Monday, April 21, 2008

K. Z. Morgan, the Angry Genie of ORNL

My father, C.J. Barton, Sr., took temporary refuage in K. Z. Morgan's Health Physics devision as the ORNL Reactor Chemistry Division fell apart in the late 1960's. Although both his previous Division Director, Warren Grimes and his future Division Director, Ed Struxness play roles in my father's story about his ORNL career, Karl Z. Morgan, the Director of the Health Physics Division played no role in my father's history. This is remarkable because Morgan was almost legendary. My father's stay in the Health Physics division coincided with what were probably the most tumultuous times in the history of ORNL. I have elsewhere noted the factors that contributed to the chaos. The war in Vietnam, and the Apollo Moon program drained money away from nuclear research. Super AEC Bureaucrat, Milton Shaw was attempting to shut down nuclear safety research, and to channel reactor development towards the difficult project of making a LMFB work on commercial scale.

During the late 60's and early 70's ORNL;s staff was cut from 5500 to 3800, Weinberg struggled to save the lab by focusing on non-nuclear sources of funding. The changes effected every one. Some divisions, hard hit by funding cuts, were dissolved. Assignments were switched among divisions. A new division, the Environmental Studies Division was to emerge from the Health Physics Division. Compared to Warren Grimes, who had lost a Division, K.Z. Morgan did well.

The Introduction of the Department of Energy's oral history interview with K.Z. Morgan records a brief biography.:

"Dr. Morgan was born in Enochsville, North Carolina on September 27, 1907. He attended Lenoir-Rhyne College (Hickory, North Carolina), received B.S. and M.S. degrees (in Physics and Mathematics) in 1929 and 1930, respectively, from the University of North Carolina, and received his Ph.D. (Cosmic Radiation) in 1934 from Duke University (Durham, North Carolina). He is married and has four grown children.

Dr. Morgan began his career as a physics professor at Lenoir-Rhyne College (1934–1943), where he focused his work on cosmic ray research. In 1943, Dr. Morgan moved to Chicago to become a senior scientist in health physics for the Manhattan Engineer District. The following year, Dr. Morgan went to the newly formed Oak Ridge National Laboratory (formerly Clinton Laboratories) in Oak Ridge, Tennessee, where he served as Director of Health Physics from 1944 to 1972.

Since joining ORNL, Dr. Morgan has also held the following positions:

1945 to '71—Member, International Commission on Radiological Protection (ICRP)
1955 to '78—Member, National Council on Radiation Protection (NCRP)
1955 to '78—Editor-in-Chief, Health Physics Journal
1960 to '72—Adjunct Professor of Health Physics, Vanderbilt University
1972 to '83—Professor of Health Physics, Georgia Institute of Technology
1983 to '86—Visiting Professor of Health Physics, Appalachian State University (Boone, North Carolina).

This is the bare outline of Morgan's career.  Morgan's New York Times obituary described him as having been for "decades . . .  a pillar of the nuclear establishment", also stated: 

At midcentury, Dr. Morgan was a proponent of the near-Messianic view of nuclear science that then prevailed.

''We believe that the nuclear age is here to stay and that its future rests in large measure on the successful control of radiation exposure,'' he wrote in an editorial in the first issue of Health Physics.

''We must understand the full and ultimate consequences of this exposure and limit it at a level where we, and those that come after us, can reap the maximum benefits of this new age."

Later Morgan changed his views drastically.

The Times obituary also notes Morgan's autobiography, ''The Angry Genie: One Man's Walk Through the Nuclear Age.'' Ken M. Peterson, a civil litigator co-authored the book. By all accounts it is a well written, entertaining book, but it undoubtedly should be read with caution. Morgan had some very large axes to grind, and civil litigator know how to put the best face on the story of someone with a grievance.

In a review of ''The Angry Genie", Milton Terris recounted on of Morgan's stories which partially accounts for Morgan's disillusion:

Of particular interest is a chapter titled "My Biggest Mistake." Morgan was increasingly concerned about the newly developed liquid metal fast breeder reactor (LMFBR). He was convinced that the molten salt thermal breeder (MSTB), that had been developed at Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL), provided a safer and more acceptable means of producing nuclear power.

In July 1971, Morgan arranged to deliver a paper on the dangers of the LMFBR at an international meeting of radiation physicists. He intended to express his view that the LMFBR offered a relatively easy means of access to an atomic bomb and that he much preferred the MSTB. "It was frightening to think of tons of plutonium as spent fuel from reactors being shipped through New York and other big cities to processing plants, then to fuel fabrication facilities, and finally back to LMFBRs all over the world."

He pointed out that plutonium-239 served as the operating fuel in the LMFBR and would be bred in relatively large concentrations in the natural uranium, 11-238. By means of a relatively simple procedure one could separate the plutonium and construct a low-level atomic bomb. The plutonium-239 produced by the LMFBR would not only serve as an incitement to terrorists, it also used plutonium, one of the greatest hazards of all radioactive materials.

MSTB, using U-233, held much less appeal for terrorists since it is very difficult to produce. Also, it can be denatured and rendered unsuitable for use in bombs. For this and other reasons, he considered MSTB to be preferable.

Morgan sent 250 copies of his paper to the meeting chairman. But in his absence on vacation, the decision was made to destroy his 250 copies and substitute a revised version. He was instructed to say nothing about the superiority of the MSTB over the LMFBR. He was told that "the president has decided to allocate $30 million of extra money to expedite building a demonstration LMFBR. You are jeopardizing the welfare of the laboratory." It was implied that if Morgan gave the original speech, hundreds of Oak Ridge jobs would be lost.

Morgan then states: "Here, I made the biggest mistake of my life. I reasoned that if I fought the issue and hundreds of people in Oak Ridge lost their jobs, I would be one of them-I would lose not only my job, but also the retirement benefits I had labored over a quarter of a century to obtain. I feared that powerful elements within ORNL management would destroy my reputation in the scientific community. . . . Red-faced, I bowed my head and described the risks of plutonium exposure, but without mentioning the MSTB or the LMFBR." When I returned to ORNL, my fellow employees, disgusted with management, deplored the incident. W. S. Snyder, my assistant director, said it constituted censorship. Snyder was right. I should have stood my ground regardless of the consequences. Had I done so, perhaps the world would never have had reactors such as those at Chernobyl and Three Mile Island."

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