The Birth of Nuclear Energy

A clear dark night far from city lights under the quiet majesty of the Milky Way. The smell of musty leaves, flitting fireflies, chirps of crickets and croaks of frogs in the midnight cool, and the breathtaking silent expanse of the cosmos overhead. No hint of immensely distant ginormous nuclear smiths hammering stellar iron cores into the last and heaviest primordial natural elements. Rebounded cataclysmic supernova explosions that spread swaths of rich stardust though the heavens. Stellar debris coalesced into superstructures of galaxies and star systems. Our Sun and Earth with thorium and uranium sought by the Nazi Third Reich and Great Britain for a devastating atomic bomb. Uranium ore the Americans used to end a war to end all wars and transform war itself—to transmute thorium into uranium for fuel. Atomic power that became a world fleet of energy-dense emission-free nuclear reactors born to preserve fossil fuels and mitigate climate change. The birth of human nuclear energy to advance our species in the cosmos.

Slumbering Elemental Force

Australian indigenous people since ancient times living on lands rich in uranium drawing from their oldest of continuous religious traditions, the Rainbow Serpent mythology, say a great creation spirit sleeps underground akin to a slumbering dragon. They are deathly afraid to disturb the ground spirit that will unleash disaster.

Alvin M. Weinberg, a father of the uranium age and inventor of the thorium molten salt reactor (MSR), infamously borrowed from Faust in comparing our use of nuclear materials to a contract with Mephistopheles. The Faustian devil had kept his dragon minions in Dante’s depths for countless years before Chadwick’s 1932 measurements of the neutron.

In the early 1970s, French researchers confirmed what was first suspected in 1953. Earth was just over half its age billions of years before our species evolved when the primordial atomic dragons woke up in a rare uranium ore vein in mineral-rich east equatorial Africa. The deposit once had spots high enough in the only natural fissile nuclear fuel, uranium-235, to go critical on their own. Several places in the ore bodies were of just the right size and enrichment where percolating groundwater moderated the spontaneous neutron emissions enough for sustained fission. The natural nuclear reactors cycled hourly like geysers as water boiled off and lost their moderator to start again as the water returned. They ran for many years until the nuclear fuel burned down leaving ore depleted by three-hundredths of a percent in uranium-235. It was the trace signature of nuclear fission. The dragons had stirred in their subterranean womb billions of years ago.

The ancients had seen fireflies and glowworms, glowing plant and fish rot, luminous sea creatures, and perhaps rare radioactive minerals containing phosphors. In 1603, Italian shoemaker and alchemist Vincenzo Cascariolo heated natural barite into barium sulfide that was an early synthetic phosphor. Over two centuries later, Darwin observed many kinds of biological luminescence and how “on one very dark night, the sea presented a wonderful and most beautiful spectacle . . . every part of the surface, which during the day is seen as foam, now glowed with a pale light. The vessel drove before her bows two billows of liquid phosphorus, and in her wake she was followed by a milky train.”

Phosphorescence became intensely studied in 1896 when Röntgen announced his discovery of X-rays. That year, French physicist Antoine Henri Becquerel was studying phosphorescent salts of uranium with photographic emulsions similar to photographer Abel Niepce de Saint-Victor (assisted by Henri’s father), who in 1857 noticed uranium salts from pitchblende would darken photographic plates. Becquerel saw that the blackening was also produced by non-phosphorescent salts of uranium and metallic uranium and he was “able to bring some clarification to this new class of phenomena.” By 1903, Becquerel shared the Nobel Prize in Physics with Marie Skłodowska-Curie and her husband Pierre Curie “in recognition of the extraordinary services he has rendered by his discovery of spontaneous radioactivity.”

Science Awakens the Beasts

Heightened research into radioactivity showed that the primordial thorium is also radioactive. In 1898, the Curies discovered in uranium ores the radioactive element polonium named for Marie’s native Poland. They found the fleeting polonium a strong alpha emitter. Scientists were rousing the nuclear dragons in those heady days of atomic science.

Thirty years later in 1931 was the beginning of the Great Depression. That year, Walther Bothe and Herbert Becker in Germany observed that if the energetic polonium alpha particles fell on the light elements beryllium, boron, or lithium, they produced an unusually penetrating radiation that was not influenced by an electric field. James Chadwick, working in 1932 at the Cavendish Laboratory in Cambridge, ran experiments that didn’t support the gamma ray hypothesis for the neutral emissions. He too used polonium alpha emissions aimed at beryllium to make the unknown radiation but with better detection. He aimed the penetrating secondary beam at paraffin after the Paris experiment—a target dense with protons of almost equal mass to the neutral atomic particles hypothesized by Rutherford. The proton scattering events measured by Chadwick were consistent with an uncharged particle of about the same mass as the proton. Chadwick won the 1935 Nobel Prize in Physics for quantifying the neutron. The dragons’ eyes were opening.

By then, Otto Hahn at his laboratory in Berlin with his pupil, Lise Meitner, and his assistant, Fritz Strassmann, continued work on research begun in Rome by Enrico Fermi and his Via Panisperna boys to bombard uranium with the newly discovered neutrons. The deciding Berlin experiment in mid December 1938 oddly but persistently produced the lighter barium and not the heavier radium element. By January 1939, Hahn decided with his assistants that he had observed the fracturing of uranium nuclei into the lighter elements by neutron bombardment. Meitner had fled to Sweden to escape Nazi persecution, and with her nephew Otto Frisch, working under Niels Bohr, calculated 200 million electron volts of energy would be released from an atomic fission as Frisch first called it borrowed from cell fission in biology. In January 1939, Frisch measured this value—the first experimental confirmation of Albert Einstein’s famous mass-energy equivalence by the speed of light squared published in 1905. The nightmare of arousing the devil’s dragons had not entered the peaceful and occupied imagination of the great physicist—at first.

In their second paper on the nuclear phenomenon, Hahn and Strassmann predicted the existence and release of additional neutrons during the fission process. In February 1939, Frédéric Joliot and his Paris team proved that this phenomena was a chain reaction as had Leo Szilard working with Fermi in New York after the Via Panisperna boys had disbanded and Fermi fled to America. That May, French physicist Francis Perrin published the first estimate of the fast-neutron critical mass of a uranium compound.

In August, the month before Hitler invaded Madam Curie’s homeland and the British declared war with Germany, Leo Szilard urged a worried Einstein to use his influence to warn FDR. Szilard through Einstein said to bridle the waking nuclear beasts before the Germans, who in March had entered the dragons’ lair in Czechoslovakia with its well-known deposits of uraninite ore called pitchblende.

At the University of Birmingham in March 1940, Rudolf Peierls and Otto Frisch co-wrote the MAUD memorandum for Churchill explaining that a small mass of pure uranium-235 could be used to produce a chain reaction in a bomb with the power of thousands of tons of chemical explosives. This led to the MAUD Committee, which called for a major British effort to develop nuclear weapons. Bohr’s telegram to Frisch ended with instructions to pass his words along to “Cockroft and Maud Ray Kent.” Maud was the governess of Bohr’s children and mistakenly thought a cryptic atomic reference and so they chose the name as a code for the nuclear weapons committee. MAUD is not an acronym for military application of uranium detonation.

The United Kingdom and Canada had begun the secret nuclear weapons program with the code name Tube Alloys. Wallace Akers oversaw the secret British plans to shackle the dragons—the world’s first nuclear weapons project. The costs were very high and Britain was within bombing range of its German enemy, so Tube Alloys got absorbed into the US Manhattan Project far away from German bombs. The Soviet Union gained valuable information through its atomic spies, who had infiltrated both the British and American projects.

The United States tested the dragons’ reins at Trinity July 16,1945, and flew the fire-breathers to Hiroshima and Nagasaki the next month—horrible creatures used to end the worst war in human history. With hope, never again will these awful beasts be tasked to breathe their dreadful fire.

Three years after the end of World War II, the Soviet Union had shackled its own dragon called RDS-1 in August 1949. This inaugurated a race to fill our stalls with many far more powerful hydrogen dragons—champing bits, chained, and confined among the nuclear nations in assorted delivery systems ready to spread their unholy destruction.

Earlier that year in February, Captain Hyman Rickover, assigned to the US Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) Division of Reactor Development at Oak Ridge, Tennessee, went to work with Director Alvin Weinberg, the inventor of the light water reactor and later the MSR. Captain Rickover was also made Director of the Naval Reactors Branch in the Bureau of Ships. His dual role gave him the lead in the effort to develop USS Nautilus, the world’s first nuclear-powered vessel launched and commissioned in 1954. He also supervised the Shippingport Atomic Power Station (APS) development in Pennsylvania—the world’s first full-scale atomic electricity generating plant with a naval pressurized light water breeder reactor expressly employed for commercial domestic “atoms for peace” nuclear energy. President Eisenhower opened Shippingport APS for business in May 1958.

Two years earlier, the UK Calder Hall station built for weapons-grade plutonium production also generated grid power. Connected in August 1956, Calder Hall was the world’s first dual-use nuclear power station that delivered electricity in commercial quantities. Shippingport APS was not a weapons material plant. The Soviet Union’s smaller Obninsk APS was generating a small amount of grid-connected nuclear energy in June 1954 two months before groundbreaking at Shippingport. The first French commercial nuclear power station went online in 1963. AEC Director Glenn T. Seaborg was at the controls of Weinberg’s MSR Experiment (MSRE) at Oak Ridge in 1968 when it became the world’s first molten salt reactor to run on the synthetic fissile uranium-233 nuclear fuel made from thorium that he and John Gofman had discovered at Lawrence Berkeley in 1941.

Living with Dragons

Human nuclear energy was born the day military ambitions woke the ancient nuclear dragons. Our only choice since has been to harness and bridle the nuclear beasts. A futile try to drag the elemental forces back to their earthen lairs? No. We rein in these powerful monsters to transform global energy systems and reverse climate change with an unbreakable harness.

Presently, ninety-nine US nuclear reactors reliably supply twenty percent of the nation’s energy annually and sixty percent of non-emitting always-on baseload power. As of May 2016, thirty countries worldwide are operating 444 nuclear reactors for electricity generation and sixty-three new nuclear plants are under construction in fifteen countries. The world will need many more better reactors to avert climate change, transform fossil carbon usage, advance the materials and chemicals industries, power waterworks, and thereby grow our world economies in a sustainable ecological balance for prosperity and peace.

Humanity dearly paid the devil’s nuclear price at Hiroshima and Nagasaki, bomb test sites, Chernobyl, Fukushima, Hanford, Rocky Flats, Savannah River, national energy sites, decommissioned utility reactors, spent nuclear fuel (SNF), the nuclear navies, weapons material, and radioactive wastes in the nuclear nations at many sites around the world.

What if the US had adopted and deployed Alvin Weinberg’s thorium MSR? Could we have negotiated a better deal with the devil and his dragon minions? Weinberg was working on that agreement when the US discontinued his thorium MSR to focus on the uranium fast breeder, which itself eventually ended up canceled—a victim of the Cold War. Weinberg knew that a certain non-pressurized molten salt reactor design if thermally moderated was ideal for thorium to achieve superior breeding for its fuel compared to the uranium fast breeder. It did not need enrichment once started as thorium is fertile and the reactor could run continuously by adding thorium up to a less-frequent maintenance schedule compare to water reactors. Flowing fuel salt allowed continuous removal of fission and decay products, was meltdown-proof, burned fuel more thoroughly with less transuranic production, proved infeasible for weapons material, formed less waste of a safer kind, was more compact, powerful, efficient, and versatile.

In 1973, the US dismissed Weinberg from Oak Ridge after twenty-six dedicated years of service. Six years later, the second reactor at Three Mile Island had a partial core meltdown from a loss of coolant accident. If the US had developed his thorium MSR and deployed it at Three Mile Island and other sites, would the nuclear industry have achieved its goals as once envisioned when the US brought forth the nuclear beasts in war and then tamed them for peaceful commercial power?

Weinberg recognized accumulating amounts of SNF from solid-fueled water reactors defined our Faustian bargain for domestic energy. Since the birth of nuclear energy, the dragons have left a surprisingly small relative amount of radioactive droppings spread out over carefully monitored locations. The whole pile in one place would be the size of a football field to a height of less than thirty feet—small compared to solid waste landfills. Worldwide there is an inventory of about a quarter million tonnes of SNF in monitored storage at reactor sites and thousands of tonnes more each year. About half of new SNF is sent to reprocessing annually, which can improve dramatically with new reactor designs and some that will burn it—SNF is still valuable fuel. Advanced processes are possible to extract strategic materials from the fission product inventories to further reduce vitrified radioactive wastes requiring geologic storage.

Demons Become Angels

Our species evolved unprecedented technological advantage with the advent and institution of fossil energy. The nuclear dragons dethroned King Carbon once roused from their earthen slumbers and bridled for their million-to-one energy-density superiority for commercial energy. Taming of the nuclear beasts is ongoing and necessary. The devil’s deal is renegotiable for the better. To drag Mephistopheles’ minions back to their underground lairs and cancel the Faustian energy contract would be an unnatural devolution of our being. They were born in the heavens as we’re all born of angelic nuclear energy amid the stars.

Tim Meyer

Former Army Corps of Engineers environmental chemist; B.S. chemistry UWSP 1985, M.S. chemistry ASU 1987. Present media specialist and energy policy advocate.

Latest posts by Tim Meyer (see all)

About Tim Meyer

Former Army Corps of Engineers environmental chemist; B.S. chemistry UWSP 1985, M.S. chemistry ASU 1987. Present media specialist and energy policy advocate.

Leave a Reply