Quotes from Alvin Weinberg’s autobiography

These are notable quotes from Alvin Weinberg’s 1994 autobiography “The First Nuclear Era, the Life and Times of a Technological Fixer“.

Alvin Weinberg

Thorium will create the Second Nuclear Era

Until then I had never quite appreciated the full significance of the breeder. But now I became obsessed with the idea that humankind’s whole future depended on the breeder. For society generally to achieve and maintain a living standard of today’s developed countries depends on the availability of a relatively cheap, inexhaustible source of energy.

Although the AEC established an office labeled “Fast Breeder,” no corresponding office labeled “Thermal Breeder” was established. As a result, the center of gravity of breeder development moved strongly to the fast breeder; the thermal breeder, as represented by the molten-salt project, was left to dwindle and eventually to die. —pg 129

Why wasn’t this done?

Why didn’t the molten-salt system, so elegant and so well thought-out, prevail?

I’ve already given the political reason: that the plutonium fast breeder arrived first and was therefore able to consolidate its political position within the AEC.

But there was another, more technical reason. The molten-salt technology is entirely different from the technology of any other reactor. To the inexperienced, [fluoride] technology is daunting… Perhaps the moral to be drawn is that a technology that differs too much from an existing technology has not one hurdle to overcome—to demonstrate its feasibility—but another even greater one—to convince influential individuals and organizations who are intellectually and emotionally attached to a different technology that they should adopt the new path.

It was a successful technology that was dropped because it was too different from the main lines of reactor development…I hope that in a second nuclear era, the [fluoride-reactor] technology will be resurrected. —pg 130-131

During my life I have witnessed extraordinary feats of human ingenuity. I believe that this struggling ingenuity will be equal to the task of creating the Second Nuclear Era. My only regret is that I will not be here to witness its success. —pg 281

Weinberg’s Ambitious Plan for ORNL

Given my background as a member of Wigner’s theoretical reactor group, where homogeneous liquid breeders were much discussed, I naturally saw the laboratory’s main long-term goal to be the development of breeder reactors based on liquid fuels—that is, solutions or slurries of uranium and plutonium. That this vision was inconsistent with the AEC’s decision to get Clinton (later ORNL) out of reactor development didn’t bother me. I had faith that if Clinton pushed the case for breeder-reactor development, the AEC’s decision to move all reactor development to Argonne would never be implemented—and this is what actually happened. —pg 76

Weinberg’s Views and Opinions on Nuclear Development

By 1953, the main line of reactor development in the United States was pretty well-established: it was the light-water reactor (LWR), either pressurized (PWR) or boiling (BWR). Although breeding was the central element of the reactor programs at Argonne and at ORNL, it was not the main focus of the AEC’s program. Achievement of near-term competitive nuclear power, not the much longer-term breeding, was the goal. —pg 132

That light water would be the main line for commercial development was a surprise to me even though I had proposed this system for submarine propulsion. In the early days, other systems had their proponents. But the LWR had one overwhelming advantage: it has already proven itself as a reliable power plant for Nautilus. —pg 133

Ken [Davis, AEC’s director for reactor development in 1955] was a capable, no-nonsense engineer. But on the proper course for reactor development we disagreed. I felt that the breeder had to be central, even if power from the current breeders was too expensive. Ken insisted that nuclear energy had to be economically competitive in the short run, or support for its development would fade. The only way to achieve competitive nuclear power was to choose a single line of development and eventually, through incremental improvements, to make that line economically viable. Ken, therefore, had little patience with the competitors of light water. The only reactors taken seriously in the US would light water reactors… —pg 133

Nowadays I often hear arguments about whether the decision to concentrate on the LWR was correct. I must say that at the time I did not think it was; and 40 years later we realize, more clearly than we did then, that safety must take precedence even over economics—that no reactor system can be accepted unless it is first of all safe. However, in those earliest days we almost never compared the intrinsic safety of the LWR with the intrinsic safety of its competitors. We used to say that every reactor would be made safe by engineering interventions. We never systematically compared the complexity and scale of the necessary interventions for [different] reactors. So in this respect I would say that Ken Davis’ insistence on a single line, the LWR, was premature. —pg 134

One publicist claimed that the light-water reactor had been chosen after long and careful analysis because it possessed unique safety features. I knew this was untrue: pressurized water had been chosen to power submarines because such reactors are compact and simple. Their advent on land was entirely due to Rickover’s dominance in reactor development the 1950s, and once established, the light-water reactor could not be displaced by a competing reactor. To claim that light-water reactors were chosen because of their superior safety belied an ignorance of how the technology had actually evolved. —pg 231

Weinberg’s Views and Opinions on Army Reactor Development

The Navy had its submarine reactors, the Air Force its aircraft nuclear propulsion project; it was not too surprising that the Army decided it needed a power reactor for remote bases where oil was very expensive.

The laboratory took on the job of preliminary design of a 1900 kW light-water reactor that could be set up at a remote base.

But the Army finally decided that even small light-water reactors were too difficult and costly to maintain, and they were all eventually decommissioned. —pg 137-138

Weinberg’s Views and Opinions on Personnel

The American [nuclear] program was largely military—bombs and naval propulsion. No expense was spared in pushing the military atom; at Los Alamos, the very best people continued to work actively on the hydrogen bomb. But the Argonne and Oak Ridge laboratories had lost many of their best people. Our wartime leaders largely went back to their universities, and civilian nuclear power was not a sufficiently urgent mission to attract them back.

Even the naval program, though carried out adequately by GE, Westinghouse, and Argonne, was very much in the grip of Rickover and his people I have already suggested that Rickover was uncomfortable with people who were much smarter than he—for example, he could not tolerate Wally Zinn, who was possibly the world’s most capable nuclear engineer.

Nuclear power development in the US, with notable exceptions, did not on average command people as capable as those developing bombs… —pg 158

Weinberg’s International Ideas

So ORNL embarked on a grand venture: to desalt the sea with cheap nuclear power. —pg 142

Senator Baker was most enthusiastic about the plan to build dual-purpose nuclear desalting plants in the Middle East. —pg 145

Whether large-scale nuclear desalting ever becomes an attractive option remains to be seen. —pg 147

I suppose part of my admiration for Dr. Nishibori arose from the enthusiastic support he gave, even until his death in his late eighties, to the molten-salt system. But despite his powerful political connections and his prestige, his support for the molten-salt reactor in Japan never got very far. —pg 161

So I wandered about during the early 1960s preaching my nuclear optimism to whoever would listen: Australia, Israel, Yugoslavia, Spain, India, Pakistan, Bangladesh. I extolled the promise if not the virtue of nuclear power, especially if it was based on the thorium-burning molten-salt breeder.
—pg 162

A “Faustian Bargain”?

And as Fermi said, we could not predict whether the public would accept a technology that created such huge amounts of radioactivity and that, in some sense, was connected with bombs. —pg 177

Who is right—the antinuclear critics who claim that nuclear energy is unsafe, dirty, and unnecessary? Or the nuclear proponents, such as myself, who concede that despite its shortcomings—radioactivity and the weapons connection—nuclear energy on balance is safe, clean and necessary? —pg 179

In this book [The Nuclear Connection, 1985] I think we pretty much demolished the notion that there was a necessary or even a likely connection between nuclear bombs and nuclear power. A country bent on the clandestine production of nuclear bombs would not choose the route Fermi described—extracting plutonium from a power reactor. Instead it would build an isotope-separation plant to get enriched uranium, or it would build a non-power-producing reactor, say, heavy-water or graphite-moderated, simply to produce plutonium. These latter two paths are less complicated technically than the power-reactor path. —pg 179

In 1978 I lectured to the nuclear engineering class at Oregon State University…I asked “How would Qaddafi proceed to get the bomb? … he would send 20 bright Libyan engineering students each year to OSU to learn nuclear engineering.” The class roared—there actually were in the class 20 young Libyans. OSU was being paid $10K a year for the tuition and expenses of each of the students! —pg 180

Waste Disposal

The actual as opposed to the perceived hazards of wastes therefore depend on the biological effects of protracted exposure to low levels of radiation. This is a matter fraught with controversy. In my view, the effects of exposures that are comparable to the natural background are so small as to be undetectable. The whole issue of low-level insults—not only by radiation, but by various manmade contaminants—belongs to trans-science, not science. That effects so small should terrify the public—indeed might lead to the abandonment of nuclear energy, I can only regard as irrational.

William Clark has likened the public’s frenzy over small environmental insults to the fear of witches in the later Middle Ages. Some million certified “witches” were executed because they could not prove that they had not caused harm to someone or something. In the same way, since one cannot prove that tiny amounts of radiation did not cause a particular leukemia—for that matter one cannot prove that they caused it either—those who wish to succumb to low-level phobia succumb. As a result nuclear energy—as well as other “technologies of abundance” such as pesticides and fertilizers—are under siege. Not until the low-level controversy is resolved can we expect nuclear energy to be fully accepted. —pg 181-182

Unless the public overcomes its fear of low levels of radiation, the future of nuclear energy is bleak. I therefore consider the biological effect of low levels of radiation to be the leading scientific issue underlying the nuclear controversy. —pg 229

In the 1960s, nuclear energy was under heavy attack by people who insisted that low levels of radiation were much more dangerous than we in the nuclear establishment conceded. Scientifically what was at issue was the existence of a threshold for radiation. Below such a threshold radiation was harmless. —pg 251

Nuclear Safety

Edward Teller was the one who made reactor safety a central element of reactor engineering. —pg 190

In addition to the containment, reactors were equipped with “engineered safety features”—devices and systems that intervened to prevent either a loss of coolant or a reactivity excursion. —pg 191

This report [WASH-740] simply assumed that all the radioactivity in the reactor was released to the environment, without explaining how this might have come about. —pg 192

Otherwise put, reactor safety became “probabilistic” not “deterministic.” —pg 193

Can nuclear energy ever be fully embraced if its safety remains probabilistic? After all, the public doesn’t understand probabilities. How else can one explain the success of state lotteries? —pg 195

This has led some reactor designers to rethink reactor safety and to propose reactors that simply cannot melt. —pg 195

But I was na├»ve. In the first place, the nuclear industry was not about to embrace a reactor concept that was “safer” than existing light-water reactors. —pg 231

The Second Nuclear Era

Ed Schmidt, one of my advisers in Washington, had been intoning for several years: “The first nuclear era is over. Let us plan for a second nuclear era based on a new, more rational technology.” —pg 223

Some extremists, such as Ralph Nader, urged abandonment of nuclear energy, but our institute agues that we should fix nuclear energy, not extirpate it. This was the gospel preach by David Lilienthal…a better-designed reactor that would be immune to meltdown.

I tried to convince the nuclear industry people that drastic action was needed if nuclear was to survive, but the nuclear industry representatives did not really believe that drastic change was needed. —pg 227


Carbon dioxide poses a dilemma for the radical environmentalists. Since nuclear reactors emit almost no carbon dioxide, how can one be against nuclear energy if one is concerned about carbon dioxide? To my utter dismay, indeed disgust, this is exactly the position of some of the environmentalists. Their argument is that extreme conservation, and a shift to renewables—that is, solar energy—is the only environmentally correct approach to reducing carbon dioxide.. —pg 237

Electricity can be controlled with exquisite accuracy: applied as heat only to the part of the reaction vessel needing the heat; applied as mechanical drive only to the piece being machined. Moreover, electricity at the point of end use is far cleaner than fossil fuel. For all these reasons, we became convinced that the fashionable rejection of electricity by the energy radicals—notably Amory Lovins—was basically wrong-headed. —pg 238

The energy intellectuals—of whom Amory Lovins is the most prominent—seem to me to long for a simpler, less complex world. They are basically prepared to exchange our fast-paced, modern industrial world for one in which we do away with air conditioning, and in general decentralize. That such a bucolic society, in which time is valued less than in our society, is almost surely a poorer society than our present one—this does not seem to matter to the radical environmentalists—the “coercive utopians” in Peter Beckman’s phrase. To my mind, such an attitude, if taken fully seriously, condemns most of the world to perpetual poverty. I cannot regard this as morally acceptable. —pg 239-240

Can a frugal, energy-starved world flourish without social strife, largely resulting from scarcity and want? —pg 279

Weinberg Leaves ORNL

I found myself increasingly at odds with the reactor division of the AEC. The director at the time was Milton Shaw. Milt was cut very much from the Rickover cloth: he had a singleness of purpose and was prepared to bend rules and regulations in achievement of his goal. At the time he became director, the AEC had made the liquid-metal fast breeder (LMFBR) the primary goal of its reactor program. Milt tackled the LMFBR project with Rickoverian dedication: woe unto any who stood in his way. This caused problems for me since I was still espousing the molten-salt breeder.

Milt was like a bull. He enjoyed [congressional] confidence so his position in the AEC was unassailable. And it was clear that he had little confidence in me or ORNL. After all, we were pushing molten-salt not the LMFBR. More that that, we were being troublesome over the question of reactor safety.

[Congressman] Chet [Holifield] was clearly exasperated with me, and he finally blurted out, “Alvin, if you are concerned about the safety of reactors, then I think it may be time for you to leave nuclear energy.” I was speechless. But it was apparent to me that my style, my attitude, and my perception of the future were no longer in tune with the powers within the AEC.

As I look back on these events, I realize that leaving ORNL was the best thing that could have happened to me. My views about nuclear energy were at variance with those of [the AEC and Congressional leadership]. After all, it was I who had called nuclear energy a Faustian bargain, who continued to promote the molten-salt breeder… —pg 198-200

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