of the Los Angeles airport, built military aircraft, orders for which seemed about to disappear with the end of World War II. To supplant its lost military business, the Company designed and built a private plane, the Navion. Then North American sold the Navion to Ryan Aircraft to halt the Company's continuing monetary losses on its manufacture and sale. A study to determine other products the company could make and sell to replace military airplanes concluded that aluminum pots and pans, and any other consumer goods, could be bought cheaper at Sears than North American could make them. Fortunately for North American and other producers of military goods, these bleak prospects were leavened by the demands of United States adventures in Korea and Vietnam. In addition, North American acquired a government contract to copy a captured German rocket with help from captured German engineers. And a promising new nuclear reactor business was to be developed by atomic bomb physicists. Chauncey Starr, a former bomb physicist, became head of the nuclear energy project at North American. There was a physics group, a chemistry group, and a materials laboratory. I was in charge of engineering development. After a time the North American nuclear business was named Atomics International (AI).
The first task assigned us was an investigation of the possibilities for nuclear propulsion in space. Graphite, the moderator and structural material used in the plutonium-production reactors at Hanford, would be impregnated with enriched uranium to form a reactor to heat a propulsion gas. In laboratory experiments at North American electrically heated hollow graphite rods raised the temperature of circulated helium gas as high as 3000 C. At that high temperature the graphite disappeared rather fast from the rods by sublimation, being then deposited on any cooler surface available, including the walls of the laboratory. At the lower temperature of 2600 C graphite was found to be twice as strong, and twice as rigid, as at room temperature. As contrasted to its brittleness at room temperature, graphite showed at high temperature considerable ductility - a promising high temperature material. Theoretical studies were made of the rocket thrust which might be expected from gases heated to the high temperatures which seemed possible with graphite.
The report concluded that there were possibilities for high temperature graphite reactors, but that a realistic nuclear propulsion system, even for near space, was of necessity far in the future. More experiments were recommended. I thought the report was fair and informative.
This report and almost everything written passed into or out of the group with a secret stamp. In a meeting at the Rand Corporation in Santa Monica a visitor without secret clearance questioned his right to see the "secret" papers being circulated among us. He was told, "These aren't really secret; our paper comes stamped that way." I do not know whether the security system inhibited foreign agents in their search for our secrets, but I was convinced that secrecy had deleterious effects on our own work. The limitations of access made it cumbersome to obtain, or even to know about, needed information within the Atomic Energy Commission, and completely shut out any injection of creativity from outside the AEC. It also protected from outside scrutiny incompetent work on atomic energy.
NORTH AMERICAN SECURITY
The security system at North American was enforced by armed guards. On my first day at North American, I walked out of the plant with Bill Bollay. I didn't have the proper identification to pass the guard. Bollay politely asked what was needed and returned to his office to get it. The next day I walked out with Bollay's boss, Larry Waite, North American's Vice-President for Engineering. This time I had the proper identification, but Waite had forgotten his badge. When the guard challenged him, Waite refused to go back for his badge. After some argument he said, "You son-of-a-bitch! If you want to keep your job, get out of my way, or I'll break your ass." We walked on out.
The guards protected company property and policed the company's caste system, as well as protecting government secrets. The guards freely abused lower echelon employees. Men's toilets in the shop had no doors, enabling the guards to check on and report malingering employees. When the new laboratory personnel complained about this invasion of their privacy, doors were placed on their toilets. My secretary told me that the doors on the women's toilets had no locks. A female guard, referred to as "Dickless Tracy," opened toilet doors to check the women.
I was given a badge, denoting my status as a specialist and a supervisor, with which I could move freely inside or outside the plant. Many of the employees in my group were not so favored. Their badges restricted them to the office during working hours. Use of the front door of the office building, assigned as a mark of privilege to the holders of special badges like mine, was denied to them. Passes were required to take their personal property out of the plant. One new employee, crippled by polio and walking with difficulty, was challenged by the guard as he left the plant through the forbidden front entrance, and without a pass for his slide rule. He asked the guard, "What will you do if I go on out. Will you shoot me?" He was told, "No, but I'll report you to your boss." "All right, then, report me to my boss." Out he went. I sympathized when he told me about it.
I wrote a letter to North American President Lee Atwood reminding him that I had heard his talk asking us to report conditions which interfered with the company's ability to carry out its business. I explained that the North American caste system aroused resentment among lower-caste employees, and interfered with my ability to function as a supervisor. I received no answer.
Bollay, at my suggestion, hired an engineer, Lee Woodward, paying his moving expenses from the east coast. Woodward, on his first day at North American, went to the parking lot to get his car for an emergency dentist appointment. He was challenged by a guard because he had no pass to leave. The argument which ensued ended with Woodward's "Take your foot off my running board, or I'll run over it." The Company had a long list, posted on bulletin boards, of "demerits" assigned for various acts ranging from slandering the Company or its products to destruction of property. More than one hundred demerits required firing the employee. Woodward was assigned one hundred and ten demerits. Through a long series of meetings, Bollay succeeded in persuading the security department to reduce the penalty to ninety demerits. When Bollay came to announce the good news to Woodward that he wasn't fired, and could work off the rest of the demerits by good behavior, Woodward informed him with a smile that he had just taken another job, with the Rand Corporation, in Santa Monica.
MARK MILLS AND HYMAN G. RICKOVER
My awareness of the importance of instabilities as threats to the safe operation of power equipment was developed during my work on non-nuclear power plants. I assumed that safety would also be a major concern of reactor developers. It turned out that the AEC and its contractors, supported by the powerful Joint Committee of Congress, wanted to get on with building reactors, ignoring questions of safety, or bad economics.
A commonplace assumption, accepted even by many opponents of nuclear power, has been that nuclear reactors for the generation of electrical energy, cannot suffer a nuclear explosion. Some people believed that reactors could explode from chemical effects, and that the study of such possibilities had merit as part of reactor development. One such person at North American was Mark Mills, head of theoretical physics. Mark, as former head of the Solid Rocket Propulsion Section of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory at Pasadena and as a developer of nuclear bombs, had experience with both chemical and nuclear explosions.
Inside the core of any reactor operating at high power over a long period a deadly accumulation of radioactive materials would be stored, requiring protection of the environment against their spillage. Mark was concerned that, in a reactor accident, large amounts of chemical energy could be released by the rapid reaction of the cooling water with metal-clad fuel elements at elevated temperature. One example Mark used was a reactor with zirconium covered fuel elements cooled by high pressure water. At high temperature zirconium and water could react chemically. Hydrogen released from the water by dissociation, and burned in any oxygen present, would further increase the release of energy. Such a chemical reaction would destroy the reactor, scattering radioactive materials into the environment.
Hyman G. Rickover, then a Captain in the United States Navy, was in charge of the development of a nuclear power plant for propulsion of a submarine. A diesel powered submarine can not use its air-breathing diesel engines underwater, and is therefore dependent on its batteries for all underwater power needs, including propulsion. When submerged to escape attack, the diesel submarine can travel only at slow speed and only as long as the charge in its batteries lasts. Then it must sit helpless while the bombs drop around it, waiting to resurface and recharge its batteries.
Rickover had studied a highly successful nuclear reactor developed at Oak Ridge National Laboratory for testing the effects of radiation on materials. This reactor was composed of flat plate "sandwiches" in which uranium was contained between layers of aluminum. The energy from fission was removed by water flowing between the plates. Rickover decided that a high temperature version of this reactor, with zirconium replacing the aluminum and with the cooling water under high pressure, could be used to generate steam to drive the turbines for propulsion of a submarine. This would be a true submarine, capable of continuous high speed travel for great distances underwater, maintaining full speed and maneuverability under all conditions.
Rickover accepted as his last lifetime professional ambition development of a submarine power plant based on his adaptation of the Oak Ridge reactor. Many people tried to persuade or force him into various changes, for instance to a "better," more efficient, high temperature reactor. Rickover wasn't interested. "Who needs a better reactor? This one will propel a submarine." He maintained against all opposition that his reactor would do the job and that developing any more advanced reactor would greatly delay the nuclear submarine. To someone who asked, "Aren't you even interested in new ideas?" Rickover responded, "New ideas are a dime a dozen." Somehow, despite outside interference and the resistance of the United States Navy of which he was a part, Rickover got the support he needed. He had not only his position in charge of the Navy's project to develop a nuclear propulsion system, but an additional position with the Atomic Energy Commission in charge of development of Navy reactors. He had the support of the powerful Joint Committee on Atomic Energy of Congress.
Stories circulated about Rickover, who became surrounded by his own special aura. Navy commanders and civilians on his staff regularly worked long hours, traveling around the country seeing that his orders were carried out, watching over every detail of the developing nuclear submarine. Rickover claimed his staff worked so hard because they loved their work. According to some of the commanders, when there was a question of interference with some necessary family duty Rickover told them he didn't give a damn about their families. If one of his workers complained about being required to work on Saturday, Rickover reminded him that "I work on Sunday as well as Saturday."
One of his commanders, named Bob Sweek, told me that his first assignment from Rickover was to write a speech. Sweek brought his first draft to Rickover for approval. "That's not what I want at all." "What do you want, Captain?" "I don't know, but keep trying. I'll recognize it when I see it."
Rickover's treatment of contractors working on his project became legendary. A company's representative would be called to Rickover's office in the old barracks-like Navy buildings in Washington to be chastised for lack of performance. Part of the standard treatment was reported to be a light, behind Rickover's desk, so bright that the visitor's eyes pained him when he looked at Rickover. When Rickover made a business trip across the United States, he purportedly pressed one of his contractors into flying with him, abused him across the country for his lapses, then left him to fly back alone. Thus Rickover avoided spending his own flying time uselessly. The story circulated that someone asked Rickover whether he wasn't concerned about working himself into a heart attack. The response was, "I don't get heart attacks; I give them." Hatred of Rickover by some people was strong, while others thought him the only honest man in the nuclear business who also knew what he was doing.
Rickover had reached the point in his Navy career when he must either be promoted from his present rank of Captain or accept retirement. The Navy was said to be opposed to the promotion.
One Saturday in 1949 a call came to my home requiring me to come to the office at North American for a special meeting of unspecified nature. On arrival, I was introduced by Starr to Captain Hyman G. Rickover, a short, wiry, energetic man, dressed in civilian clothes, with a thin, intellectual, sad-looking face, who rose politely to greet and shake hands with me and with each other new arrival. I felt that each of us, as we were introduced, had Rickover's full attention, that he appraised our responses to him and stored his impression for future reference. I was interested to meet Rickover. I was becoming frustrated with the lack of developmental progress toward the development of nuclear power. Reports indicated that the submarine was the exception on which true progress was being made.
In addition to Captain Rickover, the heads of the various departments of the North American atomic energy group were at the meeting, except for Mark Mills, who was late. We were told that Mark had been reluctant to leave his Saturday tennis game, but was now on his way.
Rickover questioned Starr on various aspects of our operation, including a query, "Why don't your people work on Saturday? Mine do." "This isn't a military operation. I can't force my people to work on Saturday." "I don't force my people to work. They like their work. Don't your people like their work?" Rickover found much to object to in Starr's remarks. At one point, with a conversational but uncomfortable smile, Starr said, "Captain, I hear you are retiring soon?" Rickover replied, "I wouldn't depend on that if I were you." At another point, Rickover responded to some implied annoyance on Starr's part, "I'm a son of a bitch. You can say it if you want to."
Finally Mark Mills appeared. Rickover greeted him as politely as he had the rest of us, and apologized for taking him from his tennis game. Then he started asking Mills questions about his report on chemical explosions. Gradually it became evident that the questioning was part of the build-up of a case that Mark was doing damage to the reactor business with his irresponsible claims of chemical explosions, for which he had no experimental verification. For a while Mark bore up under the barrage, staying cool and polite. Finally as Rickover became more overbearing and insulting, Mark rose from his chair and said, "Sir, I resent your treatment of me. I will no longer stand for it. I'm leaving!" Rickover also rose from his chair, suddenly smiling and friendly, and said, "Mark, I think we now understand one another. You can get back to your tennis game." After Mark had left, Rickover commented to us, "Mills is now conditioned on reactor safety." I had the distinct impression that the rest of us were assumed also to have been conditioned on interference with Rickover's submarine project.
After Rickover left, Starr called people in the Atomic Energy Commission to complain about Rickover's behavior.
As far as I know, Mills wrote nothing more on the subject of reactor safety. His work was done well, and his results have been verified by other theoretical physicists, and supported by experiments. The hydrogen formed from the combination of hot zirconium and water formed a destructive bubble in the reactor during the Three Mile Island accident. The chemical combination of graphite and water is supposed to have contributed a large part to the explosion of the Chernobyl reactor in Russia.
The next time I saw Rickover was in Oak Ridge, Tennessee, at a conference on the nuclear propulsion of aircraft hosted by Alvin Weinberg, Director of the Oak Ridge National Laboratory. Rickover was there in his self-appointed capacity of keeping himself informed on everything in the nuclear business. Chauncey Starr gave a talk, for which he had been coached by aircraft engineers at North American, on the importance of Mach number, aircraft lift to drag ratio, and engine thrust to weight ratio for the design of an airplane and its nuclear power plant.
In the evening we were invited to a friendly and welcoming dinner at the home of Marge and Alvin Weinberg with several of the senior members of Weinberg's staff and their wives. After dinner we were seated in a circle in the Weinbergs' living room. For a while, Rickover was directing at Starr on the opposite side of the circle a series of stinging remarks against which Starr was doing what he could to defend himself. The rest of the party had lapsed into a stunned silence. Finally one of the wives remarked, "You know, there's something going on here that I don't understand." Rickover addressed her, "I'll tell you what's going on. This man [pointing to Starr] has been knifing me in the back, and I don't like it." Word must have got back to Rickover that Starr had talked to people at the Atomic Energy Commission about Rickover's visit to North American. On the way down the hill from the Weinbergs' party, I saw Starr and Rickover walking arm-in-arm, and talking in a confidential manner. I assumed that Starr had now been "reconditioned" on interference with Rickover. I was impressed with Rickover's ability to turn on alternating charm and ferocious attacks, as suited his purpose at the moment.
A couple of years after the Oak Ridge meeting, I again saw Rickover at a technical meeting. In response to Rickover's question about how things were going, I told him that I had decided to leave North American, but had not yet decided where to go. He warned me against going with the nuclear airplane program. "When you work on a job like that, you smell the way the project does." After the meeting Rickover sent me a note suggesting some places connected with the submarine program that I might try. Although there was appeal to the idea of working on the only successful program in the field of nuclear reactors, I preferred not to work in peacetime on a strictly military project. I did not believe that Rickover's low temperature, water cooled and moderated, reactor could provide the basis for an efficient central station power plant. I also doubted my ability to withstand a long-time relationship with Captain Rickover.
Rickover achieved his nuclear submarine. He also greatly influenced the development of peacetime nuclear reactors. When the first demonstration central station nuclear power plant was built at Shippingport, Pennsylvania, it was based on Rickover's submarine reactor, and Rickover was put in charge of its development. The plant was a technical success. Most of the present power reactors in the United States are adaptations of the Shippingport reactor. Rickover also trained many Navy or civilian employees on his program who became officers of electric utilities and operators of nuclear power plants.
Rickover, with the help of his supporters in Congress and despite resistance from the Navy, was made first rear admiral and then full admiral. He was often in the news chastising his contractors, particularly the Electric Boat Division of General Dynamics, for cost overruns and shoddy work. When Rickover died in 1986, at the age of eighty six, I was surprised to read that he had been censured by the Navy, three years before, for accepting gifts from contractors, including Electric Boat. I wondered whether that was another side of his personality or whether he was framed by his detractors.
It is reported in John May's Nuclear Age that "Rickover's daughter-in-law, Jane Rickover, swore an affidavit to say that he told her he had used his personal influence with President Jimmy Carter to suppress the most alarming aspects of the Presidential Commission report into the Three Mile Island accident and, instead, release it in watered-down form. The report, if published in its entirety, continued Rickover, would have destroyed America's civilian nuclear power industry, `because the accident at Three Mile Island was infinitely more dangerous than was ever made public.' Carter had served in the Navy under Rickover." (page 228, published by Greenpeace, through Pantheon Books in 1989)
On April 7, 1958, Mark Mills was killed when the helicopter from which he was arranging for a bomb test was forced down by torrential rains into the ocean near Eniwetok Atoll in the South Pacific. Mark was at the time Deputy Director of the University of California Radiation Laboratory at Livermore. Dr. Edward Teller, Director of the Laboratory, described Mark as "a man of many talents and many great accomplishments." The Mark Mills Memorial Library was established in his honor in the Department of Nuclear Engineering of the University of California at Berkeley.
NUCLEAR PROPULSION OF AIRCRAFT
My first brush with a project for the supposed peacetime use of nuclear power was the investigation at North American of the possibilities for nuclear space propulsion. Because this seemed at the time too difficult a task for immediate accomplishment, some of the nuclear investigations were turned to the seemingly less demanding nuclear propulsion of aircraft. A preliminary investigation, called "The Lexington Project," was carried out by a group at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, under the direction of Walter Whitman, a distant relative of the poet, Walt Whitman. Mr. Whitman, Professor of Chemical Engineering at MIT and head of the department, was a distinguished-looking man in his early fifties, with a wry sense of humor and an intellectual bent which befitted a cousin of the poet.
I was invited, along with some other North American employees interested in the design of nuclear reactors or aircraft, to MIT to consult with members of the project. One person in our group, a man named Ford, was responsible for the preliminary design of new aircraft at North American Aviation.
One evening the Whitmans invited our group to their home for dinner. I have a memory of a pleasant evening, but the only specific conversation I remember was concerned with drag racing of souped-up automobiles. Mr. Ford, being in a responsible position at North American, could afford to buy a new Ford automobile each year, which he immediately modified with a more powerful engine and various changes to the body and chassis. He said that his wife complained because she couldn't slow down the modified cars he provided her enough for safe driving in the city of Los Angeles, where most of her driving was done. Whitman elicited from Ford a fairly complete description of the activities of the group of enthusiasts with which Ford was associated: "peeling rubber" in drag racing on the streets of Los Angeles late at night, scattering through the bean fields which then surrounded Los Angeles to escape the police, in frequenting repair shops to keep cars shiny and in top working condition despite the treatment they received. Finally Mr. Whitman, looking directly at Ford, asked, "Mr. Ford, you must considerably raise the average age level of that group, do you not?"
The Lexington Project recommended further study of the nuclear propulsion of aircraft.
REACTOR DEVELOPMENT POLICY
Many of the scientists with whom I worked had played some part in the development of nuclear bombs. The success of the bomb was a triumph of theoretical and experimental physics based upon Einstein's relationship between mass and energy and the ability of neutrons to fission uranium or plutonium with the release of energy and more neutrons. My previous work on conventional power plants had led me to believe that new power concepts required a period of detailed and painstaking engineering development before they became relatively useful and safe. I started keeping notes which I hoped would provide basic engineering design methods for safe and efficient reactors.
By 1951 I was questioning the direction taken by my company and by the Atomic Energy Commission. The irrevocable decision had been made to build reactors on the a-priori assumption that they were both economically desirable and safe. The AEC was contracting with partnerships of reactor companies and electrical utilities to design, build, and operate nuclear power systems. Plant concepts were peddled to the electrical utilities, complete with what looked superficially like construction drawings (Rickover called them "cartoons"). Ignorance of crucial operating characteristics became the basis for technical optimism. Economic studies of these imaginary plants, based on wishful ignorance, invariably indicated that nuclear power cost was competitive with that from fossil fuels. So long as money kept rolling in from an uncritical government, corporate recipients ignored questions about the ultimate feasibility, economy, or safety of reactors. Ignorance has turned out to be a poor basis for nuclear optimism.
The proposed power plants ranged from simple-seeming adaptations of Rickover's water cooled and moderated reactors to advanced high temperature breeder reactors cooled by sodium.
In my opinion engineered power systems based on water cooled and moderated "thermal" reactors could not be as simple as they were portrayed, nor had they the potential to compete economically with advanced developments from modern fossil fueled power plants. A thermally efficient and economically competitive nuclear reactor needs to operate at higher temperatures than are attainable in water cooled-reactors.
Fissionable uranium fuel supplies are relatively limited compared with the proclaimed energy needs of the world. To provide more than a temporary nuclear augmentation of the energy available from fossil fuels requires development of "breeder" reactors. As the name implies, a breeder reactor "breeds" new plutonium fuel to replace the fissionable uranium (or plutonium) it burns, thus greatly extending the total fuel supply available. Water cooled and moderated "thermal" reactors cannot "breed" plutonium. Compared with breeder reactors, the water cooled and moderated reactors therefore seemed wasteful of limited nuclear fuels.
Predicating a nuclear sales program on water cooled reactors seemed frustrating and wasteful of time, effort and materials. But the development of high-temperature breeder reactors appeared difficult, requiring the experimental evolution of new coolants, moderators, fuels, and components and the engineering of stable power systems. The program would necessarily learn from many miscalculations and accidents. Because of danger of the spread of radioactivity there could be no shortcuts in the methodical development of such advanced nuclear power systems.
The AEC policy of selling power plants based on undeveloped, low-performance, system concepts seemed to me wasteful and extremely dangerous.
OAK RIDGE NATIONAL LABORATORY
While at North American I had attempted to analyze the problems I thought would be of importance to the design of nuclear reactors. After five years at North American, I needed to take a more basic look at nuclear power. From my limited knowledge I still believed there was a future for nuclear reactors. In 1951 I took a position on the staff of Alvin Weinberg, the Director of Oak Ridge National Laboratory. I moved with my family to Oak Ridge, a town which had been built in 1942 in the Tennessee hills, complete with shopping centers, as temporary housing for workers who separated isotopes of uranium for the development of an atomic bomb. We were assigned a "D" (relatively large) house on Euclid Place constructed with a surfacing material called "cemesto," which in a rain looked like wet cardboard. A honeysuckle vine grew from outdoors into our bedroom closet. These temporary Oak Ridge houses eventually became "permanent" and were sold to their occupants.
On the basis of my analyses, I originated and taught a course in reactor engineering at the Oak Ridge School of Reactor Technology. This school had been set up, partly with Rickover's support, to train engineers to work in the new field of nuclear energy. The teaching assignment required me to organize my notes, which became the basis for a book, written in partnership with my friend and co-worker, Oliver Rodgers, Thermal Power from Nuclear Reactors, John Wiley and Sons, 1956. I became convinced that there were serious power stability problems that should be considered. In 1963 I published a paper, "Study of Reactor Kinetics," American Society of Mechanical Engineers, paper 62-WA-218, suggesting that high-powered reactors, despite the reassurances of their proponents, could under certain circumstances become unstable in an oscillation of power and suffer a nuclear explosion. A series of experiments by the Atomic Energy Commission under the acronym, SPERT, demonstrated an explosive instability in power which seemed to support my belief. My analysis, and the refusal of officials in the Atomic Energy Commission and their contractors to consider it seriously, forced me to conclude that they were more interested in short range profit from government contracts and macho prestige from promoting a dubious product than in facing the problems which were becoming obvious to me.
At Oak Ridge I was also a consultant part time, to consider the stress problems which would be caused by very large temperature differences in their proposed nuclear airplane power plant. The plant was based on an extremely daring concept developed by its director, Ray Bryant, a theoretical chemist. A fluid mixture of fused fluorides at high temperature, including the uranium hexafluoride fuel, would flow through the reactor, generating energy, and then through a heat exchanger, heating air for the propulsion of aircraft. Fused fluorides solidify if the temperature drops, clogging and wrecking the system. Circulating intensively radioactive liquid fuel outside the reactor presents extreme dangers. Some experiments were run on heat exchangers (without uranium), and reports were written.
Someone, in a spirit of banter, asked Bryant, "How is it, Ray, that I see tons and tons of steel going into your shop, and nothing coming out but paper?"
From Oak Ridge I went on, after a year, to several other jobs, searching for a situation in which an honest and effective assessment could be made of the problems involved in the development of a nuclear power plant. It was during this period that an offer from Frederick deHoffman came to me to join General Atomic.
By 1956 I had spent ten years in the nuclear energy business. I did not know Frederick de Hoffman until one day, in the spring of 1956, he called from La Jolla, California, asking to stop in and talk with me. When he visited us at our home in Grosse Pointe Park, Michigan, he told us that he was a physicist who had worked with Edward Teller on the hydrogen bomb. He was being made a Vice-President of General Dynamics, and President of a new division of the Company which was to be called General Atomic. General Atomic's purpose was to develop a new nuclear reactor for the generation of electrical power, and to do research leading to the development of hydrogen fusion for the generation of electrical energy. Edward Creutz, Head of the Physics Department at the Carnegie Institute of Technology was to be Vice-President of General Atomic and Manager of its research and development. They planned to hire an outstanding staff of scientists and engineers, and to augment the capabilities of the staff by the use of high level consultants. The new division was presently operating out of an abandoned school house in La Jolla, but planned to start immediately on the design and construction of a new laboratory. A beautiful plot of land, overlooking the Pacific Ocean at La Jolla, near the new La Jolla campus of the University of California and Scripps Institute of Oceanography, was given to General Atomic by the City of San Diego. Dr. de Hoffman was familiar with my new book, "Thermal Power from Nuclear Reactors." He said that I had been highly recommended, and invited me to be Chief Engineer for the development of nuclear reactors at General Atomic.
Dr. de Hoffman asked that we call him Freddy, as everyone else did. He was short, with dark hair, thick glasses, spoke with an accent, and continuously bubbled over with enthusiasm for whatever subject was under discussion. Like Edward Teller, who was his sponsor, he was a refugee, in his case from Vienna, Austria.
Barbara and I accepted an invitation to visit La Jolla for a week so that we could assess for ourselves the professional and personal prospects there. When we arrived late on a night in the first week in May we were met at the airport in San Diego by Freddy's secretary, and driven to the La Jollan Motel where we were to stay. We learned that Barbara was invited, the next morning, to have breakfast at the Motel with Edward Teller and George Gamow, and I was to go to the temporary quarters of General Atomic to talk with people there about plans for the development of nuclear reactors.
I had known Dr. Teller only by his reputation as a physicist and as the developer of the hydrogen bomb. He had achieved considerable notoriety by his condemnation of Robert Oppenheimer, the physicist who had been the chief developer of the first nuclear bombs, because Oppenheimer opposed the development of the hydrogen bomb. Teller accused Oppenheimer of being a communist sympathizer and a poor security risk. Oppenheimer lost his security clearance for classified government work as a result of an investigation at which Teller testified against him.
In addition to his other talents, Dr. Teller was reported to be a fine pianist. He can be very charming when he desires to be, and has an intriguing sense of humor. While he was testifying before Congress one year concerning the status of the program for the development of thermonuclear power for peacetime purposes, he was asked whether the program would be successful in accomplishing its purpose. His response was that he didn't know. When he was called back the next year to describe the progress that had been made in the last year, he was asked again the same question, whether the project would be successful. When he said that he didn't know, a Congressman reminded him that this was the same answer he had given a year ago, and asked what, then, was the difference between now and then. Teller's response was, "Now I don't know on a much firmer basis."
I was struck by Dr. Teller's fierce-looking, bushy, black eyebrows. Another scientist I knew remarked, "Why couldn't I have been blessed with eyebrows like that?"
George Gamow, a refugee from Russia, had done outstanding work on understanding the nuclear processes by which the sun generates energy, hence his usefulness to the hydrogen bomb project. He had also received the Pulitzer Prize for his series of books explaining science to the layman, including, for example, Mr. Tompkins Explores the Atom. He told me he bought a new Buick each year with the proceeds of his "science for the layman" books. Gamow's sense of humor was typified by his story of an incident which occurred when he was giving a talk at the Los Alamos Scientific Laboratory, where the first bombs had been developed. At the end of his talk, in answer to a question to which he didn't know the answer, he said, "I'm sorry. I can't answer that. It's a Russian military secret." George said he was immediately sorry for the direction his humor had taken him. "You could have heard a pin drop."
I think Drs. Teller and Gamow charmed Barbara, the City of La Jolla pleased both of us as a place to live, and the professional opportunity at General Atomic to participate with an outstanding group of scientists and engineers dedicated to the development of nuclear power for the generation of electricity seemed to me unique. Many of the people I met were familiar to me through their books and articles. Freeman Dyson had established a reputation for his work on topology. David Courant and his father were both mathematicians of whom I knew. Robert Karplus was a physisist whose book on the new math was based upon his own experiences teaching his small children the principles of relativity while taking them to school in the family car. Marshall Rosenbluth was an expert on the characteristics of ion plasmas and their potential use for the generation of electrical power from fusion.
The new laboratory was to be developed primarily around one idea, that people representing a diversity of backgrounds should be encouraged to communicate easily with one another. The buzz word was "cross-fertilization". The new building, in order to help such easy communication, was to be circular, built around an open central court. There was talk of forming committees which would included members of the surrounding community, including housewives, to develop significant ideas for directions for the Company. This all sounded good to me, but I began to discover that real communication with the management of the Company was difficult, particularly if the communication implied criticism.
Freddy turned out to be the living center of a perpetual crisis. An emergency can occur in anyone's life. If it becomes permanent, then it seems fitting to consider it no longer an emergency, but a way of life. Freddy was surrounded by competent women, secretaries and his new wife, formerly his secretary, all of whom he required to be on call day or night for whatever task he might want done. They were particularly expected to wait on important visitors. Because of the high sounding public relations efforts of General Atomic, many visitors came seeking to learn what was going on. No one was told about the long-lasting dangers of radiation from nuclear reactors. Medical clinics were invited to hear about the beneficial uses for medical analysis and therapy of the plentiful radioactive materials to be provided by our nuclear reactors. These visits were generally climaxed by an elaborately catered social party. Typically Freddy would call an emergency meeting of his staff during the party, leaving mostly wives and the honored guests to carry on for themselves for some length of time. These meetings, I decided, never settled anything, and therefore must have the purpose of bolstering Freddy's self esteem. Individual visitors who came on appointment during working hours would often be kept waiting for hours for Freddy's current emergency meeting to be terminated. Once, before I learned better, I invited a friend, Bill Parrish, whom I considered to be an outstanding engineer, to come to General Atomic to consider employment. Bill came, and waited a long time for Ed Creutz to come out of the meeting he was attending. When Bill sent a note into the meeting saying that he was leaving in fifteen minutes whether or not he had an interview, Freddy and Ed Creutz left the meeting to talk with him. They were well impressed and offered him a job. Bill turned it down on the basis that, if he had that much trouble getting attention as a visitor and prospective employee, it would be even worse after he had been employed. That turned out to be a smart deduction. I was asked afterward by Ed Creutz whether I thought they had offered Bill too little money. I told Ed I thought money wasn't the problem.
John Jay Hopkins, the Chairman of the Board of General Dynamics, came to La Jolla for the dedication of the site for the new laboratory building, which was to be named in his honor, "The John Jay Hopkins Laboratory for Pure and Applied Science." I had read some ethical-sounding articles Mr. Hopkins had published about service to Country and to Humanity which gave me hope for the high purpose of this new General Atomic Division of his Company. When he was called on for an impromptu talk, he seemed to me rather duller than I had hoped, stumbling through, sounding underverbalized and uneducated. His articles had been, I was convinced, the work of ghostwriters more verbal than he.
General Atomic, on the basis of the intuitive feelings of de Hoffman and his consultants, decided to build a high-temperature, gas-cooled reactor, designated HTGR. When I argued with de Hoffman against carrying this untried concept into construction without prior development, he became angry and asked me who I thought I was to question his decision, based as it was on the advice of his high-powered consultants.
I had been with General Atomic for almost a year when I decided there was no future there for me, or for the nuclear reactor business. When I handed in my resignation, Ed Creutz called me in to convince me to change my decision. When I told Ed that I had decided I could not work with Freddy, he apologized for him, "You know he's just a little boy. You have to work around him." I had to agree with an engineering colleague that "Creutz is even worse than Freddy. He seems rational, and should know better, but he still insists on ignoring reality."
Edward Teller stopped at my office to tell me that, if I needed a job, he'd be glad to intercede for me. I never took him up on his offer, but several years later I did consult once with him. I was developing my theory for a possible way in which reactors could go into power oscillations of rapidly increasing amplitude, leading to catastrophic failure. When I called him to request an opportunity to discuss my idea with him, he suggested that I come to his home in Berkeley. I found him in bed with back pains. He went over my presentation with me, asking many questions. When our discussion ended he said he agreed that I had a good point. For me it was a profitable and pleasant interchange. For several years we received Christmas cards from Dr. Teller.
One day I read an article in the newspaper quoting Teller in support of the safety of nuclear reactors. I wrote him what I meant to be a friendly letter, reminding him of the conversation we had had in which I thought he had agreed that some serious questions about reactor safety remained unanswered. I believe he must have taken it as an intolerable criticism of the public position he had taken. He didn't answer my letter, and there were no more Christmas cards.
NUCLEAR DEVELOPMENT CORPORATION (NDA)
When the venture at General Atomic didn't work out for me, I acted on a standing invitation to return to my former employer, NDA, a Rockefeller backed company in White Plains, New York.
Again I was on the staff of the President, John Menke. The company then had a task of designing a reactor for testing materials under conditions of high intensity radiation, to be built in Brussels, Belgium. This was a complicated reactor, designed entirely to intensify the density of neutrons in the center and to provide easy access to the high-density space for experiments. The fuel elements and experimental holes were placed in tubes. The tubes were arranged like a box of parallel pencils which were first removed from the box, then twisted, the eraser ends clockwise, the sharpened ends counterclockwise, so that they were close together at their centers and wide apart at their ends. The idea seemed to me ingenious, but it made for a difficult job of preparing a set of drawings from which the reactor could be manufactured. The drawings were behind schedule, more than most of the members of the engineering department were willing to admit, and the project had considerably exceeded its budget.
I rode to work from our home in Chappaqua to White Plains in a riding pool of other NDA employees. One day, returning from work, I was informed by one of the members of the riding pool that "the smart money in NDA says you're going to be our next chief engineer." I had heard nothing of this, and passed it off as idle gossip. The next day I was invited by Mike Hubbard, a semi-retired management consultant to the Rockefellers whom I had not previously met, to come into his office. After some brief preliminaries, he told me that he had been reading personnel forms from the company files from which he had concluded that I was the person in the company with the best background to straighten out the situation with the behind-schedule Belgian reactor. I was asked to accept the position of Chief Engineer. The idea satisfied my ego, and I accepted.
NDA at the time had about two hundred and fifty employees, about two hundred being engineers, the rest scientists and administrative people. It became my responsibility to organize the engineering department so that a workable set of drawings of the Belgian reactor would be produced without further delays and the resulting costs of those delays. My opinion was that the delays so far encountered resulted because no adequate method had been established to measure delays or to prescribe methods for overcoming them. NDA had some very competent and dedicated employees, many of whom were disheartened by the condition of the reactor project and anxious to try any new suggestions for resolving the dilemma in which they found themselves. I had an advantage from being at NDA long enough to judge the people from whom I might receive help and support.
My first act was to order a vertically mounted drafting board large enough for a layout of the reactor to be shown in its entirety, full size. A moveable platform enabled the draftsman to reach any part of the board. The board was conspicuous, even in the large, high-ceilinged drafting room. It became the focal point for every important discussion of the status of the project. NDA's best layout draftsman was given the job of making the layout, being insistent on getting from other draftsmen and engineers the information he needed, and keeping me informed concerning needed information that was lacking. Every morning at the start of the working day, I held a meeting at the drafting board with attendance required for all concerned engineers and draftsmen. I enforced as best I could the idea that we made long range schedules for our performance, and evaluated every morning the divergence from the schedule. I soon found that some engineers resisted strongly any attempt to evaluate their departures from the schedules to which they had agreed. When I couldn't make my way through the resistance I took away the responsibility, a demotion, and gave the assignment to someone else. I had the support of the company management in doing what I thought was necessary. Gradually the idea became accepted that I meant to do whatever was necessary to keep the project on the schedule we had set, and the project came under control. We were not able to make up the slippage in schedule which had occurred before I became responsible, but I think there was no further loss of time and therefore no further increases in cost.
Note: A recent check on the web site of the Belgian research facility, at (http://hades.sckcen.be/) indicated that the reactor is still in service, operated by personnel who are disheartened by drastic cuts in their financial support.
I paid a price for my feeling that I had accepted responsibility for the success or failure of the Belgian reactor project. At first I didn't realize what was happening. I started having sharp pains in my right leg which became worse with time, so that when I got out of the car after driving to work I needed to lean against the car to straighten my back before I could walk into the office. I didn't know that the pain was really caused by pinching of the sciatic nerve in the bottom of my spinal column. Finally I went to a doctor who required that I go to bed and stay there, for six weeks. I'm convinced that the doctor gave me bad advice - that I finally was able to get out of bed only because a Japanese friend, named Tom Shimazaki, gave me a set of exercises to do, starting with mild ones I could do while lying down.
When finally I returned to work, the company provided me with a specially designed stand-up desk, and a couch from which for some time I conducted staff meetings flat on my back. John Menke also had difficulty with back trouble which left him somewhat crippled. He was sympathetic with me, and I believe was convinced that I also was scheduled for some permanent crippling. With exercises my back condition continued to improve. From the experience I learned that when I was under stress I needed to be especially concerned that the needs of my body were not completely ignored.
At NDA I learned, more than on my other jobs, that the ego-satisfying role of hiring people to fill the needs of an expanding program was balanced by the less-satisfying task of firing people when program needs for personnel were less. After the Belgian reactor project was completed except for some on-site supervision of the construction which was not my responsibility, NDA had more people than could be supported by the remaining projects. It became necessary that employment of about twenty percent of the total work force be terminated. There is a great temptation in such cases to try to be a social worker, considering the personal needs of employees as well as their usefulness to the company. John Menke commented to me that he'd probably reverse some of my decisions on specific terminations of people who had been with NDA a long time. My reply was that if he intended to interfere in any way I'd have no part in the process. He agreed, and said he'd support me in what I did. In turn, I gave each of the engineering supervisors the task of deciding which of the employees they'd keep and which let go in order to have the strongest remaining organization possible. I did what I thought was necessary, but I certainly didn't enjoy the process.
At the end of two years the situation at NDA didn't look promising. When an offer came from Aerojet-General Nucleonics, in San Ramon, California, I took it.
NDA was merged with another Rockefeller company. I exercised my NDA stock options. Later I heard that John Menke had a heart attack, and was in poor health. I do not know whether any vestige of NDA remains.
AEROJET GENERAL NUCLEONICS
Art Beale and Bob Mainhart started a new company in San Ramon, California, to develop reactors. Then, to obtain financial support, they sold their company to Aerojet General Corporation, a rocket company. I joined the staff of Chan Ross, Vice-President of Engineering for the parent company, who had been assigned to oversee AGN. Their current venture was a small graphite moderated reactor for the Army. I persuaded the Company that it was not a good venture, and it was shut down. When I told Ross I wanted to leave to form my own consulting company, he suggested that I stay on his staff for a safety net while I tested my new venture. I decided to try it independently.
I left AGN to join two former General Electric engineers, Aubrey Miller and Al Weston, forming a consulting company which we called, "VARNA Corp." We calculated the expected modes of vibration of planned nuclear power equipment for Lawrence Livermore Laboratory and designed gas turbine components for a General Electric subsidiary in San Ramon.
The Los Alamos Space Propulsion Reactor
A reactor was to be designed for space propulsion, based on a model built at Los Alamos Scientific Laboratory. The core of that model was composed of large pieces of graphite held together by soft springs applied at the periphery. A gas coolant was forced through holes in the graphite. Based on my experience with a reactor of somewhat similar design, I proposed that power in the space reactor might be inherently unstable because of a mechanical problem. The internal pressure from the gas coolant might push the graphite blocks apart, making the reactor a complicated dynamic system of masses on soft springs, with a low natural frequency of mechanical oscillation. If the natural frequencies were in the wrong range, the oscillation might lead to a nuclear instability, and possibly to a violent explosion. The Los Alamos people told me that they understood what I was proposing, and had the capability to handle it themselves. They didn't need my help.
The Westinghouse Company proposed to be the prime contractor to the Atomic Energy Commission to design and build the space reactor based on the Los Alamos design. I was hired by Westinghouse as a consultant to consider various mechanical problems, and to describe solutions which would demonstrate that Westinghouse understood the situation. Among other problems I discussed in some detail the possibility of catastrophic oscillations. I assumed that my work, complete with secret stamp, was to be included in their proposal.
One day in 1962, an acquaintance called telling me that a Los Alamos non-nuclear model had wrecked itself during a flow test from aerodynamic forces such as I had described. I was invited to witness a movie showing vibration of the interior parts of the reactor as it destroyed itself. Westinghouse had not used in its proposal the part of my work on oscillations. Being fearful that they might not get the contract if they brought up the possibility of reactor oscillations, they said they had "decided not to play Cassandra." Walt Esselman, who had been in charge of the Westinghouse proposal, told me that he regretted they hadn't used the section I had written on oscillations; "We had a chance to be heroes, and we muffed it."
Aerojet was chosen to be the prime contractor, with Westinghouse a subcontractor to them responsible for the reactor. Chan Ross was in charge of the project, which was to be carried out at Aerojet's Azusa plant. I was taken on by Aerojet as a consultant, to help analyze the situation of the oscillations and design a "fix," and to help Aerojet organize to handle their new job. I found myself traveling on a regular schedule by air from Danville, where I lived, to Los Angeles, then, in a rented car, driving in Los Angeles traffic to Azusa. On the return trip there was always the chance of missing my flight home because of LA traffic.
I had grave doubts about the chances of success of nuclear rockets and I became appalled at the thought of the danger from them if they were successful.
OUT OF THE NUCLEAR BUSINESS
I decided to get out of the nuclear business, to some situation in which I might feel more satisfied with my use of my engineering training, and my sense of myself as a human being. I saw an invitation in one of my technical journals to, "come teach engineering at the place where East meets West." In 1963 we abandoned my consulting business, sold most of our possessions, and moved to Istanbul, where I taught engineering for four years at Robert College, at that time the oldest American college abroad.
As time passed I have become increasingly appalled at the worldwide threat of nuclear power and its relentless pursuit by its promoters and their government backers.
RESUME August 21, 1997
A. Stanley Thompson, 1910 Monroe Street, Eugene, OR 97405
Telephone: 541-683-2332, e-mail: <firstname.lastname@example.org>
- B.A. Amherst College
- B.S.M.E. University of Washington
- Ph.D. University of Pennsylvania
- Author: Thermal Power from Nuclear Reactors, Thompson and Rodgers, John Wiley & Sons, Inc., 1956.
- Many papers, published and unpublished, on design methods for power plants and nuclear reactors, including "A Model of Reactor Kinetics," Thompson and Thompson, Nuclear Science and Engineering, September 1988.
- Experience: Jet propulsion engines, central station power plants, and nuclear reactors.
- 1941-1946 Westinghouse:
In charge of mechanical development and design of first American designed and built turbojet engines.
- 1946-1951 North American Aviation:
In charge of engineering development of nuclear reactors and power plants.
- 1951-1952 Oak Ridge National Laboratory:
Consultant to Director on new reactor developments; Originated and taught course in Reactor Engineering at Oak Ridge School of Reactor Technology.
- 1952-1953 Nuclear Development Corporation:
Development of nuclear reactors.
- 1953-1956 Studebaker-Packard Corporation:
Manager, Nuclear Development Department. Consultant to General Electric and to Oak Ridge National Laboratory.
- 1956-1957 General Atomic:
- 1957-1960 Nuclear Development Corporation:
- 1960-1961 Aerojet-General Nucleonics:
Staff adviser to Engineering Vice President.
- 1961-1976 Director, Geoscience, Ltd:
Consultant to various companies, including Westinghouse, General Electric, Aerojet General, Geoscience Ltd, Oak Ridge National Laboratory, on power plants and nuclear reactors.
- 1963-1967 Robert College, Istanbul, Turkey:
Professor of Mechanical Engineering and Department Head.
- 1967-1976 Howard University:
Professor of Mechanical Engineering.
- 1976- Retired