08 March 2012

The Follow Up to 'A is for Atom': 'The Saddest Accident of History'

Dear Mr. Curtis,

Someone, and I hope it will be you, has to tell the general public that Alvin Weinberg, who features in  your 'A for Atom' film , may be the most important individual in recorded history to beneficially influence the wellbeing of humankind. Such would be the result of the widespread deployment of a uniquely safe and affordable type of nuclear reactor, he developed during his time as Director of the Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL).

In the saddest accident of history, Alvin Weinberg, who designed and patented Light Water Reactors (LWRs), was removed from his Directorship of  ORNL (1953 - 1971) because of his opposition, on the grounds of safety, to using LWRs for civil power generation. He predicted the loss-of-coolant accidents and core meltdowns that were witnessed at Three Mile Island and Fukushima-Diiachi.

In Alvin Weinberg, we are not talking about an 'ordinary' scientist or human being; this man worked on the Manhattan Project with Nobel Laureates such as Fermi, Seaborg and Wigner and in 1980 he won The Enrico Fermi Award  -  an award honouring scientists of international stature for their lifetime achievement in the development, use, or production of energy. This man's views on the way forward for energy need to be taken to heart by the general public, politicians, scientists, technologists and the media.

In his autobiography, Weinberg dreamed of an Energy-Utopia for humankind, brought about by the Breeder Reactor, when he said:  ""…..I spoke of "Burning the Rocks": the breeder, no less than controlled fusion, is an inexhaustible energy system........But, because the breeder uses its raw material so efficiently, one can afford to utilize much more expensive—that is, dilute—ores, and these are practically inexhaustible. The breeder indeed will allow humankind to "Burn the Rocks" to achieve inexhaustible energy!
Until then I had never quite appreciated the full significance of the breeder. But now I became obsessed with the idea that humankind's whole future depended on the breeder. For society generally to achieve and maintain a living standard of today's developed countries depends on the availability of a relatively cheap, inexhaustible source of energy……""

When Weinberg talked about the 'breeder' he was talking about breeding the fertile Thorium232 fuel to fissile Uranium233 in a thermal spectrum Molten Salt Reactor (MSR), which he had developed at ORNL. His Molten Salt Reactor Experiment was given the go-ahead in 1960, in the days of slide-rules, tee-squares and manual machine tools; it was 'switched on' in 1965 and ran as a working reactor for many thousands of full-power hours, until 1969. At the stage when a follow-up, commercial sized 60 MWe reactor design was being finalised, Weinberg got his marching orders because of his vociferous opposition to the use of LWRs for civil purposes. Work on MSRs virtually ceased and over the next few decades, the equipment and personnel 'evaporated'; all that remained was a paperwork archive. The technology with the potential to give hope for a brighter future was compacted into the corner of a room and covered in dust for 30 years, until its rediscovery in 2000.

Widespread deployment of LFTRs means affordable, clean energy for everyone, forever. If that now 40 year delay in the introduction of this technology is not the saddest accident of history, I don't know what is.

The story needs to be told on mainstream TV for the technology to have any chance of taking hold in the mind of the public at large; this has to be the best chance of getting anything moving quickly into the political arena. Are you prepared to give such a documentary project your serious consideration?


Colin Megson.

Weinberg's sagacity shines at 17:45 and 36:06:  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uS01DaQUu3g 

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