Monday, December 27, 2010

Alvin Weinberg's integrity and vision

This December 2007 post is one of the foundational posts of Nuclear Green. I am reposting it with a few revisions.
Weinberg testifies before "Judge" Louie B. Nitzer, at a 1971 mock trial of technology staged at The Rensselaerville Institute. .

My father, Dr. Charles Julian Barton, Sr., was still living when I originally wrote this post. He was one of the last of his generation of scientists in Oak Ridge. He was recruited in 1948 to do research in Oak Ridge, first at the Y-12 plant, but for most of his Oak Ridge career he worked at X-10, the main location of ORNL. For most of his Oak Ridge career, my father worked under Alvin Weinberg's direction. In particular he worked on the Aircraft Nuclear Propulsion and the Molten Salt Reactor Projects. The Lab was very higherarchical, and Weinberg was the big boss.

Oak Ridge is a small place, Alvin Weinberg's son, David Weinberg, attended the same school I did, and we became friends. I visited the Weinberg home on a number of occasions. David was, like me, intelligent and sensitive. It is through my childhood friendship with David that I feel a personal bond with Alvin Weinberg and his work.

Science is based on integrity. Without integrity, there is no truth in science. My father was a man of exceptional integrity, and so was Alvin Weinberg. Weinberg was aware of both the promise and the dangers inherent in the reactor. During the 1960's Weinberg directed a series of tests at ORNL, designed to verify theoretical assumptions made about the safety of light water reactors being pushed by the AEC for the generation of electrical power. The results were disturbing to Weinberg and his staff. The standard design of light water reactors was shown to have serious safety flaws. Weinberg began to warn people within the industry about the problem.

For Weinberg superior safety was one of the most important features of the Molten Salt Reactor design. Weinberg regarded the AEC's commitment to electrical power generation through light water reactors as irrational. Not only were they less safe than other designs, but also they could not be used to breed new fissionable materials, the Molten Salt Reactor could. It was an ideal atomic breeder that could produce more fuel than it consumed. A generation after the controversy, Weinberg's brilliance is fully appreciated, but at the time, Weinberg was a thorn in the side of the AEC establishment. Powerful congressman Chet Holifield had it in for Weinberg because he saw Weinberg's reactors safety concerns as threatening the development of a nuclear power industry, which Holifield viewed himself as nurturing. In retrospective, it was a mistake to build a nuclear power industry on Light Water Reactor technology. Holifield was guiding the nuclear power industry to a disaster, the consequences of which are still with us. A misguided Holifield confronted Weinberg and said, "Alvin, if you are concerned about the safety of reactors, then I think it might be time for you to leave nuclear energy." Holifield was powerful enough to have Weinberg fired from his position as Director of ORNL, but by doing so he demonstrated how out of control his exercise of power over the American Nuclear Establishment had become.

Weinberg's reactor safety concerns were vindicated in 1979 when coolant loss in the Three Mile Island-2 power reactor, lead to a partial core meltdown. Reading the details of the accident would not have comforted Weinberg, even though he had foreseen it. Yet the Three Mile Island accident did not cause the decline of the atomic power industry. Between the year of Weinberg's firing 1973, and the year of the Three Mile Island accident, 1979, 40 planned nuclear power plants were canceled. The First Nuclear age ended with Weinberg's firing in 1973, as he knew.

When I worked at ORNL in 1970 - 1971, the scientists there spoke of Weinberg with great respect. Weinberg was a visionary who believed that cheap sustainable power could improve the lot of the world's poor. He envisioned technological complexes surrounding reactors transforming the lives of third world peoples. Weinberg was no mad scientist; he was an heir of the Enlightenment, whose vision was developed in that tradition. That tradition of vision was of a science based transformation of human life. That vision stretched back to Frances Bacon and Rene Descartes. Hopefully Weinberg was not the last of the technological optimists.

Alexander Zucker, A University of Tennessee Physics professor who knew Weinberg personally and professionally and teaches physics at UT, said,
I would say that what made him unique was his profound concern for the welfare of man. He never stopped thinking about it.
There was also a dark side to Weinberg's vision, the side that acknowledged the danger that technology posed for the Human Race. During the last years of his career, Weinberg focused on the danger posed by the carbon-based economy.

I know this. Alvin Weinberg was one of the few great men who I have had the privilege to encounter. He was a truly gifted scientist, a giant in his generation. He saw both the promise and the dangers of technology. He did not flinch from what he saw, and his integrity was such that he willingly laid his career on the alter of truth. Time after time Weinberg's judgments and his visions have been vindicated. A generation ago Weinberg warned us of the dangers of anthropogenic CO2. I worked at ORNL during 1970-71. It was there for the first time I learned about the CO2/global warming problem. Weinberg's concern about the problem was beginning to spread to other ORNL scientists. In 1977 Weinberg penned a study of the future of the coal economy titled, "Some long-range speculations about coal." Its synopsis read:
Should the world demand for energy increase sixfold within the next 50 years, largely because the underdeveloped countries industrialize, and if half this demand is met by coal, then the estimated world recoverable resource of coal of 4 x 10/sup 12/ metric tons would last at this asymptotic level about 140 years. The carbon dioxide concentration in the atmosphere is then estimated to increase about threefold. These two eventualities may place limits on our ultimate use of coal. The risk of a CO/sub 2/ accumulation inherent in the widespread use of coal is in a sense analogous to the risk of nuclear proliferation: both problems are global, uncertain, and could pose profound challenges to man's future.
I know of the integrity and care of Weinberg and of the scientist who first accepted Weinberg's warning. Only fools and scoundrels would ignore it. I was a witness.
Alvin Weinberg and Eugene Wegner


Rick Maltese said...

Great post about a great man at a pivotal time. Did he have any family survivors that knew him intimately that are still around to tell his story?

Charles Barton said...

Rick, unfortunately Alvin Weinberg was not close to his only surviving son, Richard Weinberg. I contacted Richard some time ago, but found that he had little to add to what I already knew.

Rod Adams said...

Charles - I am not sure why you think Weinberg was so correct about his safety concerns with light water reactors. Certainly they are not "inherently safe" and they require care in design, manufacturing and operation, but the safety record of the machines that caused Weinberg so much worry has been extraordinary all around the world.

Sometimes I think that the real answer to why Weinberg was fired was that he was not a team player and was so sure of his own knowledge that he overlooked the fact that others were just as smart and just as concerned about the welfare of their fellow man.

I cut my nuclear teeth on light water reactors. One of the most intellectually difficult tasks I had every year was coming up with some kind of reasonable scenario for our annually required "reactor accident" drill. My down to earth technicians and I just could not figure out how those thick stainless steel pipes were supposed to suddenly burst open.

Charles Barton said...

Rod, I have attempted to document the Light Water Reactor safety issues of the late 1960's early 1970's on Nuclear Green. It would be probably be better to answer you in an extended post rather than a brief comment. I should point out Weinberg's role in the invention of the the Light Water Reactor. Weinberg never saw the LWR safety issues as black or white concerns, but he did believe that further research and safety experimentations were required. In effect the three Mile Island Reactor accident replicated some of the safety research Weinberg advocated, and thus vindicated Weinberg's safety views.

As for who was and who was not team players, I have discussed he breakdown of leadership in the AEC during the late 1960's and early 1970's. You have simply ignored my discussion, and have accused Weinberg of misconduct without the slightest foundation. You have not offered evidence against my contention, or in support of your view.

I have pointed out that Weinberg's "team work" went as far as censoring a conference presentation by famed health Physicist K.Z. Morgan because ORNL was told that the AEC did not want morgan's views expressed. in that case Weinberg demonstrated a willingness to be a good team player to the detriment of science.

I have documented the leadership failure of Holifield, Ramsey, Shaw clique, and their mistakes. I have pointed out objective grounds for my assertion that the Holifield clique individually and collectively made significant errors in judgement. The Weinberg firing was one of those errors.

It is highly unfair of you to judge Alvin Weinberg without considering the evidence that I point to in support of my contentions. Considering your usual high standards in weighing evidence I must say that I am disappointed.

Richard Weinberg said...

Nice essay about Alvin: generous, informative, and balanced. Witnessing the demise of the Molten Salt Reactor Experiment was a huge disappointment to him. I don't know all the specifics, but my sense is that you described Chet Holifield's personality and his role pretty accurately.

Alvin indeed considered a variety of technical issues of potential consequence to humanity, not just nuclear power. Aside from carbon dioxide and global warming, these ranged from the possible catastrophic failure of a large hydroelectric dam all the way to the possibility of asteroid collisions. He addressed all these question seriously, leading to realistic estimates of the hazards and policy implications.

As a footnote, it's true that I had a difficult relationship with Alvin back when I was young, but we were a tightly-knit family, and I remained close to him throughout his life.

Charles Barton said...

Richard, thank you for your comment and the clarification. It was well known in Oak Ridge that your father cared deeply for his children.

David said...

A comment from across the Atlantic:

I had the great honour to interact with Alvin on three occasions when I was a visiting scholar at the Institute for Energy Analysis at Oak Ridge Associated Universities in the late 70s and early 80s. In particular, there was a truly prescient conference that he organised on "a 5000 reactor world" or similar title.

I have hunted for any papers from that conference (it was of course in the days before the web) - and if anyone has any material, I would be grateful for it.

I have thought about going back to ORAU and going through any archives - not just for this conference but for all the many, hugely informed and far-sighted writings that flowed from Alvin. It was a great pity that the Institute did not survive for long after he 'retired'.

His tutelage has been a great inspiration and source of encouragement to me through the rest of my career - and I do not think his seminal contributions have been recognised as widely as they deserve, although everyone still quotes "Science and Trans-science", his paradigm-shifting paper in Minerva.

I retire myself next year, and a visit to ORAU is certainly something I am planning!

With all good wishes

Professor David Cope
Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology
Houses of Parliament, England

(our modest equivalent of the former Congresssional Office of Technology Assessment)

Anonymous said...

Researchers and fans of Alvin Weinberg will find a wealth of materials in the collection ranging from personal and published papers, correspondence, multimedia, laboratory notebooks, declassified material, manuscripts, typescripts, articles, memorabilia, and more. My favorites are his college notebook from the University of Chicago, personal files from the Metallurgical Lab years, and the hundreds of photographs from his years at ORNL.


Blog Archive

Some neat videos

Nuclear Advocacy Webring
Ring Owner: Nuclear is Our Future Site: Nuclear is Our Future
Free Site Ring from Bravenet Free Site Ring from Bravenet Free Site Ring from Bravenet Free Site Ring from Bravenet Free Site Ring from Bravenet
Get Your Free Web Ring
Dr. Joe Bonometti speaking on thorium/LFTR technology at Georgia Tech David LeBlanc on LFTR/MSR technology Robert Hargraves on AIM High