Alvin M. Weinberg

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Alvin Martin Weinberg
Alvin Weinberg.jpg
Weinberg, c. 1960
Born April 20, 1915
Chicago, Illinois, USA
Died October 18, 2006(2006-10-18) (aged 91)
Oak Ridge, Tennessee, USA
Residence Oak Ridge, Tennessee, USA
Citizenship American
Fields Nuclear physics
Alma mater University of Chicago
Known for
Notable awards

Alvin Martin Weinberg (April 20, 1915 – October 18, 2006) was an American nuclear physicist who was the administrator at Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL) during and after the Manhattan Project period. He came to Oak Ridge, Tennessee in 1945 and remained there until his death in 2006.

Early years in Chicago[edit]

Alvin Weinberg was born April 20, 1915 in Chicago, Illinois. He received his PhD from the University of Chicago in mathematical biophysics in 1939. He then worked at the Metallurgical Laboratory at the University of Chicago, where Fermi was developing the first nuclear reactor. When World War II started, Weinberg went to work at the newly formed nuclear laboratory in Oak Ridge, Tennessee.

Work at Oak Ridge[edit]

Weinberg served as director of Physics Division of the Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL) from 1945, when he was 30, until 1948, when he became research director for the entire Oak Ridge National Laboratory. He was appointed director in 1955, aged 40.[1] Weinberg often sat in the front row at ORNL division information meetings and he would ask the first, often very penetrating, question after each scientific talk. For young scientists giving their first presentation, the experience could be frightening, but it was also exciting and stimulating. When asked how he found the time to attend every meeting, Weinberg replied jokingly, "We didn't have a DOE in those days."

Reactor development[edit]

Eugene Wigner (left) with Weinberg at ORNL

Weinberg had the Materials Testing Reactor converted into a mock-up of a real reactor called the Low Intensity Test Reactor (LITR) or "Poor Man's Pile". (The first reactors were called "piles" as they were constructed of piles of fissile material and shielding.) Experiments at the LITR led to the design of both pressurized-water reactors (PWRs) and boiling-water reactors (BWRs), which have since become the dominant reactor types in commercial nuclear power plants. Weinberg was attracted to the simplicity and self-controlling features of nuclear reactors that used fluid fuels, such as Harold Urey and Eugene Wigner's proposed Aqueous Homogeneous Reactor. Therefore, to support the Nuclear Aircraft project in the late 1940s, Weinberg asked ORNL's reactor engineers to design a reactor using liquid instead of solid fuel.[2] This Homogeneous Reactor Experiment (HRE) was affectionately dubbed "Alvin's 3P reactor" because it required a pot, a pipe, and a pump. The HRE went into operation in 1950 and, at the criticality party, Weinberg brought the appropriate spirits: "When piles go critical in Chicago, we celebrate with wine. When piles go critical in Tennessee, we celebrate with Jack Daniel's." The HRE operated for 105 days before it was closed down. Despite its leaks and corrosion, valuable information was gained from its operation and it proved a simple and safe reactor to control.[citation needed]

During the time the HRE was online, Senators Jack Kennedy and Albert Gore, Sr. visited ORNL and were hosted by Weinberg.[3]

Molten salt reactors[edit]

Weinberg noting "6000 full-power hours!" of MSRE operation in 1967.

The Aircraft Nuclear Propulsion (ANP) project was ORNL's biggest program, using 25% of ORNL's budget.[4] The ANP project's military goal was to produce a nuclear-powered aircraft (a bomber) to overcome the range limitations of jet-fueled aircraft at that time. ORNL successfully built and operated a prototype of an aircraft reactor powerplant by creating the world's first molten salt fueled and cooled reactor called the ARE (Aircraft Reactor Experiment) in 1954, which set a record high temperature of operation of ~815 °C (1,500 °F, i.e. red heat)[5]). However, due to the radiation hazard to aircrews, new developments in ballistic-missile technology, mid-air refueling and longer-range jet-propelled bombers, President Kennedy canceled the program in June 1961.[6]

ORNL then shifted its focus to a civilian version of the meltdown-proof Molten Salt Reactor (MSR) away from the military's "daft"[7] idea of nuclear-powered aircraft. The Molten-Salt Reactor Experiment (MSRE) set a record for continuous operation and was the first to use uranium-233 as fuel. It also used plutonium-239 and the standard, naturally-occurring uranium-235. The MSR was known as the "chemist's reactor" because it was proposed mainly by chemists (ORNL's Ray Briant and Ed Bettis (an engineer) and NEPA's Vince Calkins)[8] and because it used a chemical solution of melted salts containing the actinides (uranium, thorium, and/or plutonium) in a carrier salt, most often composed of beryllium (BeF2) and lithium (LiF – NOTE the Lithium is isotopically enriched in Lithium-7 to prevent excessive neutron capture or tritium production) - FLiBe.[9] The MSR also affords the opportunity to change the chemistry of the molten salt while the reactor was operating to remove fission products (the 'nuclear ashes') and add new fuel or change the fuel, all of which is called "online processing".

Biological and environmental studies[edit]

Under Weinberg's tenure as director, ORNL's Biology Division grew to five times the size of the next largest division. This division was charged with understanding how ionizing radiation interacts with living things and to try to find ways to help them survive radiation damage, such as bone marrow transplants. In the 1960s Weinberg also pursued new missions for ORNL, such as using nuclear energy to desalinate seawater. He recruited Philip Hammond from Los Alamos to further this mission and in 1970 started the first big ecology project in the United States: the National Science Foundation-Research Applied to National Needs Environmental Program.


In 1958, Weinberg coauthored the first nuclear reactor textbook, The Physical Theory of Neutron Chain Reactors, with Nobel laureate Eugene Wigner. The following year, 1959, he was elected president of the American Nuclear Society and, in 1960, began service on the President's Science Advisory Committee.[10] Starting in 1945 with Patent #2,736,696, Weinberg, usually with Eugene Wigner, filed numerous patents on the Light water reactor (LWR) technology that has provided the United States's primary nuclear reactors. The main LWR types are Pressurized Water Reactors (PWRs) and Boiling Water Reactors (BWRs), that serve in Naval propulsion and commercial nuclear power.[11] In 1965 he was appointed vice president of the Union Carbide Corporation's Nuclear Division.[12]

Weinberg's firing impacts MSR and thorium-based nuclear-fuel research[edit]

Weinberg was fired by the Nixon administration from ORNL in 1973 after 18 years as the lab's director because he continued to advocate increased nuclear safety and molten salt reactors (MSRs), instead of the Administration's chosen Liquid Metal Fast Breeder Reactor (LMFBR) that the AEC's Director of Reactor Division, Milton Shaw, was appointed to develop.[13] Weinberg's firing effectively halted development of the MSR, as it was virtually unknown by other nuclear labs and specialists.[14] There was a brief revival of MSR research at ORNL as part of the Carter Administration's nonproliferation interests, culminating in ORNL-TM-7207: 1980–07, "Conceptual Design Characteristics of a Denatured Molten-Salt Reactor with Once-Through Fueling", by Engel, et al. It is still considered by many to be the "reference design" for widespread, commercial molten salt reactors.[15][16]

ORNL had also done the majority of research on thorium as a nuclear fuel in other reactors such as PWRs, so Weinberg's firing reduced thorium's nuclear fuel research. The next, and the only demonstration of thorium breeding uranium-233, was during the Carter Administration, when Admiral Rickover, along with his nuclear core designer Dr. Alvin Radkowsky successfully replaced the enriched uranium core with a Seed and Blanket based core using thorium and U-233 in the USA's first commercial power plant at Shippingport, Pennsylvania to create the Light Water Breeder Reactor (LWBR).[17][18][19][20] Despite this successful demonstration of net breeding of U-233 fissile from thorium in 1982 in a Pressurized Water Reactor (PWR), no further research or development would be done until the 1990s.[19] In 1992, Dr. Alvin Radkowsky formed the commercial firm, Thorium Power, Inc. to further develop the LWBR's Seed and Blanket Unit (SBU) based re-coring of existing PWRs with fuels consisting of mainly thorium instead of uranium-238.[21] During the 1990s, the Clinton Administration backed Thorium Power's LWBR technology adaptation to destroy excess Russian military plutonium in proliferation resistant, recorded PWRs (VVER) in Russia with the U.S. DOE's Initiatives for Proliferation Prevention program funding, and oversight from Brookhaven National Laboratory (BNL).[22][23] The Russian-USA cooperative venture for peaceful uses of nuclear power, and therefore the Thorium Power, Inc. (now Lightbridge Corporation[21]) program to destroy excess Russian military plutonium in the SBU cored VVER was stopped by the Bush Administration in 2008 after the Russian invasion of Georgia. (US-Russian 123 Agreement was withdrawn from Congress' consideration in 2008.)[24][25]

After Oak Ridge[edit]

Washington and ORAU[edit]

Weinberg was named director of the U.S. Office of Energy Research and Development in Washington, D.C. in 1974. The following year he founded and became the first director of Institute for Energy Analysis at Oak Ridge Associated Universities (ORAU). This institute focused on evaluating alternatives for meeting future energy requirements. From 1976 to 1984, the Institute for Energy Analysis was a center for study of diverse issues related to carbon dioxide and global climate.[26] Weinberg worked at ORAU until retiring to become an ORAU distinguished fellow in 1985.


Weinberg remained active in retirement. In 1992 he was named chairman of the International Friendship Bell Committee, which arranged for the installation of a Japanese bell in Oak Ridge. He also called for strengthening of the International Atomic Energy Agency and systems to defend against nuclear weapons.[27]



  • The Physical Theory of Neutron Chain Reactors, Alvin M. Weinberg & Eugene P. Wigner, University of Chicago Press, 1958.[28]
  • Reflections on Big Science, Cambridge: M.I.T. Press, 1967.[29]
  • The Second Nuclear Era: A New Start for Nuclear Power, Alvin M. Weinberg ; Russ Manning, editor; New York: Praeger, 1985; ISBN 0-030-04144-9.[30]
  • Continuing the Nuclear Dialogue: Selected Essays, Alvin M. Weinberg ; selected and with introductory comments by Russell M. Ball; La Grange Park, IL: American Nuclear Society, c1985; ISBN 0-8944-8552-0.[31]
  • Strategic Defenses and Arms Control, Edited by Alvin M. Weinberg, Jack N. Barkenbus. New York: Paragon House, c1988; ISBN 0-887-02218-9.[32]
  • Stability and Strategic Defenses, Edited by Jack N. Barkenbus and Alvin M. Weinberg, Washington, DC: Washington Institute Press, c1989; ISBN 0-887-02046-1.[33]
  • Nuclear Reactions: Science and Trans-Science, American Institute of Physics, 1992; ISBN 0-88318-861-9.[34]
  • The First Nuclear Era: The Life and Times of a Technological Fixer, New York: AIP Press, c1994. ISBN 1-56396-358-2. Weinberg's autobiography, covering the period from the early 1940s to the early 1990s.[35]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Richardson, Darrell. "Brilliant Scientist" Dies at 91. The Oak Ridger. 2006-10-19.[dead link]
  2. ^ Page 100, "The First Nuclear Era: Life and Times of a Technological Fixer", Alvin M. Weinberg (1994)
  3. ^
  4. ^ Page 108, "The First Nuclear Era: Life and Times of a Technological Fixer", Alvin M. Weinberg (1994)
  5. ^ Page 673, "Fluid Fuel Reactors", James A. Lane, H.G. MacPherson, Frank Maslan (1958)
  6. ^ Page 49 (PDF Pg. 55), ORNL/M-6589, "Metals and Ceramics Division History 1946–1996",
  7. ^ "October 2006". Retrieved October 18, 2011. 
  8. ^ Pages 99–101, "The First Nuclear Era", Alvin M. Weinberg (1994)
  9. ^ Pages 9–20 (PDF Pgs. 11–23), ORNL-TM-1853, "Chemical Research and Development for Molten-Salt Breeder Reactors", W.R. Grimes (June 1967),
  10. ^
  11. ^ "Eugene P. Wigner – Patents – 1958". Retrieved October 18, 2011. 
  12. ^ "Tribute to Alvin M. Weinberg". April 20, 1995. Retrieved October 18, 2011. 
  13. ^ Page 198 – 200, "The First Nuclear Era: The Life and Times of a Technological Fixer", Alvin M. Weinberg (1994) AIP Press
  14. ^ The first nuclear era: the life and ... – Alvin Martin Weinberg – Google Books. Google Books. Retrieved October 18, 2011. 
  15. ^
  16. ^ "Fluid Fueled Reactors' Documents (mainly Molten Salt Reactors, MSR)". Retrieved October 18, 2011. 
  17. ^ "Bruce Hoglund's Eclectic Home Page". April 25, 1995. Retrieved October 18, 2011. 
  18. ^ "Jimmy Carter Library and Museum". Retrieved October 18, 2011. 
  19. ^ a b
  20. ^ Review of the Radkowsky Thorium Reactor Concept at the Wayback Machine (archived 25 February 2009)
  21. ^ a b "Lightbridge". Retrieved October 18, 2011. 
  22. ^
  23. ^ "The Global and Regional Solutions Directorate". Retrieved October 18, 2011. 
  24. ^
  25. ^ "U.S. Backs Off Civilian Nuclear Pact With Russia". The New York Times. September 9, 2008. 
  26. ^ Note e.g. mentions of Weinberg in Oreskes, Naomi; Conway, Erik M.; Shindell, Matthew (2008). "From Chicken Little to Dr. Pangloss: William Nierenberg, Global Warming, and the Social Deconstruction of Scientific Knowledge". Historical Studies in the Natural Sciences (University of California Press) 38 (1): 109–152. doi:10.1525/hsns.2008.38.1.109. Retrieved 29 March 2012.  & Nierenberg, Nicolas; Tschinkel, Walter R.; Tschinkel, Victoria J. (2010). "Early Climate Change Consensus at the National Academy: The Origins and Making of Changing Climate". Historical Studies in the Natural Sciences (University of California Press) 40 (3): 318–349. doi:10.1525/hsns.2010.40.3.318. Retrieved 29 March 2012. 
  27. ^ "Alvin Weinberg". IEEE Global History Network. IEEE. Retrieved July 14, 2011. 
  28. ^ The physical theory of neutron chain reactors at Google Books (Snippet View)
  29. ^ Reflections on Big Science at Google Books (No Preview Available)
  30. ^ The second nuclear era. Bulletin of the New York Academy of Medicine. 1983 December; 59(10): 1048–1059.
  31. ^ Continuing the nuclear dialogue: selected essays at Google Books (Snippet View)
  32. ^ Strategic defenses and arms control at Google Books (Snippet View)
  33. ^ Stability and strategic defenses at Google Books (Snippet View)
  34. ^ Nuclear Reactions: Science and Trans-Science at Google Books (Preview)
  35. ^ The First Nuclear Era: The Life and Times of a Technological Fixer at Google Books (Preview)

External links[edit]