Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Nuclear Power History:

A Major Anniversary

Yesterday and today, we celebrate the 60th anniversary of one of the very biggest milestones in nuclear power history--the dates the EBR-I produced the first usable quantities of electricity ever generated from a nuclear fission reactor. I already noted this event in my blog on other December milestones in nuclear history, and many news items and blogs in the last 24 hours have been covering the milestone events of December 20 and 21, 1951.

To recap the events briefly, on December 20, 1951, the EBR-I was hooked up to a steam engine which was used to light four 200-watt light bulbs. The iconic photograph of the four light bulbs graces many a story of nuclear power history. Arguably, though, it is the event of the next day, December 21, 1951, that really launched nuclear power generation as a practical energy source--the reactor output was used to supply power to all the electrical equipment in the entire reactor building. While this achievement could not be captured in as convenient a visual image as could the four light bulbs, it truly raised the demonstration to a practical level.

In my mind, this transition to the realm of practical application is what makes today's anniversary such a big milestone in nuclear power history. The demonstration of the fission reaction at CP-1 at Stagg Field in 1942, the other milestone that looms large on the nuclear power landscape was, after all, "simply" proof of a scientific principle, not in itself a practical application. In fact, it had been spurred by a wartime effort to develop a weapon, and the earliest applications, as we all know, were weapons. A large infrastructure had been created in that process, but it had remained largely focused on military needs, and it operated largely in secret. The generation of electricity by a nuclear reactor 60 years ago this week first opened the door to civilian applications.

But we should not forget all the developments that took place between 1942 and 1951. A number of small reactors of different types were built and operated in an all-out research effort, and multiple enrichment and reprocessing technologies were tested.

I have already spoken of some of these other milestones in my book, Nuclear Firsts: Milestones on the Road to Nuclear Power Development and in other blog posts. The purpose of raising the subject of history once again here is to remind readers of one of the most fascinating things I learned from writing that book--the EBR-I, important though it is, was not the first attempt of the nascent nuclear community to use, or to try to use, the new-found fission process for civilian applications.

There were, in fact, two important efforts that preceded the events at EBR-I, both of which took place at the X-10 Graphite Reactor at Oak Ridge. The first of these was the use, on August 2, 1946, of a nuclear fission reactor to generate radioisotopes for peaceful applications. The second was the generation of a very, very small amount of electricity from the reactor on September 3, 1948. It was just enough power to light a flashlight bulb, so did not have the practical significance of the EBR-I demonstration. Nevertheless, it was the first proof-of-principle of the use of a reactor to generate electricity.

(A third civilian development that preceded the EBR-I was the use of a reactor at Brookhaven National Laboratory, sometime in 1951, to demonstrate the principle of boron-neutron capture therapy. However, this technology never achieved the practical use that radioisotope production and electricity generation achieved.)

The purpose of highlighting these earlier achievements is not intended in any way to diminish the significance of the EBR-I achievement. Rather, it is to point out how many people and institutions contributed to the early development of nuclear power, and the number of small steps--and missteps--that it took to get us where we are today. It is something to think about as we celebrate this important milestone in history.


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