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Part I,
History and Success of Argonne National Laboratory

Argonne: America's First National Laboratory

America's first national laboratory and one of the world's premier centers for research and beneficial uses of nuclear energy got its start as part of the World War II Manhattan Project.

Today, Argonne National Laboratory (Argonne) is located on a 3,700-acre site 25 miles southwest of Chicago and on a 900-acre site known as Argonne West at the Idaho National Engineering and Environmental Laboratory (INEEL) near Idaho Falls, Idaho.

In the Beginning...

In the early 1940s, the United States assembled one of the largest scientific task forces in history to build nuclear weapons. The key element in the development of atomic weapons was proving that a nuclear chain reaction could be self-sustaining. The possibility of a chain reaction was hinted at by experiments with large piles of graphite and uranium assembled by physicists at the University of Chicago.

On December 2, 1942, Enrico Fermi and his colleagues succeeded in achieving the world's first controlled, self-sustaining nuclear chain reaction under the Stagg Field stadium stands at the University of Chicago. Chicago Pile-1 (CP-1), as the first reactor was called, was soon moved to larger quarters in the Palos Park Forest Reserve, southwest of Chicago. There it was reassembled, enlarged, and surrounded by a concrete radiation shield and was renamed CP-2.

The new site was dubbed "Site A" after the Argonne Forest Preserve where it is located. Another reactor named CP-3, the world's first heavy water reactor, was built at Site A as a source of neutrons for further experiments in nuclear physics.

The Reactor Mission...

After World War II ended, the United States decided to form a series of national laboratories to keep the wartime pool of scientific talent together. Argonne was the first of the national laboratories, most of which were formed by the Atomic Energy Act, that was passed by Congress on July 1, 1946.

Argonne's mission was to pursue the peaceful applications of atomic energy. The lab was designated, and remains to this day, the nation's center of nuclear reactor research. Most types of reactors in use today were conceived at Argonne.

Argonne's burgeoning research programs soon outgrew the cramped quarters at Site A and other laboratories at the University of Chicago. A new 3,700-acre site was acquired about five miles west of Chicago in a rural area. In 1948, construction began on temporary quonset huts, some of which are still in operation over 50 years later.

As research continued in the temporary buildings, brick and stone structures began to rise on what was then prairie. Gradually, the operations moved to the new site. A second heavy-water reactor, CP-5, was built to produce neutrons for research, and the venerable CP-2 and CP-3 were decommissioned and dismantled.

Reactor research proliferated at Argonne. The first nautical reactor was designed by Argonne for the U.S. Navy. Built by the Westinghouse Corporation, it became the power plant for the world's first nuclear submarine, Nautilus. Concurrently, a new idea was developed by Enrico Fermi, a member of the CP-1 Team, and Walter Zinn, the first Director at Argonne--a reactor that would make more fuel than it burned.

The new concept was called a breeder reactor and was cooled by liquid metal. Experimental Breeder Reactor I (EBR-I) was designed by Argonne and erected in 1950 at INEEL. On December 21, 1951, EBR-I became the first nuclear reactor to produce usable amounts of electric power when it lighted four 150-watt light bulbs. Later, it supplied power to the entire facility. Those who participated in the experiment on that winter day chalked their names on the concrete wall of the reactor building to commemorate the event.

A series of experiments with boiling water reactors were conducted at the Argonne facility in Idaho and culminated with another first when Arco, Idaho, became the first town ever to be lighted entirely with nuclear power. Shortly thereafter, in 1956, the Experimental Boiling Water Reactor (EBWR) was built at the Argonne site in Illinois and became the prototype for commercial boiling water power reactors worldwide.

Meanwhile in Idaho, another larger liquid-metal-cooled reactor was being built. The Experimental Breeder Reactor-II (EBR-II) was built in the early 60s to demonstrate the advantages of using fast reactors for central station power plants. EBR-II was the first reactor to have its own fuel reprocessing plant, called a closed fuel cycle, connected directly to the reactor building. This reactor closed fuel cycle was the first attached reprocessing system that allowed spent uranium fuel to be removed from the sodium-cooled reactor, purified and made into new fuel elements, and then replaced into the reactor. From 1964 until 1969, five complete core loadings were reprocessed in the adjacent fuel-cycle facility. For its day, it was the ultimate recycling, energy-saving, and waste management system.

EBR-II had proved its capabilities as a closed-cycle power reactor and continued to produce electricity with an efficiency record that rivaled even conventional power plants. But the civilian power reactor program began to focus on Liquid Metal Fast Breeder Reactors (LMFBRs) and EBR-II's function changed to a fast neutron irradiation facility to gather data for future design. It was highly unusual for a reactor mission to convert to one not visualized in its original design. The newly designed LMFBRs owed their success to data gathered from the converted EBR-II. LMFBRs focused on fast reactor physics, development and testing of new fuels, irradiation and post-irradiation studies, and fast reactor safety.

Beginning in 1982, EBR-II was converted again to the Integral Fast Reactor (IFR). The IFR was designed to reprocess its own fuel and to burn up its own long-lived atomic wastes. The design allowed creation of energy from waste--not only its own waste, but also waste from commercial facilities and plutonium from dismantled nuclear weapons. By 1986, the reactor program had accomplished development of metal fuels with up to 20 percent burn up rate; development of electro-metallurgical technology for possible applications to spent nuclear fuels, weapons plutonium, and liquid-metal reactor fuels; and performance of a series of safety-related transient reactor experiments that established failure mechanisms, failure limits, and post-failure behavior of oxide and metal fuels.

Nuclear research requires much more than just the development of reactor facilities. Special remote-controlled devices that can handle radioactive materials while shielding the operators from harmful radiation were invented at Argonne. From the earliest model to the latest in automated remote handling at the Fuel Cycle Facility in Idaho, these devices have been used for handling radioactive materials throughout the world.

Work on the next generation of reactors that were clean, resource efficient, and waste reducing was halted by Congress in 1994. Argonne's mission was redirected by DOE into development of electrometallurgical technology for spent fuel treatment, reactor and fuel-cycle safety, and decontamination and decommissioning technology.

The Evolving Mission...

While Argonne was busy developing new reactors and designs, nuclear energy research began to move into universities and private industry. Argonne no longer concentrated on reactor science alone, but moved into more basic research. Even as soon as ten years after Argonne was chartered, it began work on a high-energy research facility based on a weak-focusing synchrotron. The Zero Gradient Synchrotron, a huge atom smasher, was authorized in 1957. This addition changed Argonne from a virtual in-house "job shop" for the Atomic Energy Commission into a user-oriented laboratory accessible by other sectors of society.

During the 1970s, the potential for non-nuclear energy sources grew, and the public's concern for environmental issues deepened. The Breeder Reactor program expanded in the 1970s during the energy crisis. In 1977, Argonne's mandate expanded to include non-nuclear research areas-advanced batteries, magnetohydrodynamics, solar energy collectors, and heavy ion fusion.

Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, Argonne was repeatedly recognized for its state-of-the-art facilities and its high rate and level of innovation. Nevertheless, nuclear reactors were becoming increasingly controversial and their support in Congress was eroding. In 1983, the Senate eliminated Argonne's support to the Clinch River Breeder Reactor program in Oak Ridge, Tennessee, a funding cut that represented more than 40 of Argonne's budget.

Look for the Part II of the Argonne story in the next TIE Quarterly

Argonne's Renewal...


About This Document
Last Updated 09/08/1998 (amg)