“A lump of cadmium”

Cadmium crystal and metal. From Wikimedia Commons, Cc: creator Alchemist-hp 2010.
Cadmium crystal and metal. From Wikimedia Commons, creator Alchemist-hp 2010.

Stuart Armstrong sent me this email:

I have a new expression: “a lump of cadmium”.

Background: in WW2, Heisenberg was working on the German atomic reactor project (was he bad? see the fascinating play “Copenhagen” to find out!). His team almost finished a nuclear reactor. He thought that a reaction with natural uranium would be self-limiting (spoiler: it wouldn’t), so had no cadmium control rods or other means of stopping a chain reaction.

But, no worries: his team has “a lump of cadmium” that they could toss into the reactor if things got out of hand. So, now, if someone has a level of precaution woefully inadequate to the risk at hand, I will call it a lump of cadmium.

(Based on German Nuclear Program Before and During World War II by Andrew Wendorff)

It reminds me of the story that SCRAM (emergency nuclear reactor shutdowns) stands for “Safety Control Rod Axe Man“, a guy standing next to the rope suspending the control rods with an axe, ready to cut it. It has been argued it was liquid cadmium solution instead. Still, in the US project they did not assume the reaction was self stabilizing.

Going back to the primary citation, we read:

To understand it we must say something about Heisenberg’s concept of reactor design. He persuaded himself that a reactor designed with natural uranium and, say, a heavy water moderator would be self-stabilizing and could not run away. He noted that U(238) has absorption resonances in the 1-eV region, which means that a neutron with this kind of energy has a good chance of being absorbed and thus removed from the chain reaction. This is one of the challenges in reactor design—slowing the neutrons with the moderator without losing them all to absorption. Conversely, if the reactor begins to run away (become supercritical) , these resonances would broaden and neutrons would be more readily absorbed. Moreover, the expanding material would lengthen the mean free paths by decreasing the density and this expansion would also stop the chain reaction. In short, we might experience a nasty chemical explosion but not a nuclear holocaust. Whether Heisenberg realized the consequences of such a chemical explosion is not clear. In any event, no safety elements like cadmium rods were built into Heisenberg’s reactors. At best, a lump of cadmium was kepton hand in case things threatened to get out of control. He also never considered delayed neutrons, which, as we know, play an essential role in reactor safety. Because none of Heisenberg’s reactors went critical, this dubious strategy was never put to the test.
(Jeremy Bernstein, Heisenberg and the critical mass. Am. J. Phys. 70, 911 (2002); http://dx.doi.org/10.1119/1.1495409)

This reminds me a lot of the modelling errors we discuss in the “Probing the improbable” paper, especially of course the (ahem) energetic error giving Castle Bravo 15 megatons of yield instead of the predicted 4-8 megatons. Leaving out Li(7) from the calculations turned out to leave out the major contributor of energy.

Note that Heisenberg did have an argument for his safety, in fact two independent ones! The problem might have been that he was thinking in terms of mostly U(238) and then getting any kind of chain reaction going would be hard, so he was biased against the model of explosive chain reactions (but as the Bernstein paper notes, somebody in the project had correct calculations for explosive critical masses). Both arguments were flawed when dealing with reactors enriched in U(235). Coming at nuclear power from the perspective of nuclear explosions on the other hand makes it natural to consider how to keep things from blowing up.

We may hence end up with lumps of cadmium because we approach a risk from the wrong perspective. The antidote should always be to consider the risks from multiple angles, ideally a few adversarial ones. The more energy, speed or transformative power we expect something to produce, the more we should scrutinize existing safeguards for them being lumps of cadmium. If we think our project does not have that kind of power, we should both question why we are even doing it, and whether it might actually have some hidden critical mass.