Friday, January 4, 2008

C.J. Barton, Sr. at ORNL: A conversation with Weinberg

The last years of my father's career were quite mixed. A darkening political situation was effecting ORNL, and my father was to feel some of the effects. By the Mid 1960's the Personal Star of Daddy's long time boss, Warren Grimes was waning, and his division, the reactor chemistry division was in decline. The reason for the decline was funding. As the Vietnam war began to drain the United States Government Budget, money for reactor research, especially Alvin Weinberg's exotic reactor research projects began to dry up. Funding cuts meant that people were effected. My father was encouraged to move from his research on escaping radioisotopes back to the Molten Salt Reactor project. In particular my father was assigned to the task of extracting protactinium from the molten salt carrier fluid. Inside the molten salt reactor, or just outside it, the theory suggested that Thorium 232 atoms would encounter free neutrons. The encounter would change Th232 in Th233, a particularly unstable atom. Inside the center of the Th233 atom an electron would run away, changing Th233 into Protactinium 233. This was a critical step in the breeding process, since Pa233, if it did not run into a stray neutron, was destined to transmutate into fissionable U233 within a few days. There are detailed discussions of the importance of removing Pa233 from Molten Salt Breeder Reactors in the discussion section of Kirk Sorensen's blog.

My father had started research on Protactinium in the late 1950's after completion of his Plutonium research. That had stopped when he started working with George Parker, but a third of the way through the 1960's, Protactinium was on the front burner at the lab. In 1959 H. G. MacPherson learned that the AEC had a limited amount of money (less than a million a pop) could be had for up to 4 reactor related experiments. MacPherson managed to put all 4 together into one small research reactor package, which he submitted to the AEC. The construction of the reactor began in 1962 and finding a chemical process for the extraction of Protactinium.

The problem fell into the hands of the Reactor Chemistry Division, and among Reactor Chemistry scientists, my father was the best qualified to handle it. By this time he had been restored to the rank of group leader, but he had no group. He also had freedom to pick and choose his assignments. Warren Grimes induced my father to return to Molten Salt Research, and he took on the task of Protactinium extraction. It was to prove a difficult assignment.

Grimes, rather than assigning scientists my father's group expected him to pull scientist from other groups for his project. This was to create problems because the protactinium project was undermaned. This was a critical problem. The bad blood between my father and Warren Grimes was to have serious consequences . They had never resolved the the hard feelings between them that dated back to their dispute over the liquor vote ten years before. My father mistrusted Grimes, and felt that Grimes did not respect his ability. I know from first hand observation that Grimes own personal life was troubled, and I suspect he was very unhappy. (How I came to know this is might be an interesting personal story, but telling it here is beyond the scope of this blog.) Grimes was not in a good place for a leader of scientist to be, and his personal unhappiness must have effected the fate of his division and in turn been effected by that fate. At any rate my father was unable to communicate with Grimes about his need to have more help on his protactinium research. Grimes, for what ever reason, did not understand this on his own.

The extraction of protactinium from "blanket salts" proved a difficult problem. My father tried a lead extraction technique. In a report he commented laconically, "the fact that only a small fraction of the reduced protactinium was found in the liquid lead encouraged study of other reduction techniques." Numerous other experiments failed to produce a completely satisfactory technique for removing protactinium for molten blanket salts. Eventually after many experiments, my father began making progress. Kirk Sorensen has collated many of my father's reports on his protactinium separation research.

I suspect that Alvin Weinberg was dissatisfied with the pace of protactinium research progress. One day, as my father walked to lunch - this was as near as I can gather in 1967 - Alvin Weinberg joined him. He began asking my father rather pointed questions about his protactinium research. I have no doubt that my father's felt very much on the spot and that his speech problems were in full flower that day. But Weinberg must have known about my father's handicap.

A few weeks after my father's interview with Weinberg the protactinium research was removed from the reactor chemistry devision, and assigned to another devision. My father had lost the protactinium assignment. 40 years after the event my father still feels hurt and defensive about it. He looks at it as a stain on his scientific reputation. But looking back on the events I see a different picture.

By 1967 the Vietnam War related funding shortage was beginning to create a crisis at ORNL. Whole devisions were to disappear in the resulting chaos. Among them was Warren Grimes' Reactor Chemistry Devision. Weinberg's reassignment of the protactinium research was one of the early steps he took to dismember Grime's kingdom.

My father spent the next two years doing phase studies related to the Molten Salt Reactor, but the problems of the Reactor Chemistry Division were ultimately prove an opening to new, and unexpected opportunities.

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