1979 – Los Alamos – Comments on Reactor Safety from Leaders of the Manhattan Project


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In 1979, Los Alamos National Laboratory began
interviewing scientists who were part of Project Y,
the Los Alamos effort to produce the first atomic
weapons. The interviews form the basis of the
Laboratory’s Historical Perspective Film Series.
Excerpted here are comments from eight interviews,
all apropos of the subject of this issue—
reactor safety and the accident at Three
Mile Island. The producer and interviewer for the
films is the Laboratory’s Mario Balibrera.
“No accident is beneficial. Three Mile
Island was a tragedy. I think the report of
the Kemeny Commission has been a very
important contribution in trying to run down
the real reasons for it. . .The equipment
operated better than the people. If they’d left
the plant alone, it appears that the accident
probably never would have happened. . .No
one was hurt and no one got an overdose of
radiation, that is true, but it still was a
tragedy in the sense that the people there had
great psychological difficulties. For the next
10 or 20 years we are going to depend on
nuclear energy in very considerable measure.
. .I think we’ll need the breeder, but not
until after the turn of the century. . .“
Robert F. Bacher, Emeritus Professor of
California Institute of Technology
Bacher directed the Experimental Physics
Division and, later, the Bomb Physics Division of
Project Y.
“Nuclear power is a necessity for all
industrial countries. Safety, of course, is
tremendously important, and we have to
learn from our mistakes. In fact, I don’t
believe that one can improve safety without
having some minor accidents because they
will tell you what’s wrong, what has to be
improved. The Three Mile Island accident
was very unfortunate, but we can learn a
great deal from it. . .Operators have to be
much better trained. . .The controls have to
be changed. . .Edward Teller has some other
very important suggestions that I think
should be incorporated. . .As for the waste,
there are many ways to dispose of it, and I
am happy that in the last few years, this has
received much more attention than it did
before. . .Sweden has, in fact, adopted a very
reasonable plan. . .“
Hans A. Bethe, John Wendell Anderson
Professor of Physics
Cornell University
Nobel laureate Bethe was head of the Laboratory
Theoretical Physics Division during the
Manhattan Project.
“I’m not an activist, so in principle I’m not
in favor of movements for anything. I think
public opinion should be expressed through
more knowledgeable channels than organized
movements. On the other hand, I’m
not a proponent of nuclear power. I think
there are very real hazards in large-scale
development of nuclear energy, the greatest
being the matter of proliferation, which maybe
we can’t stop, anyhow, but I think it’s so
important that one should try to slow it
down. I’m not antinuclear, but I’m not in
favor of crash programs or rapid development.
The hazards are real, and the thing has
to be approached carefully. There are other
hazards. . than proliferation. . .Anything
man makes has failed sometimes. . .There’s
Murphy’s Law, which hasn’t been repealed
yet, as far as I know. The other hazard is
waste disposal; there doesn’t seem to be a
good solution to that yet, so I think there are
several reasons why one should use some
caution, much as we need power. . .“
Edwin M. McMillan, former Director
Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory
Nobel laureate McMillan was a prominent participant
in planning and recruiting for the Los
Alamos Project.
“I’m astonished that so much attention—
to the point of conflict and mass
demonstrations—has gone on around a few
reactors when there are 30,000 bombs which
nobody seems to want to talk about. ..I find
that a curious disparity. . .Three Mile Island
was sloppily done. . .I hope there are more
severe and sensible licensing and operational
procedures in the future. . .I think there will
be. My own view is that (the reactors) should
be operated on a Federal basis, like airports.
. .”
Philip Morrison, Institute Professor
Massachusetts Institute of Technology
Morrison was a group leader in experimental
physics at Los Alamos from 1944 to 1946.
“All I can say about the antinukes is that
I’m flabbergasted because here you have a
technology which has a marvelous (safety)
record compared to any other technology,
whether it’s steam engines, railroads, or
airplanes. . .It’s the safest so far, but the
public imagination has been caught by it.
The remarkable thing is that in spite of the
mistakes made at Three Mile Island, nothing
happened, except that the company lost
millions of dollars and there was a great
show (that was) wonderful for television and
the newspapers. My own feeling is that if
people don’t want nuclear energy, they don’t
have to have it. . .We can shut down the
nuclear plants, and about 10 to 15 years
from now, when we miss them, all will not be
lost: we can buy plants from France, from
Japan, Germany, England. . .It’ll cost us
more but look at the pleasure we’ll have had
in not having nuclear energy. . .“
I. I. Rabi, Emeritus University Professor
Columbia University
Nobel laureate Rabi sewed as a consultant to the
Los Alamos portion of the Manhattan Project.
“One of the major problems of nuclear
power is to get the public to understand the
situation. My own idea is that we need some
substitute source of power and that nuclear
power is the only one we have at present that
is accessible in a finite time and that one can
do. I’m not enthusiastic about nuclear power,
but on the other hand, I see absolutely
absurd things—people willing to take risks
that are a thousand times as big as the risks
that nuclear power offers and they don’t bat
an eye about it; they are very happy about it.
But if something has to do with radiation,
then everything is unacceptable. . .
Because you don’t smell it, you don’t see it,
you don’t taste it, so it is a bad thing. People
should really be afraid and scared of atomic
bombs, which are in the tens of thousands in
the armament of the United States, Russia,
and in sizeable numbers in many other
countries. Now that is a really terrible danger
for mankind, of major proportions, and
to tell you the truth, to see people being
afraid of a nuclear plant when they have ten
thousand bombs around in all of these
countries. . .It’s a little strange. . .“
Emilio Segre, Emeritus Professor of Physics
University of California, Berkeley
Nobel laureate Segre’ was a group leader at Los
Alamos from 1943 to 1946 and was in charge of
measuring the spontaneous fission of uranium
and plutonium.
“Nuclear energy is not the whole answer
to the energy question, but it’s part of the
answer if the developing world is to develop.
Those who try to tell us that it is too
dangerous don’t know what they are talking
about. They don’t happen to know that the
big regulated reactors have not cost a single
human life. That’s a better safety record than
that of any other energy-producing industry.
We need all of the energy sources if we don’t
want the Arabs to dominate our economy,
and we don’t want to be at the mercy of the
Russians, when, as it easily may happen, the
Russians gain influence and “Finlandize” the
countries around the Persian Gulf. . .“
Edward Teller, Senior Research Fellow
Hoover Institution on War, Revolution and
Teller has been and is engaged in advanced work
on nuclear weapons and nuclear energy, including
the critical period of the Manhattan Project.
“I’m happy that so many people are
concerned (about the antinuclear movement).
Right after the war I joined the group
that set up the Association of Los Alamos
Scientists, that then integrated with the Federation
of American Scientists. Our first
concern was to raise money and then get the
attention of other people about this terrible
nuclear threat. Now, although I’m pleased to
see so many people so passionately interested,
I’m a little disheartened at the level
of our concern. They don’t seem to know as
much as I would like them to know and it
seems to me that their criticism is, in many
cases, hysterical and unthinking in terms of
nuclear reactors and nuclear energy, which I
believe we need. . .The dangers of that, compared
to other dangers, seems to be emphasized
out of all proportion. I suppose it
was a good thing that Three Mile Island
happened. . .It was magnified out of all proportion
to what actually went on there, but it
showed up psychological problems about the
use of nuclear energy that are very real. . .“
Robert R. Wilson, former Director
Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory
Wilson was group leader in cyclotron reseach at
the Laboratory in 1943.
I just finished reading the interview of Peter
Carruthers and I am all fired up. I was
strongly moved by Mr. Carruthers’ statements,
for that most elementary of reasons—
strong agreement. I have experienced
a few of the many situations described by
Mr. Carruthers, but I have not yet left the
Cloistered Academic Halls. Like Carruthers,
I see relatively few alternatives in Academia
for a doer and a shaker, and the private turf
syndrome appears to grow ever more compartmentalized
year by year.
Nevertheless, I am still fighting the good
fight against the institutionalized inertia, but
as Mr. Carruthers has observed, the only
significant satisfaction comes from the students.
The only way I have ever achieved
even a modicum of success in changing
Academic Structure, involves that simplest
of strategies—just do it. Propose it. Write it
up. Make a motion. Prepare a new curriculum.
Propose a new division. Most people,
I believe, follow simple physical or
metaphysical laws. They take the path of
least resistance, they minimize their particular
work function, they conserve energy.
Consequently, by expending a little energy,
by doing a little extra work, even Academia
can be changed. I know. I have changed a
little bit of it. The nagging question is—is it
worth the effort? I dream of research and
instead I write memos, or papers, or curriculums,
or programs, or standards, or
books. It is tine for the ego, except for the
same nagging doubt. I usually just forget
about that doubt, until I read something like
Mr. Carruthers’ interview, and then I start to
think of focusing electron beams utilizing
unstable interactions stabilized by adaptive
control techniques. Or, I start to devise
systems to locate stolen cars. Or, I just start
to daydream. Please send me an application
to Los Alamos. I’ll put it in my future tile to
await the next nagging doubt.
Prof. Richard Gray Costello, Chairman
Electrical Engineering Dept.
The Cooper Union
New York, NY
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