Atomic Show #191 – 70th Anniversary of CP-1, the First Controlled Fission Chain Reaction

On Sunday, December 2, 2012, I gathered together a group of nuclear professionals to talk about the impact to human history of the construction and operation of Critical Pile 1 (CP-1). That simple assembly of graphite, uranium, and uranium dioxide was built in about 6 weeks. When measurements taken during construction indicated that the system was large enough to sustain a chain reaction, Enrico Fermi scheduled a test. It worked as expected on the first try.

Fission, a power source that releases 2 million times as much energy per unit mass as burning the most densely concentrated hydrocarbon fuel, worked fine. If the discovery had taken place at any other time in human history, progress would have been made far more quickly to turn that new power source into an amazing boon for mankind. As it has turned out, we have made progress and developed a reliable alternative to burning fossil fuel, but there is still vast untapped potential.

Guests on this show include:

Margaret Harding – 4 Factor Consulting
Leslie Corrice – The Hiroshima Syndrome
Will Davis – Atomic Power Review
Suzy Hobbs Baker – PopAtomic Studios
Kirk Sorensen – Co-Founder, Flibe Energy and creator of Energy from Thorium

I hope you all enjoy this show as much as I enjoyed hosting the conversation.

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About Rod Adams

10 Responses to “Atomic Show #191 – 70th Anniversary of CP-1, the First Controlled Fission Chain Reaction”

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  1. James Greenidge says:

    Great podcast! Only sorry Meredith Angwin couldn’t show up. I’d also like to see a show on the nuclear industry/professional organizations countering FUD.

    Some of the best lines from this podcast were about hanging hopes too high on fusion (and thorium). The advocates of such have long unwittingly fed the public misperception that the instant sustainable fusion is achieved, whiz-bang-pop, we can convert all nukes into fusion/thorium plants overnight. That is grave injustice to being square and honest to the public, and it long puzzled me why fusion/thorium promoters would think the already nuclear skittish public would receive them with any more open arms than fission once it sinks it that they’re nuclear too. It was only shortly after the World’s Fair here where GE had a “prototype” show thermonuclear fusion “reactor” (that made fun loud thunderclaps at end of countdowns) that the fusion community caught wind of the budding Earth Day movement and anti-war swell and, no PR fools they, started dropping the “thermonuclear” header from fusion so to divorce themselves from the evil mother moniker. Kinda funny to see, but if fusion and thorium types really wanted to feather their nests and help the public roll out the future red carpet for them, they ought climb on board and aggressively PSA challenge FUD and help educate the public that current fission nuclear power is safe because they’re all in the same boat. IMHO.

    James Greenidge
    Queens NY

  2. AtomikRabbit says:

    James – you need to separate fusion from thorium. The thorium process involves fission of U233 generated from neutron absorption of Th232. It’s utility has been proven repeatedly over six decades.

    As for your comments on the ineffectuality of nuclear PR, I have been trying to push that creaky bandwagon since 1980.

    • DV82XL says:

      I beg to disagree. Thorium fuel cycles are indeed closer to fruition than any fission technology but their utility and cost-effectiveness has yet to be established. There is still a very large potential for growth in nuclear energy using proven uranium fueled reactors, and as the established technology they will be more likely to attract the investment needed to have them built. That is not to say that experimental work on Th cycles should not continue, but they should not be advertised as the solution to nuclear energy’s problems.

      Many thorium supporters are playing a dangerous game when they try and hold up this fuel cycle as an answer to some of the artificial issues that nuclear power detractors have traditionally used to criticize this source of energy and I fear that it will backfire on them to the detriment of the broader effort to advance wider use of nuclear in general.

      • George Carlin says:

        I find that the “thorium is the answer” crowd are usually not unlike the “solar/wind is the answer” crowd in terms of pushing something without thorough knowledge of how it works and why it is/isn’t better than the alternative.

        As of late, thorium has been pushed with the molten salt reactor by Kirk Sorensen. I have found that the casual reader usually does not realize that the benefits of the MSR+Th reactor system mainly come from the use of the liquid molten salt fuel solution, not from thorium. However, the casual reader will read a column written by a non-scientist praising thorium and leaving out the part explaining that the MSR makes all of it possible. Not knowing any better, the casual reader will interpret that thorium is the answer to all of nuclear power’s problems. I think Dr. David LeBlanc, a molten salt reactor guru, has said it best when it comes to informing the general public about thorium and the MSR: “Come for the thorium, stay for the reactor”.

        I agree with DV82XL, the anti-nukes will not change their mind just because we change fuel cycles. Their arguments against nuclear power are already absurd.

        • John Tucker says:

          But actually we know “solar/wind is the answer” will not work. A Thorium cycle is very much still viable and even necessary IMHO.

          But then again, being an environmentalist, I have no problem with conventional nuclear power.

          So I don’t see the “issues” so much I guess.

          • Rod Adams says:

            @John Tucker

            I think what George is alluding to is the attitude among some thorium converts that their solution is “the” answer that solves all of the issues that have kept nuclear fission using uranium from succeeding as well as some of the early proponents imagined.

            Thorium is a useful fertile material that has an advantage or two over uranium in certain measures of effectiveness. It is A silver bullet, but so is uranium and its plutonium cousin. All three of those materials are incredible gifts to humanity, with stored energy that is so densely concentrated and so abundant that we should never allow a lack of power to be an excuse for failing to do anything.

            Every use of fission, however, depends on one small fact – U-235 will fission easily. It is the magic bullet that allows conversion and breeding. The slight reluctance of Th-232 and U-238 to fission are also gifts. If they fissioned as readily as U-235, earth would never have been able to successfully host life as we know it.

            It is that marvelous combination of “kindling” and “logs” that makes fission a controllable power source for humans that have taken the time to learn how to make it work.

            One last thing – the only real thing that slows fission power down – whether from Th or from U – is resistance from human beings. Some may have irrational fears, some may not yet appreciate the power, and some are really afraid that fission will take away their wealth and power. It is only through consistent cooperation and efforts to build coalitions of people who are dedicated to the idea of providing clean, cheap, reliable power to the people that we will be able to overcome that resistance.

            It almost appears to me that a few of the thorium cheerleaders are really agitators from the hydrocarbon crowd. They want to keep fission suppressed by telling people that we should stop developing U and turn to Th. About the time that Th systems are ready to deploy, they will have found some other excuse or distraction that results in more delays.

            That effort, if successful, will maintain the existing wealth and power balance that arises in a world dependent on consuming fossil fuels.

          • jmdesp says:

            When life appeared on earth, there was no ozone layer therefore around 2 Gy a year of cosmic rays, and a lot more U235 in the ground therefore also about 2Gy more radiation. So what created life was around 4Gy a year of radiation.

            And when some French researcher found the oldest multicellular life on earth :
            http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2010/06/100630171711.htm
            they forgot to say that this site is the site of natural nuclear reactor of Oklo, and those organisms were present whilst it was active :

            Cf http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Oklo “Oklo is a region near the town of Franceville”

            Intriguing, isn’t it ?

  3. Robert Steinhaus says:

    Those that are too close to existing LWR technology seem not able to grasp the potential of Thorium and practical Fusion Reactors.

    Those who send all of their time investigating Thorium LFTRs and practical Fusion Concepts under appreciate the near term good that can be done by installing more Gen-III nuclear that has design certifications and can be built today to preserve American quality of life.

    Not to be tedious (and to keep the correction of a wide scale cultural misperception to one sentence), there is a practical, cost effective, fusion technology that can be built today that has very low technical risk (it will work first time with high technical certainty) and has lower capital costs of construction than any existing form of nuclear (Atoms for Peace – Plowshare from the ashes – http://goo.gl/DjCzr).

    • DV82XL says:

      I understand the potentials quite well thank-you, but I also understand the politics, and that is where the rubber hits the road. Advanced fuel cycles and untried fission schemes will not pass the political sniff-test at this juncture and this is what will keep these technologies from being developed in the near-to-medium future.

      As for Robert’s favorite method I can hardly see that selling it to the necessary stakeholders will be an easy task, if for no other reason than it will require a difficult renegotiation of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, a task no government in its right mind will undertake at this point in time.

    • jmdesp says:

      Robert, today there’s no chance that this will be implemented today, but continue to talk about it, continue to try to find engineers who will see the practical problem that are left to be solved and how this can be enhanced.
      So that this always stays somewhere on the library shelves, and will be ready for the day where it will be really needed, the day people will start to meet desperation about how to continue to provide energy to the world and will be ready to try new things that worries about potential risks have hold back until then.
      Of course, there’s obviously a significant, unavoidable risk with this solution. It require a constant flux of military grade fissile material, ready for a bomb. Even if the amount at any one time does not need to be very large and not enough for a big bomb, it’s just there. But one day the option we are left with might end up being much less open than today, and having this on the back burner might prove really useful.