We were visiting Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL) yesterday and during a lunchtime discussion, the topic of the most recent reactor at ORNL came up. A little discussion ensued and we realized that, with its first criticality in June of 1965, the Molten-Salt Reactor Experiment (MSRE) was the second-youngest reactor (in terms of first criticality) on the ORNL site. If you consider the operation on U-233 fuel, and the MSRE was the first reactor anywhere to operate on U-233, then it would be the youngest!
The first reactor on the ORNL site was the Manhattan-Project-era Graphite Reactor in 1943, and the last (to achieve criticality) was the High-Flux Isotope Reactor (HFIR). It is interesting that the majority of the reactors that achieved criticality at ORNL were brought on line while Alvin Weinberg was the ORNL director.
This realization was confirmed by reviewing ORNL-TM-2009-181: An Account of ORNL’s Thirteen Nuclear Reactors.
Several weeks ago Baroness Bryony Worthington of the House of Lords in the United Kingdom came to visit Flibe Energy in Huntsville, and as we in Huntsville are wont to do, we took her to the US Space and Rocket Center, where I gave her a guided tour of America’s race to the Moon. I couldn’t help but throw a few insights and analogies towards LFTR development in there as we talked.
Video editing and filming was done by Gordon McDowell and Cameron Frisby.
Over the last several weeks we at Flibe Energy have spent a fair amount of time supporting the progress of Gordon McDowell’s “Thorium Remix 2012” effort, and one of the activities has been interviewing some of the people who actually worked on the Molten-Salt Reactor Program at Oak Ridge back in the 1960s and 1970s.
One of the leaders of the MSRP effort was Paul Haubenreich, who was the co-author along with Dick Engel of the journal article “Experience with the Molten-Salt Reactor Experiment” in February 1970. Mr. Haubenreich is a WWII veteran and graduated from the University of Tennessee and the Oak Ridge School of Reactor Technology (ORSORT). Mr. Haubenreich worked on the earlier Homogeneous Reactor Experiment-2 (an aqueous homogenous reactor) and then went on to supervise the construction and operation of the Molten-Salt Reactor Experiment (MSRE).
I visited Mr. Haubenreich at his home and he began to tell very interesting stories about his experiences in the MSRP. I asked if I could record what he was saying and simply used the voice recorder app on my Droid phone. It was the first time I used it so I didn’t realize it had a default setting of only 5 minutes. That’s why the first few files are broken up into inconvenient chunks, and I apologize for that.
In the first part of the interview, Mr. Haubenreich describes the circumstances of shutting down the MSRE at the end of 1969. He indicates that the reason the MSRE was shut down due to the specific instructions of Milton Shaw, who was an enthusiastic proponent of the Liquid-Metal Fast Breeder Reactor (LMFBR). Shaw wanted the funding that was being used to support the MSRE used instead to support LMFBR development. Weinberg attempted to delay the shutdown but ultimately Shaw prevailed. Haubenreich arranged the shutdown so that the MSRE operations team could go home for Christmas and spend it with their families. He talked about how uranium had previously been removed from the salt, and how it could have been used again to remove the U-233 in the salt, but that was not done and it led to the expensive and complicated remediation effort on the MSRE that took place in the 1990s and 2000s. The recording cut off and this part of the interview was lost.
In the second part, Mr. Haubenreich talked about his education at the ORSORT and talked about being educated in nuclear technology along with Milton Shaw, who later played a large role in the demise of molten-salt reactor technology research. He also talked about becoming the manager for the MSRE and his highly effective technique for preparing for the nuclear engineering professional exam.
The third part of the interview begins with his description of taking the professional exam in Nashville.
This was my first exposure to files in the AMR format, but I’ve found that it is much more compact than the equivalent MP3 file, so I’ve gone ahead and posted the files in this very compact format. I’ve used VLC Player to play back the files without any troubles.
Thanks to Eduardo Madrid, we are developing a transcript of the interview here.
This newspaper article was published on February 13, 1973 in a local Oak Ridge newspaper, and it was recently recovered from the personal archives of one of the key persons on the Molten-Salt Reactor Program.
Molten Salt: 500 Worked For 25 Years
By CAROLYN KRAUSE
The recent termination of Oak Ridge National Laboratory’s Molten Salt Reactor Program was a bitter disappointment to the 100 people directly connected with it, but it was hardly unexpected.
Some could see the dark clouds on the horizon as early as 1967. For them, it has been only a question of when, not whether fiscal lightning would strike and end the program.
On January 29 (1973), the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission announced in its budget proposal requests for fiscal 1974 (beginning July 1) that the $5 million-a-year MSR program, based entirely in Oak Ridge, is to be eliminated.
But the decision did not come as a shock, according to H.G. MacPherson, former ORNL deputy director and now a professor of nuclear engineering at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville.
MacPherson, who was involved in the MSR program for many years, said in an interview last week that a 1967 supplemental report to the President did not imply that the molten salt breeder project “would be a major program unless something disastrous happened to the liquid metal fast breeder reactor.”
In other words, the molten salt breeder project has been viewed by the federal government in the past few years as a backup–an alternative to the LMFBR.
The irony of all this for Oak Ridgers is that this town is becoming in the same decade a birthplace for one type of breeder project and a graveyard for another.
For, while 1972 was the last year for the MSR program, it was also the year in which it was announced that the AEC and a host of utilities will provide the money to build the nation’s first large-scale LMFBR demonstration power plant. And this plant–the “priority project” of the AEC–is to be built in Oak Ridge.
The tragedy of the MSR program termination is that some 500 scientists and engineers have worked directly or indirectly with the program, some for as long as 25 years.
These professional people represent a number of ORNL divisions, including the reactor, reactor chemistry, chemical technology and metals and ceramics divisions.
Is there a future for the molten salt breeder anywhere–in the U.S. or in the world?
MacPherson, who points out that a handful of people in France, England and India have shown interest in molten salt technology, said he sees “hope for some international venture” in which various U.S. industries and foreign nations would contribute to a molten salt breeder project. But he does not know how such a venture could get started.
In the U.S. there is a Molten Salt Group consisting of utilities and industrial organizations which have been investing money and doing design work for molten salt breeders. Murray Rosenthal, ORNL’s MSR program director, has said that industry is interested in the MSBR “but they say they can’t afford to do it. It takes a government commitment” such as the LMFBR has.
Studies of molten salt reactors as a power source began in 1947 when the US began to work on developing a nuclear-powered airplane. The aircraft never got off the ground, but the molten salt reactor did become a reality. Ed Bettis was a strong proponent of molten salt work at ORNL.
Some of the highlights of molten salt studies at ORNL are as follows, according to a published history written by Rosenthal, P.R. Kasten and R.B. Briggs:
1950 – Studies of molten fluoride salts (heated compounds consisting of fluorine and various metals) became the “main line effort” of ORNL’s Aircraft Nuclear Propulsion Program.
1954 – The Aircraft Reactor Experiment (ARE), a small reactor built in Oak Ridge to look into the use of molten fluoride fuels for aircraft propulsion reactors, operated successfully for nine days.
1956 – H.G. MacPherson formed a group to study the possible use of molten salt reactors in civilian power plants. MacPherson and his associates “concluded that graphite-moderated thermal reactors operating on a thorium fuel cycle would be the best molten-salt systems for producing economic power.”
1959 – An AEC task force, after comparing the different kinds of fluid fuel reactors being developed, concluded that the molten salt reactor had “the highest probability of achieving technical feasibility.” MacPherson, who represented the molten salt concept at meetings of the task force, recalled that this task force report favoring the MSR was a personal triumph for him.
1960 – The design of the Molten Salt Reactor Experiment (MSRE) was begun. It was determined then that MSRE fuel salt would be a mixture of uranium, lithium, beryllium and zirconium fluorides.
1962 – Construction of the MSRE began.
1965 – The molten salt reactor was first critical, that is, the fissioning, or atom-splitting of the fuel, was triggered.
Oct. 2, 1968 – The MSRE was made critical on uranium-233.
Oct. 8, 1968 – Glenn T. Seaborg, then AEC chairman, personally at the controls, took the power of the MSRE up to 100 kilowatts, thus bringing to power the first reactor to operate on uranium-233.
According to MacPherson, the “MSRE demonstrated that you could operate a liquid fuel reactor by circulating a highly radioactive fuel through the reactor system.”
After the MSRE was proven successful, the Molten Salt Reactor Program was directed, beginning in 1968, toward the development of a single-fluid breeder reactor.
In the LMFBR, breeding is accomplished when uranium-238 captures neutrons escaping in the fission process. These neutrons convert the uranium-238 to fissionable plutonium-239, which can be extracted and used to refuel a breeder reactor.
In a molten salt breeder, neutrons released in the fission process are slowed down by graphite and captured by thorium salt, which is changed into protactinium. The protactinium salt decays into fissionable uranium-233. This uranium is collected and run back into the reactor to keep the fission process going.
The breeder development work in ORNL’s MSR program ran into a snag in 1971 when it was discovered that surface cracking was taking place in Hastelloy-N, the nickel-base alloy in the reactor vessel and heat exchanger tubes.
It was later found that tellurium, one of numerous fission products, was causing the cracking. Last year ORNL engineers learned that, by adding titanium to the Hastelloy-N, both the cracking problem and radiation embrittlement of Hastelloy-N could be licked.
Also, in 1972, technological advances were made in containing radioactive tritium in molten salt reactors. But while the technological outlook for molten salt breeder development looked bright here, the molten salt clouds in Washington grew darker.
Last spring, the Joint Congressional Committee on Atomic Energy invited the AEC to review the molten salt project and decide whether the project should be terminated or expanded.
In anticipation of this review, the ORNL staff prepared a report recommending continuation and some expansion of the present effort with the goal of ultimately constructing for the AEC a molten salt breeder experiment.
But the AEC said no and ended the molten salt project.
Once again, the consistent answer to the question of “why was molten-salt killed?” is “because they wanted the plutonium fast-breeder reactor.” But then the inevitable follow-on question persists–why did they want the fast breeder so badly?
I really enjoyed watching Alex Pasternack’s new short video on Dr. Edward Teller:
Ralph Moir had told me this story about Teller before, but watching it presented this way with the video interviews of Teller and short descriptions of projects that we worked on, was much richer. Teller was indeed a very unique kind of person, whose early experiences with Communism in Hungary shocked his mind into responses that others struggled to understand. I hesitate to cast any judgements since I certainly did not go through what Teller went through, but I have noticed that among Hungarian emigres to the US of a particular age (and I have met several) there is an intensity of personality that I have come to believe must be a product of this environment.
In posting this, I went back to reference an earlier post I had made for Alex’s previous effort, “The Thorium Dream”, and discovered to my horror that I had never posted it on the blog! So in attempting to rectify for that past oversight, here is his enjoyable short documentary on the growing effort to bring an understanding of thorium and the molten-salt reactor to the world.
Finally, Moir references the paper that he and Teller co-wrote, which was Teller’s final paper. For those of you who would like to read it, here it is in PDF form:
Thorium-Fueled Underground Power Plant Based on Molten Salt Technology, by Ralph Moir and Edward Teller, 2004
Last week I had an opportunity to travel to the San Francisco Bay Area and to give a “TechTalk” at Google. I chose to expand on some remarks that I had made earlier in the year at the ThEC2011 conference in New York about why the thorium molten-salt reactor wasn’t developed. I had done quite a bit of research on the political circumstances in the late 1960s and early 1970s that accompanied the decision by the US Atomic Energy Commission (USAEC) to end the research at Oak Ridge on the MSR. Much of the material that I found I incorporated into the “Nuclear Historical Timeline” that I have been maintaining.
So last Friday, December 16, I gave this presentation on the Google campus:
I greatly appreciate Iain McClatchie for shooting the video and Gordon McDowell for the editing.
Why didn’t it happen?
Short answer–because all of the political, technological, and financial focus was on the liquid-metal fast breeder reactor. Later on, due to fears about non-proliferation, the US cancelled plans to commercially reprocess spent nuclear fuel to extract plutonium, and the case for the fast breeder reactor was toast. Because there were no fast breeder reactors to take all the plutonium that had been generated from light-water reactors, in 1982 the US government passed the Nuclear Waste Policy Act and started collecting a tax that would be intended to pay for what would eventually become Yucca Mountain.