Several days after the successful start of the Molten-Salt Reactor Experiment, the local paper, the “Oak Ridger”, published this editorial:
THE OAK RIDGER
FRIDAY, JUNE 4, 1965, page 4
Editorial: Significant Step To ‘Burning The Rocks’
Many important stews lead up to the “going critical” of a new reactor. For instance, in the case of Oak Ridge National Laboratory’s Molten Salt Reactor Experiment, one of the key moments was in January when the pumps were turned on and the molten salts of the system were first circulated.
Perhaps the most important phase of any reactor’s development is when the idea is first conceived. For, as has been emphasized, there are zillions of possibilities for reactor typos. The problem has been to select from the many those few that hold promise of value. For, indeed, an experimental reactor is an expensive thing, this new one here costing about $11,000,000 in actual construction plus about another $16,800,000 for the research and development program accompanying its building.
And the idea for the MSRE actually was born at the same time as the idea that a reactor of this basic concept might be the answer to the still-unanswered question, “Can nuclear power propel an aircraft?” And, in this sense, the MSRE is representative of how the nations’ military programs can also have valuable implications for civilian advances. For immediately on the conceiving of the idea of this concept as appropriate to the Air Nuclear Project of almost ten years ago, it was also readily recognized that there were power-producing possibilities.
Nevertheless, despite all of the years and significant steps preceding 6 p.m. Tuesday, June 1, it is that moment of “criticality” that is most dramatic and thus attracts the most initial attention to an important experiment such as this. And, indeed, lab scientists would emphasize, as they did in the case of the Homogenous Reactor, that “E” in the initial. For this is, once again, just an experiment. And it just might not, in the long run, work.
But the ORNL staff, led by the MSRE’s prime champion and devotee, H. G. MacPherson, seem a good bit more confident than was the case with the HRE five and six years ago. And, they emphasize also, they are profiting from HRE’s trial and error, particularly in the matter of how to service their new reactor by remote means. Virtually all of this basic technique was learned and practiced with the HRE.
Now that criticality is passed, the really big moment for the MSRE will come likely in September when it will be operated at increasingly high levels until it reaches a level at which it would, if it were hooked up to a generator, produce power. It will not actually produce power, officials emphasize, correcting Wednesday’s page one story which said that it would, It will only be “power operated” which means that it could be producing power if they wanted it to.
Much has been heard recently about the smashing success of current nuclear power reactor types. So why, if these are doing OK, keep on looking for new methods?
The reason is quite simple. The nuclear power systems now in use burn up a lot of fuel. And this fuel supply—uranium—is scarce and most expensive to produce. A system such as the MSRE, a breeder reactor, would actually produce more power than it uses—would do what Alvin M. Weinberg, ORNL director, has long said is necessary if the world’s energy needs are to be ultimately met—“burn the rocks.”
Present nuclear power systems are just a phase. Twenty-five, thirty years from now, quite possibly on the basis of what will be learned here with the MSRE within the next several months and years, breeder reactors should be flourishing.
The advent of the MSRE is only the first of three major reactor start-ups possible in Oak Ridge this year. Still to come are “criticality” for the exciting new High-Flux Isotopes Reactor and the long-delayed Experimental Gas-Cooled Reactor although the latter might not occur until next year.
What promises to be the most significant reactor year in recent Oak Ridge history, if not for all time, is surely off to a fine start by virtue of the MSRE’s impressive intial success.
It was clear that Alvin Weinberg’s notion of “burning the rocks”, in other words, using the tiny content of thorium in average rocks for energy, had gained a receptive audience at the local paper.