1. In February of 1940, Robert A. Heinlein wrote a science-fiction story entitled “Blowups Happen”, in which he envisaged an accelerator-driven subcritical fast reactor using molten natural uranium fuel. In this story, a single reactor (the only one in the world, because of a uranium supply constraint which is the only unrealistic element in the story according to the facts known at that time — crucially, delayed fission neutrons had not yet been discovered) provides one eighth of the total electricity used in the United States, the remainder being mostly solar (from a photovoltaic technology far superior to any real-world example). It’s known to the people who operate it as “the bomb”, because they’re constantly afraid that a statistical fluctuation in the neutron multiplication ratio will cause it to explode, & there is a calculation of its TNT equivalent early in the story, but it is throughout treated entirely as a producer of power for peaceful purposes, if not exactly a peaceable power-producer!

    1. Thanks Rod, and thanks publius. I’d been thinking of the Heinlein story as well, and that Blowups Happen might be part of the myth that nuclear reactors can explode like a nuclear bomb. It’s good to know a possible source of inspiration for Heinlein.

      Rod – I’m sure you’ve noticed the science literacy and overall literacy of the article. It makes for an interesting comparison with the current standards of journalism.

  2. Thanks Rod, that’s an interesting find. On a tangential note, the writing quality and detail provided seem to me to be well above the current dreck churned out by the press.

    1. @gmax137

      Waldemar Kaempffert was a talented and deeply knowledgable science communicator. He is one of the many reasons I like reading New York Times archives. I can assure you that there were plenty of examples of “dreck churned out by the press” in his time as well.

  3. The Navy was working on nuclear reactors before we entered WW II. In particular, the Navy was pursuing the liquid thermal diffusion process for uranium enrichment. The Navy project was placed under Army control with the inception of the Manhattan Project.

    From the Wikipadia entry for: S-50 (Manhattan Project)

    Philip H. Abelson was a young physicist who had been awarded his PhD from the University of California on 8 May 1939.[18] He was among the first American scientists to verify nuclear fission,[19] reporting his results in an article submitted to the Physical Review in February 1939,[20] and collaborated with Edwin McMillan on the discovery of neptunium.[21][22] Returning to the Carnegie Institution in Washington, D.C., where had a position, he became interested in isotope separation. In July 1940, Ross Gunn from the United States Naval Research Laboratory (NRL) showed him a 1939 paper on the subject by Harold Urey, and Abelson became intrigued by the possibility of using the liquid thermal diffusion process.[17] He began experiments with the process at the Department of Terrestrial Magnetism at the Carnegie Institution.

    The next step was to repeat the experiments with uranium. He studied the process with aqueous solutions of uranium salts, but found that they tended to be hydrolyzed in the column. Only uranium hexafluoride (UF 6) seemed suitable. In September 1940, Abelson approached Ross Gunn and Lyman J. Briggs, the director of the National Bureau of Standards, who were both members of the National Defense Research Committee (NDRC) Uranium Committee. The NRL agreed to make $2,500 available to the Carnegie Institution to allow Abelson to continue his work, and in October 1940, Briggs arranged for it to be moved to the Bureau of Standards, where there were better facilities.[23]

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