In January 1947, after more than a year of focused public attention and debate, the civilian U.S. Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) took control of all atomic energy matters from the Manhattan District of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. This takeover was a major victory for the atomic scientists and others who worked diligently to ensure that civilians were put in charge of the incredible new energy source.
The Atomic Energy Act of 1946 gave the civilian AEC far-reaching monopoly powers over all aspects of atomic energy development. In the short summary of major aspects of the law provided by one of its drafters is this high level policy statement.
Basic Policies:Miller, Byron S., “A Law is Passed: The Atomic Energy Act of 1946“, The University of Chicago Law Review, Summer 1948 Vol 14, Num 4.
a. “Improving the public welfare, increasing the standard of living, strengthening free competition among private enterprises so far as practicable, and cementing world peace.”
b. Specific provisions for encouraging research, insuring public availability of peacetime uses, and leaving basic decisions to Congress when practical applications are ready.
Public excitement about useful atomic energy
One of the primary sources of public excitement about atomic energy was the prospect of using fission chain reactions to produce reliable heat that could supplement or even replace traditional fuels like coal, oil and natural gas. Throughout the war years, propaganda messages, rationing and other constraints on fuel use had increased public awareness of energy’s importance and had increased interest in finding alternatives and new supplies.
There was serious public interest in power producing piles. The Manhattan Project leaders shared this interest. They had begun supporting development even before the first bombs were put to use. They knew reliable energy was an important tool and they understood that the public would be well-served by using some of the infrastructure they had developed during the war.
The primary power pile project initiated by the Manhattan Project was the Daniels Pile, a helium-cooled, beryllium oxide moderated reactor designed to produce 40 MWth at a gas outlet temperature of 650 ℃. The hot helium would be piped through a boiler to produce steam for a 10-15 MWe turbine.
Farrington Daniels, the pile namesake, was the project leader and primary pile designer. He had served for about a year as the Director of the Metallurgical Laboratory at the University of Chicago, the Manhattan Project organization that later became Argonne National Laboratory. Daniels was a well-respected scientist who had focused his career research efforts on technological developments that served humanity.
He had reluctantly participated in atomic weapons development because he believed that allowing the Nazis to be the first to build atomic bombs would be a grave threat to humanity. But he was inspired by the idea of giving people access to more power.
He and the people he recruited to join the power pile development project were dedicated in their belief that atomic energy was best used in service of mankind. They wanted to promptly build a demonstration plant that could show that fission chain reactions would be a useful source of power.
They had a strong basis for believing that their project would be a success. By the time they began design work, they had gained experience with more than half a dozens reactors whose heat production had been discarded as a waste product. They knew how quickly those reactors had been designed and constructed.
Daniels, who had experience in engineering equipment designed to operate at high temperatures as part of his pre-war research on nitrogen fixation processes, was confident that material challenges had available solutions.
Killing Daniels Pile
By April 1947, rumors and handwriting on the wall indicated that the AEC wasn’t interested in supporting the power piles that had been given high priority by Manhattan Project leadership.
In July 1947, just six months after the civilian AEC took over from the military, Carroll Wilson, General Manager of the AEC, informed the Power Pile Division at Oak Ridge that the AEC was no longer going to support design work for the Daniels Pile.
AEC headquarters reorganized the Power Pile Division, centralized authority for reactor design work at Argonne, and told the commercial enterprises that had supplied skilled personnel to the project on a no-cost, no-profit basis that they could either work on a military reactor project or return to their former jobs. (Daniels, O. B., Farrington Daniels: Chemist and Prophet of the Solar Age, Madison, WI, 1978. pp 231-232)
This sequence of events has been briefly described in numerous histories of the AEC, usually implying that the Daniels Pile project was a poorly-managed technical dead end.
For technical reasons, Wilson and Fisk had killed the Daniels reactor but still had not informed Daniels of the decision in so many words. Overlooking the technical difficulties in the design, Daniels could not believe that the Commission could refuse to sponsor a project which had the support of an impressive segment of American industry.Hewlett, R. G., Duncan, F., Atomic Shield: A History of the United States Atomic Energy Commission, Vol II, 1947-1952 p. 120.
Olive Daniels provides a different perspective on the project and the decision to kill the program. In her book about her husband’s career she devotes an entire chapter to a description of the pile’s design, the impressive array of enterprises involved, and the technical readiness to begin construction.
By September 1946, plans and experimental work were far enough advanced to enable the Division to begin work on a formal preliminary report, which was published in November, 1946.
This report described a high temperature helium-cooled pile using enriched uranium as a fuel with beryllium oxide as both moderator and structural material. Beryllium oxide had been selected because it was a high-melting point refractory as well as a good neutron moderator. The moderator served to slow down the high speed neutrons released in fission. Fuel rods were to consist of 98 percent beryllium oxide (BeO) and 2 percent uranium oxide (UO2) enriched to 50 percent with U-235. These would be placed in channels in stacked hexagonal beryllium oxide bricks. The U-235 content of the pile would be 33 pounds and the beryllium oxide over 10 tons.Daniels, Olive B.. “Farrington Daniels: Chemist and Prophet of the Solar Age, A Biography” Madison, WI, 1978 p. 226
There are more interesting details provided. It would have used three concentric shields–a reflector made up of beryllium oxide and graphite bricks, a 10 inch thick iron container and a ten foot thick concrete wall. The preliminary design report is 147 pages long and indicates a significant level of design maturity.
O. Daniels also tells the story of how Eugene Wigner, who was in charge of research at Oak Ridge, asked F. Daniels to perform a study on using beryllium metal instead of beryllium oxide. That study delayed progress on the Pile for three months and engaged a large portion of Daniels team. After the study showed there was no advantage to using metal instead of oxide, Wigner apologized to Daniels, but the delay helped provide the basis for later claims that the project had been poorly managed.
In an oral history interview Daniels described his reaction to the project cancellation.
The Cold War was facing us and the Atomic Energy Commission decided that what we needed is more bombs, not more kilowatts. They cancelled us. They informed us, ‘You can continue your research, but you can’t build an atomic power plant for power.’ I got on the first plane to Washington and faced the Atomic Energy Commission and said, ‘Here, you can’t do this. You’ve got industry all excited about atomic power and you can’t walk out on them, and we don’t want to be known only as warmongers, we want to emphasize peacetime use. But in spite of my fervent pleas, I couldn’t make any headway and they broke the Power Pile Division up.Daniels, Olive B.. “Farrington Daniels: Chemist and Prophet of the Solar Age, A Biography” Madison, WI, 1978 p. 232
After killing the Daniels Pile project, the AEC invested only a small portion of its budget into reactors designed to produce useful power. The vast majority of its resources during its formative years (1947-1953) were devoted to expanding the atomic arsenal, developing the ability to detect nuclear weapons explosions and testing new weapon designs. Another significant portion of the budget went towards power reactors for a specific military use – propelling submarines.
The remaining, severely constrained civilian power reactor effort was concentrated in research and development for fast flux breeder reactors at the Argonne National Laboratory. The conventional historical explanation for this focus is that atomic scientists believed that there were tightly limited supplies of fissile material in the world.
That explanation has never been completely satisfying. The information I’ve uncovered provides a fascinating and slightly disturbing alternative story.
Why did AEC place such a low priority on power production?
Interpreting historical decisions without understanding what the deciders knew at the time they made their decisions can produce grave misunderstanding. It’s not fair to the actors to assume they knew then what we know now.
Here is a brief explanation of what the commissioners knew about power piles.
During the transition period before taking over, the new commissioners toured major installations, received numerous classified briefs, and read hundreds of documents.
In the winter of 1946, as part of their effort to understand the tasks they had been appointed to accomplish, all five commissioners flew to California to visit Ernest Lawrence at his Radiation Laboratory in Berkeley. At a dinner meeting associated with that visit, Dr. Lawrence told the commission what he thought they should do about power reactor development – part of their assigned mission to “insure public availability of peacetime uses.”
If you fellows are going to wait until you dream up the ideal power reactor, take it from me, you will never get around to building one. Why not use Daniels design and build a reactor now and light a few light bulbs with it? What difference does it make that it won’t be economic? The first reactor will be a Model T in any case. The thing to do is to get the lead out of your pants.Strauss, Lewis L. “Men and Decisions” Doubleday and Company, New York, NY 1962. p. 320
That advice initially impressed the commissioners, “enthused” is the word that Strauss used in his “Men and Decisions” autobiography. Strauss then goes on to provide his version of why the initial enthusiasm dissipated.
Before us had been a report, by a scientific committee under the chairmanship of Dr. R. C. Tolman, which noted that the “Development of fission piles solely for the production of power for ordinary commercial use does not appear economically sound, nor advisable from the point of view of preserving national resources.”Strauss, Lewis L. “Men and Decisions” Doubleday and Company, New York, NY 1962. p. 320
Strauss spends another page telling how the commissioners received advice from several other scientific sources. One stated that it would take between 30 and 50 years for atomic energy to significantly supplement the world’s power resources. Another predicted that useful atomic energy was such a dead end that it would be abandoned by the 1960s.
Here is how Strauss concluded his discussion on the early decision to put off power reactor development.
In this advisory climate, the early Commissioners [himself included] may be entitled to some sympathy for their disinclination to rush in and spend money on vastly expensive installations in the face of the dim view of the enterprise taken by their eminent advisory body.Strauss, Lewis L. “Men and Decisions” Doubleday and Company, New York, NY 1962. p. 321
What did Tolman Committee really say?
The report produced by the scientific committee chaired by Dr. R. C. Tolman is titled “Piles of the Future Review.” It was produced following a meeting held during the period of Oct 9-11 1944. Only two copies were originally produced and the document was classified secret until being declassified on May 6, 1957.
It does not give the advice that Strauss reported that it gave.
Here is the report’s written conclusion.
The chief obstacle to the development and construction of a nucleonic power plant is lack of a directive or order to make one. It is difficult for engineers or physicists to work out the details of design for a plant which may never be constructed. In order to develop nucleonic power the government should sponsor the building of a plant to furnish power for a specific purpose. One striking difference from conventional fuel is, of course, the minute amount of fuel consumed and thus the absence of a transportation problem for fuel. The absence of smoke is a consideration in the application to the heating of large buildings or cities. (Emphasis added.)
The following are suggestions for government sponsored experiments in the use of nucleonic power.
(1) To propel naval vessels (submarines) and ships in general.
(2) To furnish light and power to army, navy or government projects or stations in locations remote from fuel supplies. (Pearl Harbor, Guadalcanal, Dutch Harbor)
(3) Heating, light, and power for experimental towns or settlements (Matanuska Valley, Alaska)Tolman, R. C. “Piles of the Future Review”, committee report Oct 9-11 1944, pp 12-13
Nothing in the report provides any support for the statement Strauss included as a quote in his memoir. Even in the sections that estimate known amounts of fissionable material, the report states that the estimates are “very conservative and are supposed to represent amounts actually located as being available in the mines.”
Tolman’s committee reported that there was a at least 10^14 tons of U in the earth’s crust and also includes the following quote.
Dr. Zay Jeffries has often called to our attention the fact that the estimates given above have little meaning, in the the full value of uranium and thorium have never previously been recognized. As the price offered per ton increases, it is almost certain that new and large deposits will be located.Tolman, R. C. “Piles of the Future Review”, committee report Oct 9-11 1944, p. 4
There is no real way of knowing why Strauss reported that he and his fellow commissioners had been discouraged from power pile projects by a report that strongly supported their development. The incontrovertible fact of history is that the Daniels Pile project was cancelled, the team was broken up, and there were no lights powered by atomic energy in the United States until 1951.
From 1947-1950, any US citizen with any desire to constructively use energy stored inside atomic nuclei had to find some other form of employment. The only gainful employment available in atomic energy was associated with building bombs.
What happened to Daniels after his pile was killed?
Daniels did not quickly or easily give up his dream of using atomic energy to serve mankind. He used his influence and membership in scientific groups like the American Chemical Society to criticize government monopoly control over uranium and to advocate legislative changes that would allow private industry to develop atomic power.
He expressed the belief that industry, if given the opportunity, would take some of the chances involved, “which Government is too cautious to take,” and that we would get ahead much faster.
“I insist that in the United States there are scientists, engineers and industrial companies not now engaged in the atomic energy program who would ***gladly and effectively develop pilot plants and full-scale plants for the use of atomic power in the generation of industrial electricity.
“All we need is a change in policy to make more complete use of our natural and human resources and, if we fail to do this, we may be embarrassed sometime before long to find another country the first to demonstrate industrial electricity from atomic power.”Eckel, George, “Chemist Demands Private Atom Role: Tells Society Industry Should be Allowed to Use Fission for Peacetime Power,” New York Times, Sep 8, 1950 p. 29
As late as 1954, he was still writing letters and talking with people who might be able to help turn his ideas into reality. He kept revising his design and engaged in correspondence with Admiral Rickover about using high temperature gas cooled reactors to directly heat Brayton cycle gas turbines.
Rickover declined to get directly involved, but he encouraged Daniels. “I expect the only really satisfactory way to develop an effort on your design would be for you to go to work on it yourself as a full-time job, possibly operating as a member of one of the interested companies or national labs.”
Rickover even provided a thoughtful, valuable technical suggestion that indicated he had carefully and favorably reviewed Daniels work.
Incidentally, I feel you are taking on a big headache when you have a helium to nitrogen heat exchanger. Such an exchanger will be large, expensive and wasteful as to temperature. I think you should face the problem of turbine contamination right from the beginning and stick to the direct cycle if you want to demonstrate the usefulness of the gas turbine approach.Daniels, Olive B.. “Farrington Daniels: Chemist and Prophet of the Solar Age, A Biography” Madison, WI, 1978. pp 238-239 (Reproduction of a letter from Admiral Rickover to Dr. Farrington Daniels sent on Oct 1, 1954)
Unfortunately, Farrington Daniels (born on March 9, 1889) was 65 years old by the time he received Rickover’s supportive letter and constructive suggestions. Though he still had good years remaining, he might have decided that it was too late to pursue full time atomic energy development.
Being a man who was strongly motivated to empower people, “he sought solace in the sun, the poor man’s atomic power plant.” (Daniels p. 235)
In 1954 Farrington made application to the Rockefeller Foundation for support. The request went to Warren Weaver, formerly on the staff of the University of Wisconsin. It was a fairly modest request and much to Farrington’s surprise Weaver indicated that the Foundation would be more receptive to a much bigger program. Farrington got together a committee of people who were interested in photosynthesis or solar energy and drew up an application. Weaver and George Harrar of the Rockefeller Foundation came to the campus for two or three days to study the situation. They approved the proposed program. When asked why a solar laboratory was located in a place not notably sunny, the answer was, “because Farrington Daniels is there.”
Shortly the Rockefeller Foundation awarded an initial grant of $250,000 for support of solar energy applications and research programs with particular emphasis on trying to help the non-industrialized developing countries.Daniels, Olive B.. “Farrington Daniels: Chemist and Prophet of the Solar Age, A Biography” Madison, WI, 1978. pp. 308-309