Recollections of a nuclear pioneer: Kirby Whitham describes EBR-I
(Reprinted from INEL News, May 1989)
Scrawled upon one of the walls at EBR-I are the names of those present on that historic moment in 1951 when nuclear energy first generated electricity. Among those names is G.K. Whitham, a man who worked for Argonne National Laboratory for 38 years and who still remains active in INEL affairs.
“We were aware we were going to be the first to produce electrical power,” says Whitham, when asked about the historical significance of the event. “We were elated. But don’t forget, we were also very busy.”
Whitham says there was very little surprise when the experiment worked. “We knew it was going to work, there wasn’t any doubt about it.”
Whitham, at the age of 27, joined Argonne National Laboratory as a junior scientist in 1947. He had previously worked on the Manhattan Project at Oak Ridge.
At Argonne, Whitham was involved in early design work on the reactor. Working at the University of Chicago for lab director Dr. Walter Zinn, Whitham was part of a team that put in countless hours designing and developing EBR-I systems.
Although Dr. Zinn was the lab director, he kept EBR-I as his own project. Says Whitham, “He wanted to build the first reactor to produce electrical power and wanted a breeder reactor, one that produced more fuel than it burned, to provide a continual energy supply for thousands of years.”
Construction of EBR-I commenced in 1949. Argonne took over the facility in 1951.
“It doesn’t take long to build a reactor if you get the politics out of the way,” says Whitham. “Technically and physically it’s just not hard to build a reactor.”
Whitham moved to Idaho in 1951. “I was raised in Montana, so I chose to come out to Idaho,” he says. “Having lived five years in Tennessee, and three years in Chicago, it was good to get back to Idaho.”
Working for Dr. Zinn, Whitham and other Argonne scientists, engineers and technicians worked throughout the summer and fall of 1951 to prepare the reactor for full-power operation. On Dec. 20, 1951, the reactor achieved an historic first by producing electrical power from nuclear energy.
Whitham points out that EBR-I had numerous power control and safety systems. “We had three methods of control and safety systems. “We had three methods of control and two heat removal systems,” he says. “Also, the reactor core could cool itself by natural convection of the reactor coolant.”
Whitham reminds us that while EBR-I was the first reactor to produce electricity and the first to demonstrate the fuel breeding concept (produce more fuel than it consumes), the reactor’s actual mission was fuel development.
“EBR-I probably had more start-ups and shutdowns than any reactor before or since,” he says. “It was a very flexible reactor. We tested many kinds of fuel at EBR-I.”
Although his involvement with EBR-I was the highlight of his career, Whitham also worked on the BORAX reactors and was construction and operation manager of EBR-II.
“From a work standpoint, at least up to 1967, we lived a pretty active life in designing reactors; designing them and getting them to produce power,” he says. The Boiling Water, BORAX-III reactor was the first reactor to carry the electrical load for the city of Arco.
Today, though retired from Argonne in 1985, Whitham stays active in INEL affairs and remains a part of the Site as a consultant to Argonne.
Whitham is convinced that the world’s future energy needs will require use of nuclear energy. “I think the international meeting, with the world’s best minds, that was held after Chernobyl was very enlightening. The conclusion of the meeting was that the Chernobyl accident won’t really have any lasting effect except politically because you really don’t have any other choice for future electric power. The world’s economy cannot go to coal because of its side effects. I don’t think a lot of people, here or abroad, realize that or want to believe the facts.
“If you’re going to have electric power in the foreseeable future, you’re going to have to go nuclear, and preferably with fast power breeder reactors to produce more fuel than they consume.”
(Reprinted from LMITCO Star, June 1997)
Part of the EBR-I team posing in front of the reactor facility's chalkboard where their historic achievement was recorded.
If you aren’t familiar with Experimental Breeder Reactor-I, then you probably aren’t aware of the famous wall it contains.
The wall displays the names of 16 men who were present when EBR-I first produced electricity on Dec. 20, 1951. One of these men was Kirby Whitham, a chemist at EBR-I. Whitham recently visited the facility to talk to this year’s summer tour guides about his experiences while he worked there.
He started by explaining the chalk drawing located just above the men’s names on the wall. The picture looks like a mad whistle blowing steam. According to Whitham, the drawing portrays what Walter Zinn, director of EBR-I, used for inspiration.
“Dr. Zinn always said, ‘If you have enough steam to blow a whistle, then you have enough steam to turn a turbine.’” That is just what these pioneers of nuclear power set out to accomplish.
Among the various bits of advice that Whitham shared with the guides was, “Don’t be afraid of reading manuals.” He remembered the reactor not running for 111 days due to the elevator not working. After reading the manual during his lunch hour, he found the area that needed to be repaired.
Whitham also reminded the guides of the three famous rules for radiation, rules that guides are all familiar with: Time, Distance and Shielding. Funny, how even after 50 years, some things never change.
Starting in the 1940s, workers wore ion chambers and film badges to determine their personal radiation exposure. Radiation was always a concern for the employees at the lab. Whitham received a total of 17 rem after working on the first reactors for 23 years.
Whitham believes that nuclear power is the only choice.
“It was obvious in 1947 that nuclear power was the smart choice and this is still true today … using coal, oil and gas just don’t make sense.” Whitham thought he would see the world using nuclear power by now, and only hopes that future generations will be lucky enough to see it.
The summer tour guides were inspired by Whitham, and are now giving tours to the public.
EBR-I, a registered national landmark, opened on Memorial Day weekend and will remain open through Labor Day weekend. It is open seven days a week from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. and is free to the public. For more information, visit the EBR-I tour page.