Category Archives: Germany

Excitement about U-235 as coal competitor–circa 1939 & 1940

By Rod Adams

Conventional wisdom says that the general public was introduced to atomic energy by the explosions at Hiroshima and Nagasaki. According to that version of history, the introduction instilled a strong dose of fear that remains to be overcome.

Some observers who like to paint nuclear energy in a negative light have stated that the program to build nuclear power plants grew from a desire to find a civilian use for a technology developed solely from a desire to create weapons.

Accounts of the early days after the discovery of the fission chain reaction, however, show that physicists who were engaged in the study of the atomic nucleus and the use of neutrons to produce artificial radioactivity were keenly interested in producing useful power. They were motivated not only by a scientific desire to gain a better understanding of the fundamental structure of the atom, but also by a desire to provide the world with a new power source to compete with coal and oil. The stories also show, however, that writers who covered the scientific advances often asked questions indicating that they envisioned weapons or doomsday scenarios.

As a digital subscriber to the New York Times, widely referred to as “the paper of record,” I recently performed an archive search using the term “chain reaction” and a date range starting on 01/01/1938 and ending on 01/01/1944. The results of that search confirmed my suspicion that the atomic pioneers were primarily interested in fuel production—though, when pressed, they acknowledged the possibility of explosive energy release.

The search returned 10 articles published between February 1939 and March 1941, with no additional results after that date. Even before the Manhattan Project started, scientists apparently stopped discussing chain reactions in public. Some of the 10 pieces discovered were short inclusions in a regular column titled Science in the News. Here are sample quotes from those pieces showing atomic energy optimism:

Frederic Joliot, co-winner of the 1935 Nobel Prize for chemistry, is trying to find a way to make a $2 pound of uranium give up as much heat or power as is now obtained from burning $10,000 worth of coal.

Uranium atoms will do the firecracker trick under certain restrictions. If scientists can find practical means to set up uranium chain reactions, then it is estimated that it may be possible to obtain from one pound of uranium as much energy as is at present obtained from 1,250 tons of coal.

(Associated Press, Uranium as a Coal Substitute, New York Times, June 19, 1939)

Roberts and Kuper agree that “a chain reaction cannot be ruled out definitely for either slow or fast neutrons,” but decide that “there is no evidence of any kind that such a reaction will really occur.” They throw more cold water over dreamers by showing that uranium has not very great economic advantage over coal even if it could be used. “Uranium oxide (96 per cent pure) sells for approximately $2 a pound, which is roughly equal to the price of a ton of coal at the mine. In terms of energy dollar—uranium is cheaper by a factor of 8.5.”

Though this may look good to a financier, Roberts and Kuper point out that as the demand for uranium increases so does the price. In the end further refinement would be necessary and the limited supply of high-grade ore would soon be exhausted. “If uranium were to replace 500,000,000 tons of coal used annually in this country,” argue these skeptics, “the amount of uranium consumed would increase 15,000 per cent.”

(Kaempffert, Waldemar, Atomic Energy From Uranium, The New York Times, October 22, 1939)

There was also a lengthy front-page article titled Vast Power Source In Atomic Energy Opened by Science published on May 5, 1940. That article documented a high level of public interest in the new discoveries and described an optimistic attitude among both academic and industrial researchers. That article provided technical information that I had previously thought was a closely-guarded, Manhattan Project secret.

A natural substance found abundantly in many parts of the earth, now separated for the first time in pure form, has been found in pioneer experiments at the Physics Department of Columbia University to be capable of yielding such energy that one pound of it is equal in power output to 5,000,000 pounds of coal or 3,000,000 pounds of gasoline, it became known yesterday.

The discovery was announced in the current issue of The Physical Review, official publication of American physicists and one of the leading scientific journals of its kind in the world.

Professor John R. Dunning, Columbia physicist, who headed the scientific team whose research led to the experimental proof of the vast power in the newly isolated substance, told a colleague, it was learned, that improvement in the methods of extraction of the substance was the only step that remained to be solved for its introduction as a new source of power. Other leading physicists agreed with him.

A chunk of five to ten pounds of the new substance, a close relative of uranium and known as U-235, would drive an ocean liner or an ocean-going submarine for an indefinite period around the oceans of the world without refueling, it was said. For such a chunk would possess the power-output of 25,000,000 to 50,000,000 pounds of coal, or 15,000,000 to 30,000,000 pounds of gasoline.

Uranium ore, in which the U-235 also is present, is found in the Belgian Congo, Canada, Colorado, England and Germany, in relatively large amounts. It is 1,000,000 times more abundant than radium, with which it is associated in pitchblende ores.

(Laurence, William L., Vast Power Source in Atomic Energy Opened by Science, New York Times, May 7, 1940, P. 1)

The article continues on page 51 to provide a number of details that show a rather remarkable pace of advancement in understanding, considering the fact that only 18 months had passed since the initial recognition that neutrons could cause uranium to split into two pieces.

Not only is the energy-liberating process automatic and self-regenerating, it was explained, but it also is self-regulating. The energy liberated from the atoms heats up the water so that it turns into steam. When all the water supplied has been turned into steam, there is nothing left to slow down the fast-traveling neutrons, and fast neutrons just go through the uranium without breaking up its atoms and releasing its energy. This brings the whole process to a stop until more cool water is supplied.

As one leading physicist explained it, “the colder the water the better the reaction. The reaction is self-limiting because heat (generated by the split atoms) speeds up the neutrons and the faster the neutrons the less the reaction.”

“The faster you feed in the cold water,” the scientist added, “the faster the water will come out hot on the other side, because more neutrons will be slowed down and thus more atoms split and more energy is liberated. Thus the process is admirably suited for power generation.”

Because of the nature of the neutrons, even the slow-traveling ones, it was explained further, it is necessary to have a mass of at least five pounds, and possibly as high as twenty, to make the process work on a practical scale. In a smaller amount even low energy neutrons would escape into the open without splitting the initial “trigger-atom” that sets off the process. To start the process it is necessary for the neutron to remain inside the mass, so that it would enter the nucleus of an atom to start the splitting process.

One of the scientists explained the process of the energy-liberation from U-235 by comparing it to the burning of coal. Whereas coal uses oxygen to liberate its energy, he explained, the U-235 uses slow neutrons for the same purpose. The process of combustion in the case of the U-235, he added, is, atom for atom, 100,000,000 times as effective as is the case in the combustion of coal. However, as the atomic weight of the uranium is 235, compared with 16 for the oxygen and 12 for the carbon, there are fewer uranium atoms for a given weight than there are oxygen and carbon atoms. This reduces the energy relations of the U-235, compared with coal, to a ratio of 5,000,000 to 1.

There are several new methods being considered for increasing the yield of the new substance to large-scale amounts. But as to this, scientists greet the questioner with a profound silence.

(Laurence, William L., Vast Power Source in Atomic Energy Opened by Science, New York Times, May 7, 1940, P. 51)

On May 12, 1940, the New York Times Science in the News column written by Waldemar Kaempffert, its longtime science editor, included a section titled Atomic Power—Not Yet. That piece, published just one week later, had a completely different tone and expressed a sense of impossibility for the near term development of the technology:

Last week’s hullabaloo about atomic power naturally prompted this department to look into the possibility of dispensing with coal and oil. It is our sad duty to report that the prospect is not bright. If there is any thought of Germany’s making use of the work done at the universities of Columbia and Minnesota, and the General Electric Company’s laboratories, it must be dismissed. Yet physicists never were so near to doing away with coal and oil as sources of energy and turning to ordinary matter as they are now.

It takes about 100 hours to make one microgram of uranium-235 or 1,000,000 hours or over a century to make one gram. About 100 grams (a little more than three ounces) would be required to make serious experiments in generating energy on a small scale. At least five pounds would be required to drive an ocean liner. It may be that a more rapid means of producing U-235 than that now available may be evolved. But the prospect of using U-235 in the present war is zero.

As matters stand we are not likely to spend centuries in accumulating the necessary uranium-235. By the time we had it so much would be known about the structure of matter that easier means of developing power from the atom would have been discovered. Accordingly, this department has decided to place the usual order for coal to be shot into the cellar, and preparing itself for the usual task of shoveling expensive black lumps into a hungry furnace.

(Kaempffert, Waldemar, Science in the News: Atomic Power—Not Yet, The New York Times, May 12, 1940)

I was immensely curious about the abrupt turnaround in such a short period of time from the same publication. The mystery was solved when I found out that Germany’s push west into the Low Countries and France started on May 10, 1940. Based on the expressed concerns that Germany might be actively pursuing the technology, it’s possible that the discouragement was motivated by something other than telling the complete truth.

It seems quite apparent that if the fission chain reaction had been discovered just a few years earlier or later, nuclear energy history would not have been defined by explosives—but by steady, controllable, non-coal power produced in simple piles, designed to turn heat into useful power in ways similar to those used to turn coal combustion heat into useful power.

U-235 200x200




Rod Adams is a nuclear advocate with extensive small nuclear plant operating experience. Adams is a former engineer officer, USS Von Steuben. He is the host and producer of The Atomic Show Podcast. Adams has been an ANS member since 2005. He writes about nuclear technology at his own blog, Atomic Insights.

Global nuclear markets regaining momentum

More starts than stops

By Dan Yurman

Futuristic nuclear plant Image World Nuclear news

The global nuclear energy market is not a monolith. The truth of this assertion is seen in several recent developments taking place during March. While there were some setbacks, including two German utilities pulling out of the U.K. new build, there are more new starts and even a faster pace at one high profile project.

U.K. takes a step back

Two of Germany’s biggest nuclear utilities slated to build Westinghouse 1100-MW AP1000 nuclear reactors at several sites in the United Kingdom have packed up and gone home. E.ON and RWE announced on March 29 that they will not be carrying out business plans worth an estimated $24 billion to build nuclear power stations in the U.K.

The companies said in a joint statement that the “accelerated nuclear phase-out” in Germany has led to a decision to pull back from a number of international investments.

Last year Germany closed eight of its oldest nuclear reactors and scheduled to close the remaining nine by 2022. The two utilities are hard hit by these moves as the reactors were essentially depreciated cash cows that would have provided money for international expansion projects. E.On said in its financial statements that it suffered a 50-percent decrease in profits due to the closure of the older reactors.

UAE nuclear project speeds up

The South Korean consortium building the first of four new nuclear reactors in the United Arab Emirates has trimmed four months off the construction schedule. Assuming all goes well with the regulatory agencies, it plans to pour its first concrete in July 2012 and complete the unit in January 2017.

The speed up in schedule is being facilitated by the pre-positioning of equipment, supplies, and people at the site, which is a remote desert location some 186 miles west of Abu Dhabi. Korea Electric Power Corp. (KEPCO) is leading the $30 billion effort. The Emirates Nuclear Energy Corp. (ENEC) manages it for the UAE government.

Of interest is that the original contract was for $20 billion, but the price has shot up by a third. Financing will involve a mix of cash, and bonds sold to investors, from the UAE, and export credits from South Korea.

In a domestic development in South Korea, Kim Joong-Kyum, chief executive officer of KEPCO, was quoted in late March by wire services as saying that his firm was in talks with ENEC for a new deal to build four additional reactors. ENEC said on April 5, however, in response to these press reports that it is ruling out any new contracts beyond what it already has in place, which are four 1400-MW units.

Saudi Arabia plans electricity exports

The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA) plans to build 16 nuclear reactors over the next 20 years, spending an estimated $7 billion on each plant. The $112-billion investment, which includes capacity to become a regional exporter of electricity, will provide one-fifth of the Kingdom’s electricity for industrial and residential use and, critically, for desalinization of sea water.

In February, top energy officials in KSA told the Bloomberg wire service that domestic needs for electricity are growing at the rate of 2 Gwe/year. State-owned Saudi Electricity Co. sees seven percent growth, but with the construction of new nuclear reactors, it will be able to export electricity to its neighbors as part of the multi-year development cycle.

The plan is to bring the first two reactors by 2020 and then two more a year until the plan is complete. KSA has nuclear cooperation agreements with a number of countries, but has not yet signed a 1-2-3 agreement with the United States.

Despite the pending nature of the significant and sensitive diplomatic relationship, The Shaw Group and Exelon have signed on to a joint initiative through Japan’s Toshiba to build two nuclear power plants. It is likely that KSA will select several types of reactors and designs to avoid putting all its eggs in one basket.

India fast tracks next round of reactors

With the Kudankulam twin VVERs back on track, India’s NPCIL is clearing the decks to begin development of what eventually will be a 10-GWe power station at Kovvada Matsyalesam. The first stage is to develop a baseline of environmental data for the site. Land acquisition will begin later this year and earth will be moved by the end of 2012.

NPCIL says that each of the reactors planned for the site will be in the range of 1300-1500 MW. The first plant will be completed within 54 months of breaking ground or by mid-2017.

Also, NPCIL is working on a joint venture with the state-owned aluminum company Nalco to set up a second nuclear reactor at one of three potential sites. Nalco would have a 49-percent equity stake in the 1500-MW project, which would supply electricity for its metal smelters and also make it an independent power producer in the region.

South Africa gets ready for nuclear

The South African government is conducting an “Integrated Nuclear Infrastructure Review” as a parallel process to its announcement of an upcoming tender for 9.6 Gwe of new reactors. It is assessing the government’s capacity to conduct oversight of construction and regulatory control of safe operations of the new plants.

Energy minister Dipuo Peters said that the exercise has the objective, among other things, to communicate clear signals about the government’s intent to proceed with the new build.

At the same time, the government is considering rebuilding its uranium enrichment and conversion facilities that were dismantled 40 years ago. According to a Reuters report for March 2, the country wants to use its domestic uranium deposits to supply an estimated 465 metric tonnes of enriched uranium a year to fuel the new reactors.


Dan Yurman publishes Idaho Samizdat, a blog about nuclear energy, and is a frequent contributor to ANS Nuclear Cafe.