The first Critmass, December 2, 1942

Seventy one years ago — on December 2, 1942, at 3:25 pm — Enrico Fermi and his team achieved the first controlled, man-made, self sustaining chain reaction in a simple reactor. In recognition of that historical event, several of my nuclear colleagues refer to December 2 as “Critmass” (short for critical mass).

The first nuclear reactor — CP-1 (Critical Pile number 1) — was actually a carefully constructed pile consisting of graphite bricks, uranium oxide pseudospheres, and uranium metal pseudospheres. The pile was built on a 30 by 60 foot squash court located under the stands at Stagg Field, the former home of the University of Chicago’s short-lived, but successful, football program.

The construction period was remarkably brief; the stacking process started on November 16, 1942, slightly more than two weeks before the criticality experiment.

In 2012, the Argonne National Laboratory produced a short history video that included interviews of Harold Agnew and Warren Nyers, two of the atomic pioneers who were part of the team that built the pile and produced the world-changing demonstration. ANL also has a Flickr page of CP-1 related images worth perusing.

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JFK’s “Best of the Above” speech at Hanford, WA on September 26, 1963

Almost exactly 50 years ago today, President John F. Kennedy, Jr. visited Hanford, Washington to give a speech about the importance of electrical power and the role that he expected nuclear technology would play in the future. (HT to the TriCity Herald for posting the video provided by the Department of Energy and to Martin […]

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San Onofre steam generators – honest error driven by search for perfection

Mitsubishi Heavy Industries (MHI), the supplier that sold four new steam generators to Southern California Edison (SCE) for the San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station (SONGS), has issued a redacted version of its root cause analysis of the u-tube failures that have kept both of the station’s 1100 MWe units shut down since January 31, 2012. […]

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Rockwell’s perspective on the history of nuclear power regulation

Ted Rockwell has been an active participant in the development of nuclear energy production in the United States since the very earliest days of the technology. He started his nuclear career as an engineering troubleshooter in 1943 at the site that is now Oak Ridge National Laboratory during the Manhattan Project. He was one of […]

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Ten months to obtain an AEC construction permit

I’m doing a little history reading today and came across a passage worth sharing. The source is Glenn Seaborg’s “The Atomic Energy Commission Under Nixon” St. Martin’s Press, NY 1993 pg 101-102. In December 1965, the management of Northern States Power Company (NSP) reached an internal decisions that a new generating unit in the 500-electrical-megawatt […]

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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 […]

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December 2, 1942 – Two pioneers present at dawn of fission era

In the summer of 2012, Argonne National Laboratory recorded the first hand memories of two members of the group of 49 engineers, scientists and students who were present when mankind first proved that it could control a fission chain reaction. Just imagine – you can watch a very recently recorded account from people who were […]

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Reed College has a nuclear reactor operated by undergraduate liberal arts majors

Reed College is perhaps best known among technologists as the place where Steve Jobs learned about calligraphy – among a number of other useful topics. It is also the only liberal arts college that owns a research reactor that is operated primarily by undergraduates. I hope you enjoyed Will and Norm’s visit to the Reed […]

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Pursuing the unlimited energy dream – history of the Integral Fast Reactor

Note: Len Koch, whose participation in nuclear energy research started in the 1940s, wrote the below open letter to colleagues who are striving to restore interest in the progress that they made in research and development of the Integral Fast Reactor during the period from 1954-1994 the year that President Clinton and Hazel O’Leary, his […]

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Kirk Sorensen – Why didn’t molten salt thorium reactors succeed the first time?

Kirk Sorensen is the founder of Flibe Energy. He has been prospecting in libraries for years to learn more about a path not taken (yet). He is convinced that the way forward for energy in the United States and around the world is the molten salt thorium reactor that can produce an almost unlimited amount […]

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Reflections on the 69th anniversary of anthropogenic sustained nuclear fission

By: Cal Abel (submitted for publication on December 2, 2011, but slightly delayed by an inept editor.) Today marks the 69th anniversary of CP-1 criticality and 54th anniversary of Shippingport criticality. Perhaps with too much time to think I wrote some thoughts and observations about my brief experience with nuclear power. It began in 1996 […]

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Celebrating the first self sustaining chain reaction at CP-1

On December 2, 1942, a small team of scientists and technicians methodically pulled neutron absorbing rods out of a carefully stacked pile of graphite bricks and natural uranium/uranium oxide spheres. The pile has been assembled in just a few weeks with a total project budget in the range of a few hundred thousand dollars. The […]

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