by Will Davis
Our matinee feature this week is a film produced by Argonne National Laboratory, entitled “Chicago Pile 1: The Day Tomorrow Began.” This is the film history, from the official source, of the effort to design, construct and operate what became the first chain-reacting atomic pile in history.
We see the term “pile” or “pile reactor” used in reference to early reactors because, quite literally, they were built out of a large pile of graphite blocks – graphite being the moderator of choice of many early projects and even a few very large ones. Of course, the blocks aren’t all the same; they had to be machined to fit with each other, to accommodate shafts for fuel and for control rods, and openings for various instruments. Cooling was also important when piles began to be built that could develop considerable heat, so cooling channels were added; a number of early piles were cooled by air, and some later by water.
A point must be made about this film, and the era in which the first atomic pile was developed. The world, at that time, was at war; literally, the Second World War encompassed most of the industrialized nations of the northern hemisphere. While we can safely say that the origins of the discovery of fission were purely scientific, and while we can also say that there were ideas before the war to develop atomic energy for power purposes, the motivation to use “any means necessary” in the widening world conflict led to a channeling of effort toward weapons. To put it simply, this was the Manhattan Project. It is certain that had there been no Manhattan Project, no Second World War, that controlled fission of heavy isotopes would have come along sooner or later in a different way albeit very likely at a slower pace. We cannot escape history – what is done is done. What matters here is to have a sober, objective look at this project for what it was, and to remember that another project in some alternate timeline wherein war was not raging might have looked similar indeed.
All that said, this is a valuable historical film and it will serve as the first of several we will be featuring here through NEXT WEEK at the ANS Nuclear Cafe! You will see several early nuclear projects covered in film, along with some additional material from my library on each project. You won’t want to miss those!