Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Disastrous Stewardship 2: The Weinberg firing

My historical research has been driven by a desire to understand the past. Not an abstract past, but events which I in some way witnessed. Much of the past is beyond knowing, thus some and perhaps many of the questions that I ask are beyond knowing as well. The central problems of my historical studies concern the scientific careers of two men, my father C.J. Barton, and Alvin Weinberg. My interest in my father's career undoubtedly is linked to some of my personal concerns that streatch back to my childhood. Researching my father's career is a way to maintain a link to someone whom I loved even though he is no longer with us.

My interest in Alvin Weinberg career also is linked to my past. Weinberg's son David was a childhood friend, and I was fond of David and of David's mother Marge Weinberg. My central focus on Weinberg has been on his firing as ORNL Director in 1972. Who is it that this prominent scientist, this brilliant reactor designer who held the original patent on the predominant form of 20th century reactor, this science advisor to presidents, this able science administrator, this serious thinker about the role of science in contemporary society, was fired from his position as director of Oak Ridge National Laboratory?

It is clear that a clique centering around Congressman Chet Holifield, and including AEC Commissioner James T. Ramsey, AEC reactor research director Milton Shaw, and Admiral Hyman Rickover exercised great control over the United States Atomic Energy Commission during the 1960's and early 1970's. Arguably Holifield used his status as a member of the Joint Congressional Committee on Atomic Energy to exercise great and even unconstitutional control over the AEC.

The relationship between members of the Holifield clique and AEC Chairman Glen Seaborg should receive further clarification, but it would seem that Seaborg, although he does not seem to have opposed the Holifield clique, was not a member. Seaborg's goals were apparently consistent with those of the Hoifield clique, and Shaw appears to received his marching orders on fast breeder reactors from Seaborg, without a Holifield veto.

Weinberg discussed his firing:
I found myself increasingly at odds with the reactor division of the AEC.
Weinberg explained the background of the problem, The Nixon administration had made the LMFBR a center piece of the American nuclear program. Shaw was committed to the Nixon Administration goal, andShaw was a ruthless administrator who permitted no opposition to his goals. Shaw did not trust Weinberg or the conclusions of ORNL scientists, Weinberg was on the wrong side of the dispute about reactor safety, and Shaw and his patron Chet Hollifield appeared to have believed that Weinberg was fishing for funding for unneeded research. Holifield personally announced to Weinberg
I think it is time you leave nuclear energy.
Weinberg clearly believes that Shaw and AEC Commissioner James T. Ramsey play roles in the decision.

Weinberg does not mention either Rickover or Glen Seaborg in his accounts of his firing. if Rickover and or Seaborg were involved in the Weinberg firing it would have been from behind the scenes. But it was at the very least the case that neither Rickover nor Seaborg broke ranks to defend Weinberg. At best, both acquiesced by silence to Weinberg's firing. Both should have known better and acted better.

(I should note however that I have revised my view of Rickover's role in the Weinberg firing. Originally, I viewed Rickover as Milton Shaw's primary patron in the AEC. But Shaw appears to have faithfully carried out Holifield's wishes, and Weinberg's firing was clearly in accord with Holifield's wish. In the absence of stronger evidence, my earlier charge against Rickover must be regarded as not proven, although i should not be considered as offering a definitive word on the issue. More research would be required.)

Weinberg's firing must be considered a product of the Holifield - Shaw - Ramsey relationship. That relationship must now be seen as having damaged the prospects of nuclear energy in the United States. It also lead to the premature termination of nuclear research, and the exclusion of a very promising line of reactor development that could potentially solved the problems of nuclear energy that critics found so objectionable.

The Weinberg firing was not an insignificant event as Weinberg himself understood. It marked the end of "the first nuclear era," as Weinberg himself well understood. It marked the end of the promise of nuclear power foreseen by the visionaries of the Manhattan Project's New Piles Committee in 1944-45. ORNL under Weinberg had had been the primary keeper of the New Piles Committee vision. Holifield, Shaw and Ramsey attempted to destroy the vision, and would have destroyed ORNL if necessary to achieve that goal. They did destroy ORNL's capacity to cary out the vision, but they did not destroy the memory of the vision, and the memory of what ORNL under Weinberg was able to accomplish. The memory is still with us. The phoenix arrises from the ashes.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

It looks like both Jimmy Carter and Rickover were fans of the thorium breeder. In April 1977, Jimmy Carter killed the plutonium breeder.

On December 2, 1977, immediately after he stopped the plutonium breeder from going forward Jimmy Carter said this about the thorium breeder to Rickover and company:

“This is indeed an historic day in the life of our country. As a matter of fact, and not coincidentally, 35 years ago today, the first sustained chain reaction in the nuclear cycle was commenced at Stagg Field in Chicago, in 1942.

And as you know, 20 years ago today, December 2, we had the first central power plant operation at Shippingport, where you are located. So, I think the December 2 date, again, will be commemorating a major step forward in the technological development of our country. This is the first time we have ever had power produced in our country from a breeder reactor which uses a very plentiful supply of fuel that can multiply the power supply maybe 30 times over in the breeder cycle.

And I'm very proud to congratulate you, all the people at Bettis, all the people at Westinghouse, on this remarkable technological achievement.”



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