YOU AND THE OBEDIENT Atom (Sep, 1958)
Here is an amazing, huge National Geographic article/pictorial about the state of nuclear science and technology in 1958. Be sure to check out this crazy picture of mice being taped down on a model train that’s about to be driven through a particle accelerator.
YOU AND THE OBEDIENT Atom
Abundant energy released from the hearts of atoms promises a vastly different and better tomorrow for all mankind
By ALLAN C. FISHER, JR.,
Senior Editorial Staff, National Geographic Magazine
THOUGH man may reach for the moon and the planets, he has found the richest of all new worlds behind the familiar face of his everyday environment. Here, deep in the mysterious cosmos of inner space, lies that world within a world, the powerful, obedient atom.
So small are nature’s basic building blocks that you could put 36 billion billion atoms on the head of a pin. Yet these unimaginably tiny particles work like genii at man’s bidding. Their peaceful energy is gradually shaping our world into a far better place.
Atom Surveyed Across the Nation
To bring you this story of the atomic revolution, National Geographic representatives have been at work two years in research and industrial installations all over the United States. Editors reviewed thousands of photographs. Artists, advised by distinguished physicists and engineers, illustrated what the camera could not captureâ€”the subatomic dramas, fission and fusion.
Meanwhile, chief photographer B. Anthony Stewart journeyed 12,000 miles with me for a thorough, over-all look at the Atomic Energy Commission’s peaceful program. We toured vast research centers, visited nuclear power plants and private industries, and talked to scores of scientists who are pioneers on this new frontier of knowledge.
Pioneering within the atom, as in nature’s wilderness, seems to be a young man’s pursuit. Many nuclear scientists look youthful enough to pass for students. Frequently they show a flair for pithy, colloquial speech, as I discovered at our first stop, Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee.
Oak Ridge is one of the Nation’s largest atomic centers, a 55,000-acre reservation carved from farmland and oak-covered hillsides during World War II. Here Tony Stewart and I, after obtaining passes from courteous but hard-eyed guards, sat at luncheon with seven physicists and engineers.
They were a clean-cut lot, casually dressed in sport shirts and slacks. I felt like a visitor to a college campus who finds himself surrounded by disturbingly precocious freshmen. My questions, I feared, would be answered in a patois of Greek and mathematical equations. Then a young man on my right spoke.
“Atomic energy uses? Let’s tick them off. Electric power: a big effort getting bigger. Ship propulsion: very promisingâ€”look at the Navy’s submarines. Aircraft propulsion: something for the future. Fusion energy: possibly far off, but extremely important. Last, the real plum of the program: radioisotopes. They have a thousand applications, particularly in agriculture and medicine.”
That capsule description, I later found, could stand as a general outline for this story.
Another scientist, sporting a crew cut, contributed a breezy general observation.
“New discoveries bring new problems; so this business changes from month to month. We may not always know where we’re headed â€”how could we? But, wherever it is, we seem to be getting there jet propelled.”
This exuberant figure of speech is not as extreme as it might appear. Admittedly, a number of observers, including some industrialists and Congressmen, believe the atomic energy program is not moving either fast enough or far enough in some fields. Yet it has been not quite 16 years since the late Enrico Fermi and his colleagues achieved the first sustained nuclear chain reaction. Compared with previous technological revolutions, this is a mere moment in time.
Today only a few nations, principally the United States, Great Britain, and the U. S. S. R., can claim well-advanced programs for harnessing the atom. However, the bright potential for all men is abundantly evident. This September the United Nations sponsors its Second International Conference on the Peaceful Uses of Atomic Energy at Geneva, Switzerland, with more than 2,000 delegates exchanging knowledge and ideas.
Atom Power Plants Now a Reality
In 1954, when The National Geographic published an early survey of the peaceful atom, privately operated power plants using nuclear energy were merely bright dreams on paper. In the United States three such plants now generate electricity for homes and industries, four additional ones are under con-struction, and 11 more are planned. All have been licensed by the AEC, which assists in their planning and usually, their financing. The figures do not include the AEC’s own experimental power program, which encompasses a number of prototypes now producing power for Government installations. Their reactors, or atomic furnaces, represent half a dozen different approaches to the problem of economical nuclear power.
An atom-powered merchant vessel, the N. S. (Nuclear Ship) Savannah, will cruise the ocean highways by 1960. A tanker, now building, may be converted to nuclear energy, and other projects are in the study stage.
Companies engaged in this peaceful pursuit owe a large debt of know-how to the United States Navy. The nuclear submarine Nautilus cruised Jules Verne’s fabled 20,000 leagues on only one loading of uranium, and two other atom subs are now operating. The Navy’s atomic program includes 19 additional submarines, an aircraft carrier, and a guided-missile cruiser.
Adm. Arleigh A. Burke, Chief of Naval Operations, has said:
“Perhaps ten to fifteen years from now we will have several hundred ships with nuclear power. We will develop, I am sure, nuclear power plants suitable for small ships.”
Aircraft propulsion represents a far more complex problem, and here progress has been spotty and relatively slow. A nuclear-powered plane has yet to be built, although a number of aircraft reactors have been ground tested. As of today, any civilian application seems distant, though I found plenty of optimism for the future utility of atom jets, ramjets, and rockets.
Project Sherwood, the AEC’s fusion program, is still in the laboratory experimental stage. But scientists see glittering promise in thermonuclear energyâ€”the joining together of hydrogen atoms at temperatures of millions of degrees, as in the sun, where the process occurs naturally. Fusion represents the antithesis of fission, the splitting of atoms, principally uranium.
“Hot” Atoms Save Vast Sums
To date, radioisotopes are, indeed, the plum of the program. Dr. Willard F. Libby, an AEC Commissioner, estimates that these tiny bits of “hot” matter saved United States industry $500,000,000 in 1957 by improving various processes. These savings, he believes, will reach $5,000,000,000 annually in 10 years, more than twice the entire yearly cost of the AEC’s present program, including defense.
Radioisotopes are atoms that have been made radioactive. They emit unseen but powerful and easily detectable rays; hence their unique value. Physicians and scientists use this radiation for medical therapy (page 334) or to trace the complicated paths of chemicals within living organisms (page 331). Industry harnesses the isotopes in many ways, for example, to control the thickness of materials or to make X-ray pictures revealing structural flaws (page 337).
The very paper on which you read these words was manufactured to a precise thickness of 3/1000 of an inch by using a scanning gauge containing radioactive thallium. The gauge works in this fashion:
Mounted atop a machine, the scanner beams beta rays through a fast-moving web of paper emerging from rollers. An electronic radiation detector picks up the beam. If the thickness is too great, the beta signal weakens; if too thin, it grows in strength. Automatic controls then readjust the paper-making machine to the desired thickness.
All of these uses stem from the magic in uranium, a metal unique among nature’s elements. When struck by neutrons, the nuclei of some uranium atoms will split, emitting still other neutrons and releasing energy. If enough of this unstable material is brought together in a “critical mass,” the fission, or splitting, process will continue in a chain reaction (page 314).
Splitting Atoms Emit Lethal Rays
Despite its utility, fission is often called “a filthy process.” Atoms emit lethal rays when they rend one another, and radiation may linger for many years in the nuclear fragments. Featureless walls of concrete, or huge, water-filled tanks, shield that specialized furnace, the reactor.
Protection of personnel is a never-ending problem, but health specialists of the AEC and its contractors maintain an excellent safety record. There have been remarkably few cases of serious radiation exposure in the peaceful program, and none proved fatal.
A cryptic conversation I overheard at Oak Ridge will illustrate how the industry protects its own. I was standing outside a shielded chamber called a “hot cell,” used for remote dissection and examination of spent fuel (page 307). Uranium is sometimes pyro-phoricâ€”inclined to catch fire spontaneously â€”and there had been a small but merry blaze in the cell when mechanical hands guided a power saw into the fuel specimen. Now someone had to enter, with protective clothing, and clean up the mess (page 353).
Efrem Schwartz, chief of the cell’s crew, managed a wry grin and gestured toward his offending chamber.
“A can opener that cost a quarter of a million dollarsâ€”and now, for a while, we can’t use it. You know what I am? I’m a physicist by training and a hot janitor by profession.”
His boss, Stewart Dismuke, joined us, and the two young scientists began discussing the cleanup problem. Their conversation follows:
Dismuke: “How do you stand on the list?”
Schwartz (with an eloquent shrug): “I’m burned up.”
Dismuke: “Is Sims still high?”
Schwartz: “Yeah, he’s high.”
This exchange might have been spoken in Swahili for all it meant to me; so I sought interpretation.
AEC rules require that cumulative records be kept, showing for each worker the amount of exposure to radiation. No employee may exceed in one week’s time a certain total dose â€”far below the level believed dangerous.
Schwartz’s phrase, “burned up,” was simply a slang expression meaning that he had reached the maximum permitted him that week. An office listing showed that Sims had very nearly reached the permissible total, and he, too, was unavailable for cleanup duty. But a “low” man volunteered, and the cell soon went back into service.
Two Kinds of Uranium Work for Us
Uranium’s unique ability to destroy itself for the benefit of mankind is not difficult to understand.
This heavy metal not only splits itself, it also possesses what might be termed a split personality, since there are two twinlike, yet perversely different, uranium atoms that serve man.
One, uranium-235, binds 143 neutrons and 92 protons in its nucleus. The other, U-238, holds 146 neutrons and 92 protons.
Chemically these atoms are indistinguishable. The same number of negatively charged electronsâ€”92â€”spin planetlike around their nuclei, and electrons determine the atom’s chemical properties.
But the nuclei do not contain the same number of neutrons, so they differ in mass. . We call such seeming twins “isotopes,” from Greek words meaning same and place. Many other isotopes occur naturally among the other elements. Men make additional onesâ€” some stable, some radioactiveâ€”by splitting uranium or by bombarding materials so that they absorb extra neutrons.
The small difference in the mass of the two uranium atoms may not seem importantâ€” but that’s where their perversity asserts itself. Only U-23S will split readily.
Unfortunately, U-238 is 140 times more plentiful in nature than U-235. The AEC separates them by gaseous diffusion, a process based upon their slight dissimilarity in weight.
One might assume that U-238 ends up on a dump heap. However, it boasts a magic of its own. If one of its atoms absorbs a neutron, two electrons fly out; then the atom becomes the new element, man-made plutonium. In similar manner thorium changes to U-233, also nonexistent in nature.
Both these new elements, bred in reactors, will split. Both seem promising as peacetime fuels, though plutonium today is used chiefly for bombs.
If the bomb’s symbol is a malignant mushroom cloud, the symbol of peaceful use of the atom in this country might well be an unpretentious-looking structure beside the Ohio River near Shippingport, Pennsylvania. This building houses the Nation’s first full-scale nuclear power plant for civilian use. There I saw the atom controlled and harnessed.
Shippingport itself is a quiet town apparently little affected by the presence of a famous neighborâ€”possibly because that neighbor has settled in the near-by hills behind a high wire fence, well protected by guards who discourage casual visitors.
My initial reaction to the plant was one of vague disappointment. At first glance it seemed conventional. Outdoor pipes and tanks suggested a refinery. Nothing visible even looked expensive. I could see but one curious feature: the metal-clad main building lacked windows.
But the uniqueness of Shippingport Atomic Power Station lies inside the blind building. There, since last December, fissioning atoms have been producing as much as 60,000 kilowatts of electricity for the Pittsburgh area.
The plant’s price tag has been estimated as high as $110,000,000, including development charges. Its joint buildersâ€”the AEC, Duquesne Light Company, and Westinghouse Electric Corporationâ€”consider every penny a prudent investment. From Shippingport they expect to learn many things that will cut costs in later plants.
TV Cameras View Spent Fuel
Before entering the reactor area, I slipped my feet into plastic covers resembling overshoes and put on a spotless white coat similar to those worn by hospital attendants. Superintendent Malcolm Oldham inspected my sterile-looking garb.
“It serves two purposes,” he said, “to protect your clothing from possible radiological contamination, and to prevent you from bringing any dirt into the reactor room. The water we use is demineralized and purified, and it runs through a maze of pipes and valves. The chance of dirt getting into the system is remote, but we don’t take chances.”
Entering the plant’s inner sanctum, I surveyed a rectangular room as large as an aircraft hangar, with a series of 30-foot-deep pools at its center (page 318).
“There’s no water in them now,” Mr. Oldham explained, “but we can flood them at will. Later we will store spent fuel in the pools until its radiation cools off a bit. Water is a good shield, and we can study the fuel close-up with periscopes or television.”
Looking into one of the empty canals, I saw the dome of a massive metal tank housing the reactor. Like an iceberg, Shippingport’s heart lay concealed from view, but my guide’s knowing words stripped away the surface.
“The tank you see is a protective outer shell,” said Mr. Oldham. “Inside is another vessel, and it contains the reactor. We pressurize water so that it won’t boil, then pump it through the core. It picks up heat, flows into four heat-exchange units and generates steam in a separate water system. This system powers the turbine.
“That’s a simplified explanation,” he added. “It’s too intricate to describe in detail. All the major components lie beneath the floor, and they’re enclosed in metal shells. Each container has an air lock and connecting passageway, and we can get in for repairsâ€”but not while the plant is operating.”
Seed and Blanket Heat Reactor
Engineers stoked the reactor’s core with both kinds of uraniumâ€”a wedding of convenience, since it assures longer life for the fuel. An inner assembly, called the seed, contains enriched fuelâ€”uranium with a large amount of isotope 235. Metallurgists combine it with zirconium, an element that possesses extreme resistance to heat, corrosion, and radiation damage. They roll the alloy into thin plates, and stack the plates, sandwich fashion, within long tubesâ€”32 tubes to the core. A second assembly, the blanket, holds 14 tons of natural, unenriched uranium in the form of pellets loaded in tubes. Neutrons fly out from the U-235 and transmute the U-238 to plutonium; it, too, feeds the chain reaction.
Water not only carries off heat from splitting atoms, it helps them do an efficient job. Neutrons travel at enormous speed, but U-235 reacts better if the neutrons have been slowed. These particles are moderated, or lose speed, in collisions with hydrogen atoms in water.
Without control, the reactor would destroy itself; so the system includes 32 neutron-absorbing control rods. Fully inserted, they shut down the reaction; partially withdrawn, they permit it to continue noiselessly at any desired power level (page 316).
As Mr. Oldham concluded his explanation, I noticed a trio of white-garbed figures wet-mopping the area around us. We turned to leave, and the men followed our footsteps, swabbing vigorously. I felt as guilty as a child who tracks up the family kitchen.
“Just routine,” Mr. Oldham assured me. “Our standards for cleanliness rival those of a hospital.”
Cold Feet and Hands, Fortunately!
Tony Stewart, who had been prowling the room in search of camera angles, joined me at the exit. After we had stripped off our protective shoe covers and coats, the inevitable radiation safety check of our hands, feet, and clothing began.
“You first,” a technician said to Tony. He led him to the hand and foot counter, an ingenious gadget resembling a weighing machine.
“Is your watch off?” the technician asked. “A radium-coated dial will disturb the radiation count.”
“It’s off,” said Tony. He stepped on the machine’s pedestal and thrust his hands into holes in its face. A panel light flashed on, spelling out the laconic command, “Wait.”
Electronic eyes scanned his hands and feet for radiological contamination. The machine voiced a series of soft clicks, indicating only harmless background radiation, present everywhere on earth. Then a second panel lit up with a cheerful “O.K.”
We passed the inspection of many such machines during our three-month tour. In addition, completely automatic detectors, strategically placed in doorways leading from hot areas, double-checked us as we left. If anything had looked amiss to these electronic snoopers, alarm bells would have clamored.
Health technicians, after watching Tony climb a ladder or crouch on the floor to get pictures, often went over him head-to-toe with a portable Geiger counter, familiarly known as a “cutie pie.” World War II gave birth to this whimsical name, originally a code designation to conceal the machine’s real purpose.
To date, the high cost of nuclear power has tempered enthusiasm. Some industrialists, while not disclaiming the atom’s potential, believe it may be two or more generations before nuclear energy supplies most of our electricity.
Using conventional fuel, United States utilities produce electricity at an average cost of seven to eight mills “per kilowatt hour. Comparable costs at Shippingport have been reliably estimated at about 64 mills.
This seems paradoxical, since a pound of fissionable material contains as much energy as 1,500 tons of coal or 250,000 gallons of diesel oil, and a single fueling lasts two to three years. But costs skyrocket in the fabrication of fuel elements, in the development of metals resistant to radiation damage, and in the elaborate safety precautions.
Unlike many nations, this country is blessed with enough fossil fuelâ€”coal, natural gas, and oilâ€”for several more generations, even assuming that the demand for electricity will continue to double each decade. Why, then, should the utility companies invest so heavily in nuclear power?
Philip A. Fleger, Chairman of the Board of Duquesne Light Company, answered this question. Under his leadership, Duquesne provided the site for the Shippingport plant, built its conventional portion, and contributed toward the nuclear facilitiesâ€”a private investment of more than $20,000,000.
“Previously the electric utilities have offset the general rise in price level by certain basic technological improvements,” Mr. Fleger told me. “Now we are experiencing a decrease in the rate of improvement.
“We believe we cannot continue to hold down the price of electricity over the long term unless we develop some new major sources of economies. As of the present time, the only new development that offers a chance of large-scale savings is nuclear fuel.”
Pilot Plants Yield Information
Any saving is hard to see at present, I suggested.
“That involves not only what the costs are today, but what they will be over the life of the plant, perhaps 30 to 50 years,” Mr. Fleger replied. “Conventional costs are sure to go up, but the others are sure to go down.”
And when might nuclear plants become competitive with conventional ones?
“There is not enough information for a reliable estimate. But we feel the industry has no alternative but to explore the full potential of this new fuel. The costs of first-generation plants are meaningless because you cannot estimate the developmental charges accurately. Only the mass-production techniques that will be used in second-generation plants will provide a significant set of figures. Plants such as ours will yield information that will settle a lot of questions and simplify design.”
Many experts pin their hopes for economical power on reactors that differ markedly from the Shippingport type. Two of these experimental systems now produce commercial electricity on a small scale.
One, built by General Electric near Pleas-anton, California, permits water to boil in the reactor core (page 308). Steam, slightly radioactive, then passes directly to the turbine. Atomics International, a division of North American Aviation, operates the second power producer near Los Angeles. Its reactor uses liquid sodium as a coolant. The silver-white metallic fluid flows through the core and transfers heat to a water system.
Less advanced, but highly promising, is the “breeder” power reactor.
Shippingport converts some uranium to plutonium, so it is called a converter plant. In this case the new element is merely a byproduct, though it contributes to the reaction. It is possible, however, for a plant to produce more fissionable material than it uses as fuel.
Several years ago a small AEC installation
successfully demonstrated the alchemy of breeding at the National Reactor Testing Station in Idaho. Earlier, on December 20, 1951, the plant generated the world’s first electricity from nuclear power.
Having one’s cake while eating it, too, is wonderfully attractive, but the system is difficult to harness. For example, a converter relies primarily upon slow neutrons, but a breeder must employ the fast kind, unmoder-ated by water or other substances.
Other approaches include the homogeneous and organic-moderated reactorsâ€”big words involving simple principles. In the former, uranium is dissolved in heavy waterâ€”water with a large proportion of the hydrogen isotope deuteriumâ€”to form a liquid fuel, eliminating the costly fabrication of fuel plates (page 319). An organic reactor employs oil-like liquid hydrocarbons, such as the polyphenyls, to remove heat and slow neutrons.
I visited all the reactor experiments in rounding out our survey. Without exception they are small and unglamorous looking, but each type will be represented, full scale, in the private power program.
Experiments Await Time’s Verdict
You may be wondering, “Which approach seems the most promising?”
John F. Floberg, an AEC Commissioner, replied to this question with an amusing query of his own.
“You appear too young to have grandchildren,” he observed. “Therefore, you certainly can’t tell me what is the best suit for your grandson to wear to his wedding, can you? Similarly, we need second and third generations of power plants to supply answers. This is too new an art to determine now if all approaches are right, if just one is right, or if none is right.”
This uncertainty is one reason why some experts predict slow development of the power program. They point out that atomic plants will be generating only some 700,000 kilowatts of electricity by 1960; this represents a fraction of one percent of the Nation’s installed generating capacityâ€”135.000,000 kilowatts.
Other observers express doubts that atomic power plants can be made economical in the near future. Though such installations offer a new fuel, utility companies have found that fuel represents only 15 to 20 percent of the costs in producing electricity. This is not a large area for savings.
Our own Nation has substantial reserves of coal, gas, and oil, but most of the world does not. Many countries want atomic power soon, and they have turned to us for training and help. The AEC is cooperating in four regional programs, two in Europe, one in Asia, and one for Central and South America. By June, 1958, United States manufacturers had built or contracted to build more than 25 reactors for use abroad.
However, several members of the Joint Congressional Committee on Atomic Energy doubt that we can provide effective foreign help unless we speed up our power program, as has Great Britain.
Great Britain’s supplies of coal are running short, and the nation must import all of its oil, mostly from the unsettled Near East. Spurred by necessity, the British have launched an ambitious atomic power program. Calder Hall, a nuclear plant on England’s west coast, has been generating powerâ€”now up to 70,000 kilowattsâ€”for the past two years. Four larger plants are building, and a network of others is planned.
Sir John Cockcroft, a member of the United Kingdom Atomic Energy Authority, has said that by 1963 nuclear power will be no more expensive in his country than conventional power.
But spokesmen for both Great Britain and the United States deplore the tendency to compare national programs. What is economical in the British Isles, they say, is very uneconomical over here.
AEC officials have explained this repeatedly. From our country’s standpoint, there is a major objection to following the British approach: their gas-cooled reactors use natural uranium, rather than enriched fuel.
British Approach Too Expensive Here
Natural uranium, even though it contains little of the fissionable isotope, will chain-react, but, to make it do so, very large amounts must be used. This, in turn, requires huge power plants, which are impracticable to build in the United States because of higher capital costs.
The British approach, however, may look attractive to many nations. Any country dislikes being completely dependent upon another for its fuel, but Free World nations using enriched uranium would have to get it from us or build costly gaseous-diffusion plants of their own.
The Navy’s dramatic success with nuclear submarines has shown that the atom brings a revolution in over-all ship design, as well as propulsion. Aboard the nuclear submarine Maritime Administration have issued study contracts for a number of other merchant ship reactor designs, including three which would use gas as a coolant. General Atomic, a division of General Dynamics Corporation, has made one of these feasibility studies for the gas-cooled approach.
Dr. William Thompson, in charge of developing a maritime reactor for General Atomic, told me that “any kind of system ‘ with which we are familiar today, if put in a ship, would not compete in cost with conventional fuel systems.” The same expenses that plague the power industry also affect ship propulsion.
He predicted that maritime reactors, at least in the near future, would find their most economical use in “‘small, very fast ships where weight saving is important.”
Atom Jets and Rockets Sought
Secrecy shrouds details of the work in aircraft propulsion, but the basic approaches are known.
Conventional jet engines compress air and force it into a combustion chamber, where it mixes with fuel and is ignited. Hot gases are then expelled to exert thrust, or the gases can drive turbines that turn propellers.* In the nuclear concept, a reactor would take the place of chemical fuel and heat air for propulsion (page 345).
Ramjets work on essentially the same principle as jets, except that they compress air by the speed of their flight through the atmosphere, rather than by compressors. A ramjet will not work until it has been boosted to high speed by another engine. In the ramjet a reactor could also be used to heat air and eliminate chemical fuel.
The nuclear rocket principle is somewhat different. Conventional rockets, since they reach airless space, must carry tons of oxidizer â€”usually liquid oxygenâ€”for combustion. A reactor does not provide heat by combustion, so there is no need for an oxidizer, thus eliminating much weight. However, the nuclear rocket would require a light gas, such as hydrogen. This gas would be heated and expelled, giving thrust.
All these nuclear systems promise one great advantage: unlimited range and duration of flight. Conversely, atom jets and ramjets, and to a lesser extent the atom rocket, share one formidable disadvantage: weighty shielding to protect crews from radiation.
Aircraft designers regard weight with the same distaste with which clergymen regard sin. Weight subtracts from aircraft performance. Yet technical discussions, for years, have centered upon the necessity for thick, bulky shielding in atomic planes.
I was not so sure that these objections still held true after talking with Hall L. Hibbard, Senior Vice President of Lockheed Aircraft, whose company holds a study contract for an airframe that would utilize nuclear power.
“We are trying to develop a method of deflecting radiation,” Mr. Hibbard said. “We have actually tried 21 different approaches. More than that I can’t say. But I will volunteer this: If man is smart enough to use nuclear power in peaceful pursuitsâ€”and he isâ€”we believe he is smart enough to solve the radiation-shielding problem.”
With Air Force or AEC permission, Tony Stewart and I toured areas in several atomic aircraft research facilities. In the Idaho desert, at the National Reactor Testing Station, General Electric officials showed us a huge hot cell where radioactive components can be examined by television; an underground control room for reactor power runs; and a bizarre shielded locomotive used to transport hot reactor parts (page 343).
In New Mexico, within the sheltering confines of a rugged canyon, physicists from the Los Alamos Scientific Laboratory permitted us to see several critical assemblies, forerunners of possible full-scale power packages for nuclear rockets. Such assemblies are mock-ups which bring together small amounts of fissionable material in a critical, or chain-reacting, mass, thus proving the physics and design of more refined reactor systems.
Los Alamos scientists show a flair for the whimsical. One of their experimental reactors can be technically classified as an unshielded, bare assembly, so they call it Godiva. Another, with wicked characteristics, is called Jezebel. Still a third is used in developing a ground-test reactor known as Kiwi, the New Zealand bird that cannot fly.
Lockheed, at Marietta, Georgia, is looking to the future by testing the reactions of crewmen during long confinement in a simulated nuclear aircraft cockpit (page 345). Here, too, as an intriguing sideline, the company experiments with nuclear reactors as a possible source of industrial space heating. One AEC contractor warms a few buildings with surplus reactor heat transferred to water lines. Lockheed believes this application shows commercial promise and has set up a new department to exploit it.
Taming the Energy of the Stars
All uses we have considered thus far are based upon the splitting of atoms. But there is another method of obtaining nuclear energy which man may one day harness; this process is fusion, the once-puzzling secret of the stars (page 320).
In fusion, two nuclei of a light element such as deuterium, an isotope of hydrogen, join together, releasing energy. A nucleus of common hydrogen consists of a single proton, but the deuterium nucleus contains both a proton and a neutron. Thus, in deuterium fusion, four particles merge. The combination is unstable and one particle, either a proton or neutron, is immediately ejected.
Unfortunately, deuterium nuclei find one another repulsiveâ€”literally. They bear positive charges of electricity, as do all nuclei. Like charges repel, and opposites attract. However, deuterium’s aversion for itself can be overcome by tremendous heat, which makes the nuclei dash about furiously, collide, and fuse.
In the H-bomb, an A-bomb wrapping, or “trigger,” supplies the heat. No such drastic solution is possible, of course, in taming the process for power. The scientist follows several ingenious approaches to the heat problem, all based on the use of magnetic fields.
He may fire a discharge of electricity through tubes containing deuterium gas. This laboratory lightning bolt heats the gas and squeezes it into the tube’s center, making the deuterium even hotter, and stripping its atoms of their orbiting electrons. Some machines employ an auxiliary electric coil, or winding, about the tube to prolong the “pinch” (page 321).
Other machines forego an electrical discharge; instead they constrict the deuterium with an external magnetic field. Such a field induces great pressure on the confined gas, and the pressure increases its temperature millions of degrees.
Columbus Fires a Thunderbolt
A group of Los Alamos physicistsâ€”the youngest I encountered anywhereâ€”showed me a number of their machines and “fired” one of the largest, the Columbus II. A bank of 10 huge capacitors, which store electricity, surrounded Columbus’s tube. We retreated from the room while, for several minutes, the machine built up its dangerous charge.
Ten seconds before firing, one man began intoning a countdown. At zero second another scientist threw a switch, and a noise like a rifle shot whiplashed our ears.
Last January the British announced their machines had achieved 9,000,000Â° F. for periods of 2 to 5/1000 of a second. United States spokesmen said they had attained a maximum of 10,800,000Â° F., but for briefer periods. Temperatures of about 180,000,-000Â° F. are needed to make the reaction self-sustaining. Power pulses must last several seconds, not several milliseconds.
One may confidently predict that by now the published figures have been exceeded and that new techniques have been introduced. The Geneva conference will hear many scientific papers on the subject.
Most experts feel that useful thermonuclear power is years in the future. Once fusion has been tamed, some means must be found of tapping the energy on a major scale. No one knows how to do this at present.
Controlled H-bomb power, however, promises almost inconceivable advantages.
The oceans contain enough deuterium to supply the world’s energy needs for billions of years. Extraction is not expensive; deuterium may cost less than one percent the price of coal. One bucketful of sea water, it has been computed, holds the energy content of more than three tons of coal.
Someday thermonuclear energy may be converted directly to electricity, since electric and magnetic forces, as well as charged particles, play integral roles in fusion. Scientists envision a distinct chance of eliminating heat-transfer systems and bulky generators.
Fusion offers yet another advantageâ€” comparative cleanliness. Its ash, so to speak, is primarily helium, a harmless, inert gas. Fission, on the other hand, creates huge amounts of dangerous radioactive waste, mostly a debris of intermediate-weight elements born when the heavy uranium atoms split.
Shippingport alone, in its first year of operation, will accumulate almost four times as much radioactive material as a very large atomic bomb could spew out into the atmosphere. A processing plant at the site removes dangerous impurities from liquids and gases. If sufficiently clean, plant water is pumped into the Ohio River, and gases are released into the atmosphere. Underground tanks hold the more virulent waste, including some solids.
Atomic Wastes Pose a Problem
Deadly spent fuel elements go back to an isolated chemical plant in the Idaho desert. There, behind sheltering walls of concrete, acid baths dissolve the fuel elements, and chemical processes reclaim unfissioned uranium. Technicians brew the complex mixtures by opening and shutting valves outside shielded vats.
Don Reid, the superintendent, led me through this plant and explained that the residue drained off into massive steel tanks buried deep in the earth. Water pipes surround some of the tanks and carry off heat generated by highly radioactive waste; otherwise the waste would form gases difficult to contain.
Some persons fear that, as vast stores of waste build up. their safe disposal may prove a limiting factor in atomic development. This view, however, presumes that nothing can be done about the problem. The AEC continually studies new disposal techniques, including a promising method of solidifying liquid waste, thus reducing it in bulk and containing much of the radiation.
Only a small amount of these fission byproducts can be used, at present, in the radioisotope program. No service has been found for most of them.
But, as Mr. Reid observed to me: “The meat packers learned to use all of the pig but the squeal. Well learn to use the waste, too, and well sell it profitably.”
Fleeing from a Radiation Beam
Tony Stewart and I had but one chance exposure to radiation. We had left the chemical plant and had driven across the desert to the big Materials Testing Reactor. Discussing a picture possibility, we gazed up at the reactor’s bulky shield and awaited our escort, who had excused himself to make a telephone call.
A test reactor contains numerous openings where scientists insert alloys, plastics, or other samples. Pushed deep into the atomic furnace, the samples undergo a barrage that determines their ability to withstand radiation. We could see outlines of several such beam holes, as they are called, but all wore protective metal plugs.
Suddenly I felt a hand tapping my back. “Pardon me,” said a quiet voice, “but you gentlemen are standing in a radiation beam.”
Tony and I exchanged a startled look, then bolted toward a corner of the room. He showed “early foot,” as the turf reporters say, but I beat him by a stride.
The man who had spoken strolled overâ€” and I was glad to see he was smiling.
“It’s a weak beam, just a little radiation escaping from a hole,” said the technician. “We know it! there and avoid it, duck under it, or hurry through. I don’t think you stood long enough to get much exposure. But, if you did, you’ll hear about it.”
Health Experts Guard the Public
His last remark referred to our film badges. These badges, worn by all workers and visitors, record radiation (page 348). The film would be developed at the end of our week’s stay in Idaho. If it showed overexposure, we would be notified.
A few anxious days passed, but the feared notice never came. Our exposure had been within permissible limits.
The AEC is circumspect in protecting the general public from radioactivity born at atomic centers. Scientists collect many plants and animals from areas around installations, and then examine the specimens for radioactivity (page 351). By such regular checkups they make sure there is never enough radiation to endanger animals or humans, either by direct exposure or by eating slightly contaminated crops and other food.
Safety specialists feel their responsibility so strongly that they go to extreme lengths to check an area. Take the case of the nocturnal spider.
Scientists from the University of Georgia, working on a research project at the huge Savannah River Plant, near Aiken, South Carolina, felt there was a gap in their knowledge of radiation levels among local flora and fauna. Within the near-by woods lived a certain species of spider which, like the owl, preferred night life. Birds, and perhaps a few animals, fed on this spider, so it went on the agenda for a radiation check.
A biologist volunteered to kidnap several specimens. That night, with a flashlight, he crept about the woods on hands and knees. Before he had been 10 minutes at the task, a vigilant plant guard collared him.
“What are you doing here?” snapped the guard.
“Just looking for spiders.”
“Sure you are!” the guard hooted, and led him away for interrogation.
Contractors Operate AEG Facilities
The hapless biologist was merely conforming to AEC philosophy, which emphasizes basic research. Unlike most Government agencies, the AEC does not operate the facilities it pays for and builds. Instead the commission hires contractors to do the job, knowing they will offer attractive wages and get the best men. Contractors are not only permitted to engage in basic research, they are required to do so.
Their research embraces many fields of science and is amazingly diversified. The main emphasis, however, is directed toward two major areas: understanding the nature and effect of radiation, and finding ways of using that radiation for mankind.
In the first area, giant atom-smashing ma-chines are a vital research tool (pages 338 and 341). Scientists have used them to discover many new subatomic particles whose functions are as yet little understood.
We also have gaps in our knowledge of how the atom’s rays may affect living things.
For example, why does radiation, in certain amounts, seem to cause premature aging? No one yet knows much about this problem. But, using mice, both Brookhaven National Laboratory at Upton, Long Island, and Argonne National Laboratory at Lemont, Illinois, study it (page 325).
We know that radiation may damage the genes governing heredity, thus affecting unborn generations. But how much exposure is harmful? To what degree?
Radiation Damage Studied with Mice
A gifted couple, Dr. William L. Russell and his wife, Dr. Liane B. Russell, seek the answers at Oak Ridge (opposite). Their research requires a population of 100,000 mice, which lead pampered, playful lives in cages that are washed and sterilized each week.
Radiation doses injurious to body tissue have been fairly well established. Scientists know most of the “thresholds,” or exposures where damage can be expected. But for genetic effects evidence long has indicated that there is no threshold dose. Even a small amount of radiation may cause mutations.
“When we began our work about 10 years ago,” said Dr. William Russell, “the amount of genetic damage expected from a given dose of radiation had to be estimated mainly from studies of fruit flies. Our work showed that mice were about 15 times as sensitive to mutation as the flies. Humans are, of course, much more closely related to mice than they are to the fruit fly.
“We have also shown that mutated cells are not gradually eliminated from the reproductive glands during the life span. Thus there 4s no recovery with time.
“Another important discovery is that by no means all genetic damage is delayed for many generations in its expression. A considerable amount of it appears in first-generation offspring.”
The AEC, in its exposure regulations, makes due allowance for the Russells’ findings.
Sometimes the research in radiation effects might be termed, not merely basic, but “basic basic.”
For example, one day a Brookhaven scientist asked me: “Would you like to see my goldfish?” He showed me several large tanks containing dozens of the familiar fish. Preliminary findings, he explained, indicate that goldfish have a reaction to X rays not at all typical of the animal kingdom. If one group gets a single large dose of radiation, most of its members soon die. But if a second group takes that same large dose, preceded by a smaller one, most of its members live longer than those in the first group. Why?
I hope he finds the answer, because it may prove important. Great discoveries have been made by permitting scientists to gratify their intellectual curiosity. A leading industrialist once told me, “Basic research is simply research without an auditor.” Within sympathetic limits, the AEC wisely follows that philosophy.
Isotope Use Blankets the Nation
In putting radiation to work, the AEC probably has scored its most conspicuous success with the radioisotope program.
Today nearly 1,700 industrial organizations, including 250 of the 500 largest corporations in the Nation, hold AEC licenses for the use of radioisotopes. Approximately 2,000 medical institutions and physicians with similar licenses use the new tool in treating more than a million patients each year.
Universities and Government laboratories employ isotopes in research. Here the applications seem as innumerable as the stars, and new ones are being found each day.
The 92 natural elements have more than 900 radioactive forms. Reactors produce most of them, but in two different ways. When the uranium atom splits, its parts become radioisotopes of elements from atomic numbers 30 to 64, and they can be separated chemically. Others take form under neutron bombardment of materials inserted in reactors.
Rays from various elements differ in strength. Human skin stops alpha rays; thin sheets of metal or plastic block beta rays. Gamma rays, akin to X rays, readily penetrate the human body.
Radioactive materials also differ greatly in their half life, the amount of time required for half the atoms to dissipate their radiation. Some substances have a half life of seconds, others of hours, days, weeks, or hundreds of years.
Oak Ridge, which pioneered the manufacture of radioisotopes, is still the Nation’s major source of supply. Its laboratory has elaborate facilities for separating the elements and packaging them on an assembly-line basis. In 1957 Oak Ridge’s “atomic drugstore” made 14,126 shipments, including 383 direct to foreign countries.
Atoms Select Construction Sites
Industry bases most of its radioisotope uses upon radiation’s ability to penetrate matter. The gauge that measured the thickness of this paper is an example. Radiography, or making X-ray pictures of materials, is yet another. It eliminates the need for expensive, conventional electric-powered X-ray equipment.
Hot atoms measure the density of materials, as well as their thickness, and in much the same manner. This has many applications; among the most recent is the use of radiation to determine the densityâ€”and so the firmness â€”of sites for aircraft runways, roadbeds, and dams.
When atomic rays strike phosphorescent materials, they cause emission of light, as in radium-coated watch dials. Numerous businessmen foresee a bonanza for radioisotopes in this application. Self-luminous ship and aircraft markers, runway lights, railway signals, and similar devices have been built.
AEC installations did the spadework for almost all the commercial uses and are evolving many more. Let’s look at several of tomorrow’s promising applications.
At Brookhaven I saw the world’s most unusual gardensâ€”indoor and outdoor facilities where gamma rays from cobalt batter various plants (pages 328-9). As days or weeks pass, the powerful radiation affects some of the plant’s chromosomes, which contain the genes of heredity. Irradiated seedlings often show bizarre changes when they grow to maturity. Similarly, the offspring of bombarded plants frequently differ in unpredictable fashion from normal species.
“Exposing plants to radiation is like beating
their cells with a sledge hammer,” said Dr. James L. Brewbaker, a Brookhaven geneticist. “It produces some weird changes. Take a look at these petunias.”
We bent over a sickly looking plant and inspected its reddish-purple flowers.
“See? They have eight petals instead of five,” Dr. Brewbaker beamed. “We call that effect fasciation. Two broken chromosomes grew together, and eventually they produced double flowers.”
The flowers, however, drooped as if suffering from some blight, and many of the leaves were undersized and misshapen.
“We gave the plant a 500-roentgen exposure when it was quite small,” the young scientist said. “If you examined its cells closely under a microscope, you would find that they had divided in wild disorder, like cancerous growth.”
Most mutations prove undesirable, but some are highly beneficial. Radiation-induced changes have yielded such prizes as rust-resistant oats and wheat and early-yield fruit. Meanwhile, scientists hope they may be able to produce radically different species of plants, and research institutions from many parts of the United States and numerous foreign countries send specimens to Brookhaven for an atomic barrage.
Rays Show Phosphorus Use in Sheep
Agriculturists commonly use radioactive phosphorus, calcium, and other isotopes to determine how plants utilize elements contained in fertilizers. Their findings have changed previous concepts about plant feeding. An Oak Ridge farm operated by the University of Tennessee adapts the technique to animal studies. There I watched veterinarians skillfully inject radiophosphorus into the jugular veins of sheep. Measurement of radioactivity in the animals’ excrement would indicate how much phosphorus they had retained in their bodies for bone-building and other vital functions.
AEC’s experimental medical program takes as its principal target that most enigmatic of scourges, cancer.
We have long known that some cancers succumb to radiation. Scientists theorize that the cancerous cell, being primitive in structure, is more susceptible to radiation damage than normal tissue. A few years ago, radioactive elements seemed the answer to a cancer crusader’s prayer. AEC literature, however, states frankly that their present usefulness in therapy is limited.
True, gamma sources have been highly effective as substitutes for X-ray machines (page 335). Radiophosphorus controls polycythemia vera, an excess of red blood cells, and radio-iodine has benefited thousands suffering from hyperthyroidism and cancer of the thyroid gland. Generally speaking, however, isotope therapy has not been conspicuously successful.
“We haven’t made any real inroads into the cancer problem, because in most cases we haven’t been able to localize the isotopes in cancerous tissue,” explained Dr. John H. Lawrence. Dr. Lawrence heads the Donner Laboratory and Donner Pavilion, medical research facilities at the University of California. The AEC supports these facilities and similar ones at Oak Ridge, Brookhaven, and the University of Chicago.
The isotopes-vs-cancer story is not one of unrelieved pessimism; it has its promising aspects.
Atom tracers have been used in many ways to follow complicated chemical reactions in blood and body cells, and even to study the manner in which cells divide and multiply. These techniques arm researchers with knowledge essential to an ultimate understanding of how malignancies occur and spread.
Hormones Influence Cancer Growth
With unflagging determination, scientists strive for break-throughs in radioisotope therapy. The record may have been disappointing, but bold new measures are being tried.
Scientists have demonstrated that hormones secreted by the pituitary glandâ€”located in the headâ€”contribute to the growth of breast cancer. Since the gland is not essential to life, the University of California destroys it precisely with a cyclotron beam. The University of Chicago accomplishes similar results by implanting irradiated yttrium pellets in patients.
At Brookhaven persons with brain tumors have been treated by neutron beams from a reactor. Doctors first give each patient an injection of boron salts, which concentrate briefly in the tumor. Boron captures neutrons and discharges powerful alpha rays through the tumor. This technique is expected to be more effective with completion of Brookhaven’s new medical reactor, which will have special facilities for tumor irradiation and other experiments in nuclear medicine.
A New Approach to Leukemia
Doctors at Oak Ridge use a radical new treatment for leukemia, the blood cancer. It has always been difficult to treat this disease by irradiation because the rays destroy vital bone marrow needed to produce new blood cells. But some patients have been exposed to gamma rays from a cobalt source, and then have received bone injections of marrow withdrawn from relatives. The injections act as transplants, replacing irradiated marrow.
Patients at the various research centers volunteer, of course, for experimental treatment, and all must be referred to the hospitals by other institutions. I saw a number of these patients, and well do I remember the poignant resignation on their faces. There was a single, smiling exception: a small boy, the victim of leukemia.
He sat in a wheel chair while a nurse rolled him down a corridor. Though the boy’s face was wan, it wore a pleased grin, and he scanned with eager attention a booklet telling in comic-strip form the story of peaceful atomic energy. As he turned a page, I glimpsed the title, “Dagwood Splits the Atom.”
I do not know to what ultimate fate that boy was being wheeled. But he realized the atom might hold hope and renewed health for him, and he was trying to understand its strange forces.
Each of us, too, has a stake in the atomic revolution, even though it may not be so direct and vital as that of the little boy. We have crossed the threshold into a new era, as yet dimly perceived. But we know it will shape and change our lives in ways undreamed of todayâ€”and there can be no turning back.