Thursday, January 3, 2008

C.J. Barton, Sr. at ORNL: Into the 1960's

In the late 1950’s my father was nearing 50. He had come back from a major political problem , a conflict with his boss Warren Grimes over my fathers stand in opposition to local liquor sales. Along the way he had contributed to the way scientist’s design and use an important research tool, the gloveboxes. The glovebox research had come about because he had been asked to do research that required glove box use. His research problem had been to establish if it ware possible to use Plutonium as a fuel in Molten Salt Reactors. Plutonium is a very dangerous material to work with, and there had been fires and accidents involving glovebox research in the past. My father had , by the late 1950's reached an age at which many scientists begin to loose their productivity, but his most productive years at ORNL lay ahead of him.

In the late 1950’s and early 1960’s some ORNL research focus shifted from experiments with exotic liquid fuel reactors, to questions concerning the light water reactor. The success of the Atomic submarine had caught many people’s attention. Admiral Hyman Rickover had a far more narrow focus than Alvin Weinberg, and Eugene Wigner. Rickover was a navy man and the navy liked boilers, because they were the traditional way to power ships. A light water reactor is in fact a reactor inside a boiler. Not only does the water cool the reactor, it also slows down the neutrons that cause a chain reaction. But ordinary water does not do as good job of promoting a chain reaction as graphite or “heavy water reactors” do. Hence LWRs need more U235 to keep their chain reaction going.

Rickover saw that the light water reactor could power for more than submarines. it could also be useful for powering surface ships, and Rickover realized, civilian power plants. Rickover had pushed for the development of reactors large enough to power aircraft carriers. President Eisenhower had called for the development of the peaceful uses of nuclear energy, and the aircraft carrier reactor allowed Rickover to kill two birds with one stone. Rickover donated a naval reactor to serve as a prototype civilian power reactor. At the same time, the navy was still able to do research with the reactor.

The Shippingport reactor thus became the prototype civilian power reactor. And virtually every functioning power reactor since has been a light water reactor. The Light Water reactor was an ORNL project and the staff of ORNL from Alvin Weinberg downward was aware of its flaws and weaknesses. One of the problems of the light water reactor was what could be called its intrinsic safety issues.

Light water reactors are supposed to heat water, and hot water, under pressure is a difficult medium to work with. There was always a danger that a leak could develop somewhere in the plumbing. If the coolant started leaking, then the temperature inside the reactor would start to rise. This would intern increase the pressure inside the reactor pressure vessel, and force more water out. Thus a loss of containment accident could turn disastrous.

Research at ORNL increasingly turned to the question of what could happen in the event of a light water reactor accident. That was where George Parker came in. Parker was the ORNL Reactor Chemistry Division’s leading expert on the behavior of radioisotopes in reactor accidents. Parker was like my father, a senior scientist, who was more comfortable in a lab than in a staff meeting.

My father, who had speech difficulties, was a good writer. Parker was not. My father was assigned in 1960 to work with George Parker, if only to help Parker to get his ideas and research on paper. My father was to later say that his role was to interpret George Parker to the world. But the fact that my father was lead author of some of their papers tells me that my father was taking the lead is some of their joint research. The two scientists hit it off, and became within the confines of the laboratory friends. My father greatly admired George Parker, who he considered to be a gifted scientist.

The two scientists worked together to gain a picture of what would happen in the case of a nuclear accident. They studied a chain of events that began with the overheating of fuel elements, to the breach of reactor fuel containment within the reactor, the melting of reactor fuel, and the behavior of molten reactor fuel. They traced the escape of radioisotopes from the confines of a reactor. It is probably safe to say that they made themselves into some of the worlds leading experts on fission product release in reactor accidents, and indeed the wrote the Chapter on Fission Product release in a 1973 Reactor Textbook, “The Technology of Nuclear Safety.”

Thus 20 years before the Three Mile Island accident G.W. Parker and C.J. Barton Sr., had a good idea what would happen if such an accident were to occur.

For most of my fathers first dozen years at Oak Ridge his writing was confined to internal reports, and other research related documents. But beginning in 1960, he began publishing papers in Nuclear Safety, and other scientific journals. At the same time, My father was writing a major technical report with George Parker and two other associates, “Fuel Element Catastrophe Studies: Hazards of Fission Product Release from Irradiated Uranium.”

That study was followed up in 1962 by a Nuclear Safety paper that my father coauthored with R.E. Adams, W.E Browning, and Parker, a paper on “Particle and Fission Product Behavior in Nuclear Accidents.”

During the early 1960’s my father became involved in an amazing diversity of studies. He continued to do Molten Salt research for the Reactor Chemistry Division. In addition nuclear fusion was becoming a focus at ORNL and he and R. A. Strehlow were asked to do research on how electric power might be extracted from a Thermonuclear Reactor. They propose a blanket approach, which turned high-energy neutrons into heat.

My father was also became involved in research about environmental contamination by radioisotope discharged from the Oak Ridge facilities.

Update: I have been reviewing my father's papers and have found a detailed account of his career. In a few matters, my father, who will be 96 on the 16th of this month, appears to have forgotten a few details. His memory for dates is not always accurate. He simply has for gotten exactly when things happened. On the other hand, he told me several stories that were not included in his earlier account. I plan to scan his most interesting papers, and post them. I must have to say that what my father writes is more interesting than anything I have said.

1 comment:

Kirk Sorensen said...

These are fascinating stories! I'm going to post links to them on my blog. Keep up the great work!


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