Construction Starts on Brookhaven Nuclear Reactor Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

The first nuclear reactor intended for fundamental research, rather than for the production of isotopes for nuclear bombs, was constructed at Brookhaven National Laboratory.

Summary of Event

The Brookhaven National Laboratory, directed first by Philip McCord Morse, was one of a number of national facilities established by the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission Atomic Energy Commission, U.S.;experimental reactors (AEC) between 1947 and 1950 for fundamental nuclear research. The AEC had been established in 1946 under the leadership of David Eli Lilienthal to take over from the Manhattan Project, the U.S. atomic bomb program during World War II. Under the leadership of Army general Leslie Richard Groves, the Manhattan Project had solved the problem of separating fissionable, enriched uranium 235 from the more readily available uranium 238. The enriched uranium was used in the first atomic bomb exploded in Hiroshima on August 6, 1945. Brookhaven Nuclear Reactor Nuclear energy;reactors [kw]Construction Starts on Brookhaven Nuclear Reactor (1947) [kw]Brookhaven Nuclear Reactor, Construction Starts on (1947) [kw]Nuclear Reactor, Construction Starts on Brookhaven (1947) [kw]Reactor, Construction Starts on Brookhaven Nuclear (1947) Brookhaven Nuclear Reactor Nuclear energy;reactors [g]North America;1947: Construction Starts on Brookhaven Nuclear Reactor[01940] [g]United States;1947: Construction Starts on Brookhaven Nuclear Reactor[01940] [c]Energy;1947: Construction Starts on Brookhaven Nuclear Reactor[01940] [c]Science and technology;1947: Construction Starts on Brookhaven Nuclear Reactor[01940] [c]Physics;1947: Construction Starts on Brookhaven Nuclear Reactor[01940] [c]Engineering;1947: Construction Starts on Brookhaven Nuclear Reactor[01940] Groves, Leslie Richard Lilienthal, David Eli Pegram, George B. Rabi, Isidor Isaac Ramsey, Norman F. Morse, Philip McCord Haworth, Leland John

After the end of World War II, scientific interest turned away the weapons-producing aspect of nuclear energy to research on its peacetime uses. Since the expense of setting up a nuclear-research laboratory was far beyond the resources of any single private institution, it occurred to several individuals to bring together the financial resources of the federal government and the intellectual resources of private academic and technical institutions.

Apart from Groves’s early and influential support for the idea of national laboratories, three physicists who had also worked for the Manhattan Project were instrumental in bringing a national laboratory about. George B. Pegram, dean of Columbia University, and two members of the university’s physics faculty, Isidor Isaac Rabi (who had won the 1944 Nobel Prize in Physics) and Norman F. Ramsey, actively championed peacetime nuclear research and advocated a collection of regional laboratories to be jointly administered by the government and by private institutions. They were able to persuade nine northeastern institutions—Columbia, Cornell, Harvard, Johns Hopkins, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, University of Pennsylvania, Princeton, University of Rochester, and Yale—to manage the Brookhaven under the rubric Associated Universities, Incorporated Associated Universities, Incorporated . Rabi and Pegram served on the association’s first board of trustees; Rabi also served as chair of the advisory committee to the AEC from 1952 to 1956.

Brookhaven was designed to enable scientists from universities and colleges, industry, and regional commercial laboratories to pursue nuclear research. The facility, which began operating on August 22, 1950, was situated on 5,265 acres of land in Upton, Long Island; about one thousand acres were taken up by the physical plant.

Brookhaven’s first big machine was a massive research reactor that produced neutrons—heavy elementary particles with no charge that decay into protons—for experimental purposes. A nuclear reactor generates energy mainly in the form of heat by undergoing a process called nuclear fission, the splitting of the nuclei of uranium or plutonium atoms. The Brookhaven research reactor was a big machine in its time, requiring a building 100 feet wide, 120 feet long, and 80 feet high (30 feet of that below ground level). In June, 1968, after eighteen years of service, the reactor was put on standby.

By that time, a new reactor concept had been devised by five Brookhaven scientists. With this machine, the high-flux beam reactor, which produced its first self-sustaining chain reaction on October 31, 1965, Brookhaven was able to produce a much greater neutron flux density (the number of neutrons produced per space per second) than had previously been possible. Originally, the reactor operated with a power of 40 megawatts; in 1982, the power was increased to 60 megawatts.

Another important Brookhaven machine, the proton synchrotron (a variant of the cyclotron), began operating in June, 1952. Brookhaven had had other accelerators, but this one, dubbed the Cosmotron Cosmotron Particle accelerators , was the first to produce particles at energies in the range of 1 billion electron volts. The machine reached its highest energy of 3.3 billion electron volts January, 1953. The accelerator allowed scientists to study high-energy proton collisions, which deepened the understanding of the complexities of subatomic particles.


Eventually, Brookhaven physicists wanted ten times the beam intensity available from the Cosmotron; such power could only be produced by a machine with a magnet one hundred times larger than that of the Cosmotron. The laboratory’s scientists then discovered the “alternating-gradient” or “strong-focusing” principle, which allowed the use of smaller but stronger magnets.

Brookhaven operated an 80-inch bubble chamber between 1963 and 1974. Particle beams were guided by magnets from the synchrotron ring into the liquid-hydrogen-filled chamber, where the particle tracks could be photographed through small apertures in the lower gallery. On June 2, 1963, when the first photographs of particle interaction were taken in the 80-inch chamber, it was the world’s largest operating instrument of its kind. The most important discovery made with it was the 1964 confirmation of the existence of the omega-minus particle that Murray Gell-Mann had predicted theoretically in 1961.

The National Synchrotron Light Source National Synchrotron Light Source (NSLS) was another instrument that helped make Brookhaven a world-renowned research center. Particle accelerators were used to knock electrons from atoms to form ions, which were then accelerated and guided through electromagnetic fields for investigative purposes. At its inception in 1982, the NSLS at Brookhaven was one of the first electron synchrotrons to be dedicated solely to photon generation.

Brookhaven was eventually divided into nine scientific departments and eleven support departments. In 1974, oversight passed from the Atomic Energy Commission to the Research and Development Administration, and from there to the U.S. Department of Energy in 1977. The Brookhaven facility employs thousands of scientists and support staff, as well as thousands of guest researchers, and conducts research in a range of areas beyond those of high-energy physics. Research conducted there has led to a number of advances in other sciences including medical applications, imaging science, and environmental science. Brookhaven Nuclear Reactor Nuclear energy;reactors

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Caldicott, Helen. Nuclear Power Is Not the Answer. New York: New Press, 2006. Physician, antinuclear activist, and scholar Caldicott refutes the claim that “clean and green” nuclear power is the solution to global warming. Also discusses alternatives, such as renewable energy sources and green technology.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Duffy, Robert J. Nuclear Politics in America: A History and Theory of Government Regulation. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1997. A study of government policy and regulation of the nuclear power industry in the United States. Chapters include “Subgovernment Dominance, 1945-65,” “Redefining Nuclear Power,” and “The Demise of the AEC.”
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Ford, Daniel. The Cult of the Atom: The Secret Papers of the Atomic Energy Commission. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1982. Charges the Atomic Energy Commission with covering up the possibility of a meltdown at a nuclear power plant. Revised in 1986 as Meltdown, Simon & Schuster.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Glasstone, Samuel. Sourcebook on Atomic Energy. 3d ed. Huntington, N.Y.: Krieger, 1979. An authoritative text on all aspects of nuclear energy. Clearly written and superbly organized.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Harson, Lewis A., ed. Master Plan for Site Development and Facilities Utilization, 1982. Upton, N.Y.: Brookhaven National Laboratory, 1983. Presents Brookhaven’s five-year plan, with maps, charts, and pictures.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Hewlett, Richard G., and Oscar E. Anderson, Jr. A History of the United States Atomic Energy Commission. 2 vols. Washington, D.C.: Atomic Energy Commission, 1972. An excellent history of the AEC and the U.S. atomic-energy program up to the beginning of Eisenhower’s presidency.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Lochbaum, David. Walking a Nuclear Tightrope: Unlearned Lessons of Year-Plus Reactor Outages. Cambridge, Mass.: Union of Concerned Scientists, 2006. A brief report that discusses “extended nuclear power reactor outages” and outlines how the Nuclear Regulatory Commission can avoid a catastrophic nuclear accident.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple"> An excellent resource for students studying the history of the atomic age. The site, a project of the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation, includes links to primary sources, time lines, study guides, suggested readings, and much more.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Union of Concerned Scientists. The organization’s Web site includes outlines of its history and mission and a wealth of information on science, technology, the environment, and nuclear energy, among other topics, in general.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Walker, J. Samuel. A Short History of Nuclear Regulation, 1946-1999. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission, 2000. A 70-page history of the Atomic Energy Commission and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. Available at http://www

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Categories: History