Oak Ridge: Where Cyclotrons Still Roam

Lizzie staring into the exposed belly of the Recoil Mass Spectrometer

Lizzie staring into the exposed belly of the Recoil Mass Spectrometer

Initially, we didn’t think we’d have time to visit Oak Ridge – our planned route took us on a comparatively leisurely drive from New York to Chicago with a stop in Pittsburgh for a night. But as the recommendations began to pile up, first from John Haggerty and the other physicists at Brookhaven, then Cindy Kelly of the Atomic Heritage Foundation, we realized that the additional visit to Tennessee would probably be worth it.

The loading face of the Graphite Reactor at Oak Ridge National Laboratory

The loading face of the Graphite Reactor at Oak Ridge National Laboratory

Oak Ridge was the site of the first nuclear reactor after Enrico Fermi’s successful chain reaction at the University of Chicago. Constructed during the early stages of the Manhattan Project, the Graphite Reactor was used to process plutonium for the first atomic bombs. A self-contained museum now, the reactor was never truly decommissioned – just ceremonially turned off about six months after a flood damaged it beyond reasonable repair. Myriad plans for the Reactor surfaced and dissolved as decades passed: a company was supposed to come in and fill the whole thing with concrete a few years ago; and there was a proposal to move the reactor face to a museum in the town of Oak Ridge. But today it sits as it ever did, still in cooldown phase, only intermittently accessible to the public since post-September 11th security measures limited access to the lab as a whole.

No radiation has been detected in the building for fifteen years, but in principle the reactor could be turned back on at any time. Of course, as our guide Fred Strohl put it, “technology has changed a little since then.” The reactor functioned on the barest of nuclear principles: workers would push rod-shaped chunks of uranium through holes in the reactor face with long sticks, a process not unlike the loading of an 18th century musket, until the critical mass of uranium was reached deep in the machine and the famous chain reaction would begin.

The loading face of the Graphite Reactor at Oak Ridge National Laboratory

The loading face of the Graphite Reactor at Oak Ridge National Laboratory

Mannequins demonstrate the operation of the Graphite Reactor: slugs of uranium were pushed through the reactor face with long rods, one by one, until enough radioactive material was in place for a nuclear chain reaction to begin.

Mannequins demonstrate the operation of the Graphite Reactor: slugs of uranium were pushed through the reactor face with long rods, one by one, until enough radioactive material was in place for a nuclear chain reaction to begin.

Amusingly enough, the first time that this happened at Oak Ridge was almost an accident. The bosses, M. D. Whitaker and R. L. Doan, had gone home for the night, not expecting the reactor to go critical until the next day. But they had overestimated the amount of uranium required and underestimated the zeal of their workers, who added fuel rods more quickly than the program had called for. Woken in the middle of the night, they gathered with their subordinates at the plant as the reactor burst into life.

After spending time in RHIC’s Main Control room, the control room for the graphite reactor was beautifully antiquated:

The state-of-the-art control room for Brookhavens Relativistic Heavy Ion Collider

The state-of-the-art control room for Brookhaven's Relativistic Heavy Ion Collider

The control room for the Graphite Reactor at Oak Ridge

The control room for the Graphite Reactor at Oak Ridge

Control panels in the Graphite Reactors control room. Note the pre-digital readout mechanism: outputs were written on paper that scrolled through the machine, not displayed as alterable numbers and letters.

Control panels in the Graphite Reactor's control room. Note the pre-digital readout mechanism: outputs were written on paper that scrolled through the machine, not displayed as alterable numbers and letters.

After the war, the Graphite Reactor was used to produce radioisotopes for basic physics research, medicine, agriculture, and industry. This periodic table indicates all the radioisotopes it was capable of producing:

Periodic table representing all of the isotopes that the Graphite Reactor could produce.

Periodic table representing all of the isotopes that the Graphite Reactor could produce.

While the Graphite Reactor is now firmly a part of physics history, another old machine is still contributing to science at Oak Ridge: the Oak Ridge Isochronous Cyclotron, or ORIC for short. While most cyclotrons were decommissioned long ago and turned into sculptures or scrap metal, ORIC has operated in various forms since 1962. It is currently part of the Holifield Radioactive Ion Beam Facility (HRIBF), helping to supply radioactive ion beams to several experiments.

A view of the Oak Ridge Isochronous Cyclotron

A view of the Oak Ridge Isochronous Cyclotron

The cyclotron room was the first area we’d visited that could potentially have exposed us to harmful radiation. One of our guides, Carl Gross leaned in as we approached the room, and said with a gentle seriousness that commanded particular attention: “try not to touch anything while you’re in there.”

To enter the room, we passed through the most intimidating door we’d ever seen. Metal, twenty feet tall and six feet thick, hung on hinges the size of a man’s chest, with the following message inscribed on the inside:

NOTICE
In the event that you are locked in
this room, depress red button
on this door or any of the
red buttons on the walls
This cuts off power
to cyclotron
Leave red buttons all the way in
until cyclotron operator
opens the door
The cyclotron cannot be
operated while red buttons
are depressed

The enormous vault-like door that serves as the entrance to Oak Ridges cyclotron. (Stay tuned for a whole post on physics laboratory doors).

The enormous vault-like door that serves as the entrance to Oak Ridge's cyclotron. (Stay tuned for a whole post on physics laboratory doors).

An example of the precautions (careful signs, brightly colored ropes, etc.) that DOE scientists take to prevent contamination or exposure to radioactive material. Presumably also one of the things Carl warned us not to touch.

An example of the precautions (careful signs, brightly colored ropes, etc.) that DOE scientists take to prevent contamination or exposure to radioactive material. Presumably also one of the things Carl warned us not to touch.

We were all careful not to touch anything with our hands while visiting the cyclotron, but it would be difficult to move without touching the floor. Here's Alan Tatum getting his feet checked for radioactive material by Carl Gross after we came out. Lizzie and I underwent the same treatment.

We were all careful not to touch anything with our hands while visiting the cyclotron, but it would be difficult to move without touching the floor. Here's Alan Tatum getting his feet checked for radioactive material by Carl Gross after we came out. Lizzie and I underwent the same treatment.

After ORIC does its job, the already fast-moving particles are sped up even more by the tandem accelerator, a 100-ft. tall version of the Van de Graff generators that make your hair stand on end at science museums. This one would do much more than ruin your hairstyle if you went inside while it was turned on, however, so we didn’t get to ride the tiny elevator that takes one person at a time inside for maintenance.

The curved bottom of the tandem accelerator enclosure. Access to the enclosure can only be achieved by using a one-person elevator (below), which rises through the submarine-like pressure door featured in the above picture.

The curved bottom of the tandem accelerator enclosure. Access to the enclosure can only be achieved by using a one-person elevator (below), which rises through the submarine-like pressure door featured in the above picture.

The elevator that provides access to the tandem accelerator enclosure.

The elevator that provides access to the tandem accelerator enclosure.

We rode a far larger elevator up the outside of the tandem’s enclosure to take a look at the top of the accelerator — and the view of the lab from its roof.

The top of the tandem accelerator enclosure, just below the roof.

The top of the tandem accelerator enclosure, just below the roof.

A panoramic view of Oak Ridge from the top of the tandem accelerator tower, including the lake with swans imported from Fermilab.

A panoramic view of Oak Ridge from the top of the tandem accelerator tower, including the lake with swans imported from Fermilab.

A panoramic image of the view from the Oak Ridge dining hall, with the tandem accelerator tower on the right.

A panoramic image of the view from the Oak Ridge dining hall, with the tandem accelerator tower on the right.

The fully accelerated particles travel down several beam lines, one of which ends at the Recoil Mass Spectrometer. By running the beam through a momentum separator and a mass separator, the RMS team can isolate specific products of nuclear reactions and study the structure and behavior of atomic nuclei.

Detail of the mass separator portion of the Recoil Mass Spectrometer.

Detail of the mass separator portion of the Recoil Mass Spectrometer.

Detail of the mass separator portion of the Recoil Mass Spectrometer.

Detail of the mass separator portion of the Recoil Mass Spectrometer.

Detail of the beginning of the momentum separator portion of the Recoil Mass Spectrometer.

Detail of the beginning of the momentum separator portion of the Recoil Mass Spectrometer.

Detail of a beautiful machine towards the end of the momentum separator portion of the Recoil Mass Spectrometer.

Detail of a beautiful machine towards the end of the momentum separator portion of the Recoil Mass Spectrometer.

A wider view of a beautiful machine towards the end of the momentum separator portion of the Recoil Mass Spectrometer.

A wider view of a beautiful machine towards the end of the momentum separator portion of the Recoil Mass Spectrometer.

A target, semi-destroyed in the course of an experiment, that gives a sense of the size of the beam.

A target, semi-destroyed in the course of an experiment, that gives a sense of the size of the beam.

In keeping with Oak Ridges practice of reusing what might otherwise be obsolete technology, an 8-track tape recorder, seen here, records data from experiments.

In keeping with Oak Ridge's practice of reusing what might otherwise be obsolete technology, an 8-track tape recorder, seen here, records data from experiments.

Other particles from the HRIBF are used to study the nuclear reactions that take place in novae and other stellar explosions. The experimental astrophysics group recently rescued the Daresbury Recoil Separator from the scrap pile in England to make precision measurements of certain products of such reactions.

The Daresbury Recoil Separator, which was brought over from England after the cancellation of a British research program.

The Daresbury Recoil Separator, which was brought over from England after the cancellation of a British research program.

The Daresbury Recoil Separator, like the Recoil Mass Spectrometer, relies on ORIC and the tandem accelerator to supply charged particles.

The Daresbury Recoil Separator, like the Recoil Mass Spectrometer, relies on ORIC and the tandem accelerator to supply charged particles.

(Incidentally, Michael S. Smith, the leader of the experimental astrophysics research group, also heads the Nuclear Data Project, a totally cool effort to collect and evaluate the latest research on nuclear structure and astrophysics. Its open source ethos encourages data sharing and tries to address the many problems that accompany secrecy in science by emphasizing the free and efficient flow of information. Since Nick wrote his undergraduate thesis on commercially imposed secrecy in biotechnology, we were particularly excited to hear about the issue in another field of science.)

Lizzie talking with Michael Smith about the Nuclear Data Project.

Lizzie talking with Michael S. Smith about the Nuclear Data Project.

Not everything at Oak Ridge is charmingly old, however. The lab is home to the National Center for Computational Sciences, and Jaguar, the second fastest supercomputer in the world. It also houses a stunning visualization wall that brings the lab’s research to life, allowing scientists to showcase their work and make connections that they might otherwise miss.

National Center for Computational Sciences at Oak Ridge, consistently home to some of the worlds fastest computers (presently home to Jaguar, the worlds second-fastest).

National Center for Computational Sciences at Oak Ridge, consistently home to some of the world's fastest computers (presently home to Jaguar, the world's second-fastest).

A detail of the enormous wall of high-resolution integrated projector screens at the visualization center.

A detail of the enormous wall of high-resolution integrated projector screens at the visualization center.

Lizzies shadow as she walks behind the projector screen wall at the visualization center.

Lizzie's shadow as she walks behind the projector screen wall at the visualization center.

The Spallation Neutron Source is on the cutting edge of materials science, using neutrons to probe the structure of many different kinds of matter. Like the National Synchrotron Light Source, it is a user facility, and thus fundamentally interdisciplinary. It even helped disprove the hypothesis that President Zachary Taylor was assassinated.

A laboratory at the Spallation Neutron Source.

A laboratory at the Spallation Neutron Source.

Scientists in a lab at the Spallation Neutron Source.

Scientists in a lab at the Spallation Neutron Source.

Oak Ridge was an impressive mix of old and new, focused on preserving its history, adept at recycling machines that might otherwise have gone to waste, and dedicated to being a player in the interdisciplinary science that may well be the future of the National Labs. Thanks to Vince Cianciolo, Fred Strohl, Cindy Kelly, Jim Beene, Carl Gross, Alan Tatum, and Michael Smith for making our visit possible and for showing us their amazing work.

Next stop: Fermilab!

-text by Lizzie and Nick, photos by Nick

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9 responses to “Oak Ridge: Where Cyclotrons Still Roam

  1. The problem with those red buttons in the cyclotron room is that they would clearly prevent the creation of Dr. Manhattan, and therefore cost us the Vietnam War.

  2. Is this the Michael Smith that used to work at Nuclear Fuel Services, Inc. In Erwin, Tennessee? I would love to hear from him. I worked there for fifteen years. Thank you!

  3. Pingback: Walking across the George Washington Bridge « Visual Textuality: Nick Russell's weblog

  4. Good morning
    We want number of cyclotron present in India,and there location

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  8. I was an operator at ORIC from 1965 to 1970.

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