Dr. Alvin M. Weinberg - Father of Thorium Molten Salt

Doctor Alvin Weinberg was a leading member of the Manhattan Project, joining first in late 1941. That project killed over 150,000 people in two blasts at Hiroshima (6 August 1945) and Nagasaki (9 August 1945). The results of this work troubled him and he devoted the rest of his life to the peaceful use of energy from the atom. He became part of the Oak Ridge National Laboratories (ORNL) as the Manhattan project morphed as peace began, becoming Director of Research at ORNL in 1948.

The good doctor preferred everyone to call him "Alvin" throughout his illustrious life. He loved playing piano and he instantly fell in love with Oak Ridge where he first moved with his wife and children in 1945. He lived in the town for the rest of this life. 

In 1955 Alvin became Director of ORNL. By then he had shown how PWR could be used to produce reliable power and had even trained - who became his nemesis - Hyman Rickhover, on how to put PWR machines into submarines.

Alvin led a team of 14,000 people to develop the Aircraft Reactor Experiment (ARE) -  intended to put fission into flying. This is where molten salts where theorised and first tested practically. The work from the ARE then led into the Molten Salt Reactor Experiment (MSRE) that ran from 1965 to 1969 and really proved the viability, practically and safety of Molten Salt energy production technology.

6000 Full Power Hours Alvin Weinberg

The result of Alvin's work at ORNL is condensed into the 1972 ORNL report #4812, later supplemented by a proliferation proof update in 1978, #6413. Both reports are publicly available and should form the foundation for any work being done on Thorium Molten Salt Burner technology.

Caught between politics, business and the nuclear arms race Dr Alvin Weinberg was removed from ORNL for his peaceful and utilitarian civilian energy pursuits. He spent the remainder of his life advocating for Molten Salt Fission Energy Technology(TM) and peaceful energy production from Fission. He passed 18 October 2006 at Oak Ridge, Tennessee, at the age of 91.

Here are a number of notable quotes from Dr. Alvin Weinberg:

"We nuclear people have made a Faustian bargain with society. On the one hand we offer—in the catalytic nuclear burner (i.e., the breeder)—an inexhaustible source of energy. Even in the short range, when we use ordinary reactors, we offer energy that is cheaper than energy from fossil fuel. Moreover, this source of energy when properly handled is almost nonpolluting. Whereas fossil-fuel burners emit oxides of carbon, nitrogen, and sulfur... there is no intrinsic reason why nuclear systems must emit any pollutant except heat and traces of radioactivity. But the price that we demand of society for this magical source is both a vigilance from and longevity of our social institutions that we are quite unaccustomed to." 1971

"Many of the issues which arise in the course of the interaction between science or technology and society—e.g., the deleterious side effects of technology, or the attempts to deal with social problems through the procedures of science—hang on the answers to questions which can be asked of science and yet which cannot be answered by science. I propose the term trans-scientific for these questions since, though they are, epistemologically speaking, questions of fact and can be stated in the language of science, they are unanswerable by science; they transcend science. In so far as public policy involves trans-scientific rather than scientific issues, the role of the scientist in contributing to the promulgation of such policy must be different from his role when the issues can be unambiguously answered by science." 1972

"In these early days we explored all sorts of power reactors, comparing the advantages and disadvantages of each type. The number of possibilities was enormous, since there are many possibilities for each component of a reactor—fuel, coolant, moderator. The fissile material may be 233U, 235U, or 239Pu; the coolant may be: water, heavy water, gas, or liquid metal; the moderator may be: water, heavy water, beryllium, graphite—or, in a fast- neutron reactor, no moderator. I have calculated that, if one counted all the combinations of fuel, coolant, and moderator, one could identify about a thousand distinct reactors. Thus, at the very beginning of nuclear power, we had to choose which possibilities to pursue, which to ignore." 1994

“At the time he [Milton Shaw] became director of reactors, the AEC, at President Nixon's direction, had made the liquid-metal-cooled 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.” 1994

“And, although I found Milt pleasant enough, it was clear that he had little confidence in me or, for that matter, in ORNL. After all, we were pushing molten salt, not LMFBR.” 1994

“I suddenly realized that my tenure as director of the Oak Ridge National Laboratory might be coming to an end. This was hinted to me by Bob Hart, the Oak Ridge area manager who let on, more or less directly, that 18 years as director may have been long enough. Wally Zinn, who was chair of our Laboratory Visiting Committee, tried to convince me that I should stay and that his committee had full confidence in me. But, despite these reassurances, my days at ORNL were numbered. Finally, late in 1972, John Swartout, my former deputy who by this time was vice president for research of the Union Carbide Corporation in New York, told me I had to go.” 1994

"As for the Internet, I tend to have profound doubts about the value of this communication advance to science. I wonder if, in an era of the Internet, we can have somebody like Eugene Wigner. Eugene Wigner's genius manifested itself in his ability to concentrate for a long time on a single idea. If you are constantly beset by outside ideas, can you really get to the true heart of the matter? It's a very different way of doing science." 1995

"The philosophy of science is concerned with how you decide if a scientific finding is correct or true. You have to establish criteria to determine if the finding or theory is valid. Validity is a fundamental problem in the philosophy of science, but the fundamental problem in the philosophy of scientific administration is the question of value. Two scientific activities are equally valid if they achieve results that are true. Now, how do you decide which activity is more valuable? The question of value is the basic question that the scientific administrator asks so that decisions can be made about funding priorities." 1995


This is part 1 of our 5 part series on the life, career and achievements of the father of Molten Salt Fission Energy Technology(TM), Dr Alvin Weinberg.

Part 1 - Dr. Alvin M. Weinberg - Father of Thorium Molten Salt 

For only the price of a cup of coffee you can see the rest:

Part 2 - Dr. Alvin M. Weinberg met JFK multiple times... was that behind moon shot? 

Part 3 - Dr. Alvin M. Weinberg, 2004, "After I'm gone..." 

Part 4 - Dr Alvin M. Weinberg - A documentary on the life and times 

Part 5 - Dr Alvin M. Weinberg's published works

References and Links


Bruce Hoglund on Molten Salt and why Dr. Weinberg was fired 

Bruce Hoglund on Molten Salt Reactors @ TEAC5, 30 June 2013 

Weinberg News from Oak Ridge

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