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 pile behaved exactly as predicted.
I often wonder about how different the course of human society development would have been if that event had not taken place at a time when a whole category of people were being persecuted by a nation full of followers bent on world domination. The scientists who figured out the details of splitting atoms in the period leading up to that demonstration were not thinking about weapons, but about unlocking a vast new source of concentrated, reliable energy that could alleviate suffering for countless people who had little or no access to the warmth and utility of commercial supplies of coal or oil.
At that time, natural gas was rarely used because few pipelines existed. Most of the people who knew about methane considered it to be an enormous hazard; it was the source of countless explosions in coal mines and at oil wells. In almost every case, miners and drillers burned it off as quickly as it came out of the ground.
Though numerous energy commentators seem to believe that there was a time before the Arab Oil Embargo of 1973 when fossil fuel was so abundant and cheap that no one worried about finding alternatives, that view is a complete misunderstanding of the long struggle that mankind has had to find ever better and more available sources of controllable power. There is a reason why there were so many impressive fortunes built around supplying fuel. There is a reason why people referred to the coal industry as King Coal.
The nuclear physicists who unlocked atomic energy generally came from poor enough backgrounds that they had a first-hand understanding of what it was like to shiver through the winter or to not be able to afford to travel freely due to a lack of affordable fuel. They came from a time when people would never dream of being able to flip a switch to have all of the interior lighting they desired. The CP-1 team was full of people who were really excited about the prospects of introducing a new source of power. Sadly, their timing was a little off and wartime thinking turned their amazing tool into a weapon before they had a chance to prove it as a useful, controlled power source.
However, on this anniversary day, I would like to ask you all to think about the gift that the atomic scientists gave the world and think more about all of the good that the gift could do if we unshackle it from the association with fear inspiring weapons. Controlled fission is awe inspiring – 2 million times as energy dense as burning oil and 4-6 million times less waste material to handle.
Society really needs what atomic fission offers. That need is more obvious now than ever before, but even in 1942, there were many people who realized just how important abundant energy would be.
Happy December 2.
PS – Sometime in the next day or so, I will be writing about the event titled University of Chicago Report Rollout on Small Modular Reactors: Key to Future Nuclear Power Generation in the U.S. that I attended yesterday.
Additional Birthday Wishes for Atomic Fission
Nuke Power Talk – Celebrating Many Milestones in December
Atomic Power Review – December 2, 2011 – An anniversary piece
…and a happy neutron.
Thankfully the right side in that conflict did it first. While it is unfortunate that the first practical application of this new technology was a weapon, it is unthinkable what the outcome would have been if the Axis powers had been the ones to deploy it.
To all carbon based units!
Note also on December 2nd, 1957 (at 4:30 in the morning): Shippingport reactor first went critical.
Having attended more than a few initial criticalities of naval reactors … why do they always happen at oh-dark-thirty? NR got off to a good start with the Shippingport reactor and I guess decided to continue that tradition …
For those with delicate religious sensibilities. Crit-mas is a play on words. It is as a good nuke can appreciate acronym. It comes from Critical-mass. My last boat, was refueled and wrote a song about low power physics testing called the 12 days of Critmas. I honestly can’t remember how it goes, but it was sarcastic and disparaging of having to be in shift work over the holidays.
There is an old adage, “A happy nuke is a complaining nuke.” Saying the “Green” crew was ecstatic would be an understatement. NR has managed to continue the fine tradition of O’dark thirty startups and testing over the holidays since the inception of anthropogenic nuclear fission. It truly is “the most wonderful time of the year.”
Testing gets done after all the management goes homes. Mistakes do not happen until about 6am. This will give management something to dither about it is time for them to go home. The other given is that after working 36 hours straight even the best become bumbling idiots.
Excellent article, Rod. Articles as this long to belong in newspapers and TV news headlining this date, but they’d assume just remark on who high scored rugby or golf on some forgotten year on Dec 2nd! They sure don’t let us forget that the “birth” of the nuclear age was as an explosion out in the desert. I guess a pile doing the same job much more quietly is too damn lame and benign for the AP and rest of the media.
>> “The CP-1 team was full of people who were really excited about the prospects of introducing a new source of power. Sadly, their timing was a little off and wartime thinking turned their amazing tool into a weapon before they had a chance to prove it as a useful, controlled power source.”
Likewise, people forget that long before his “shotgun marriage” with the Nazis, Warner Von Braun’s sole dream was sending rockets to the Moon and Mars, NOT sailing into English cities. I can’t condemn one altering their dreams with a gun at their head, so I wish his critics all the way to NASA cut him some slack — a lot of it.
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