The Manhattan Project

Samuel Beall Jr.'s Interview

Printer-friendly version

Samuel Beall Jr.'s Interview

Sam Beall is an American nuclear engineer. During the Manhattan Project, he worked for the DuPont Company at the Chicago Met Lab, Oak Ridge, TN, and Hanford, WA. After the war, he stayed at Oak Ridge and ultimately became head of the Reactor Division at Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL). In this interview, Beall discusses his involvement with various nuclear reactors at Oak Ridge and recalls his friendship with former ORNL director Alvin Weinberg. He also describes his childhood in Richland, Georgia.
Manhattan Project Location(s): 
Date of Interview: 
April 26, 2018
Location of the Interview: 
Knoxville
Transcript: 

Cindy Kelly: I’m Cindy Kelly. It is Thursday, April 26, 2018, and I’m in Knoxville, Tennessee with Sam Beall. First question for you is to say your full name and spell it.

Sam Beall: My full name is Samuel Erasmus Beall, B-e-a-l-l. Some people call “Beale,” we call “Bell.”

Kelly: Okay, great. So, Sam, tell me about yourself. When were you born and where?

Beall: It was in 1919, and I will be 99 in just about three weeks.

Kelly: Wow. Congratulations.

Beall: I was one nuclear engineer born in Plains, Georgia. Another nuclear was born in Plains, Georgia, named Jimmy Carter, of course. But I grew up in a nearby town called Richland, lived there until 1940, and then moved to Knoxville, Tennessee, where my mother’s family was. I entered – I said, 1940, 1938 – I entered the University of Tennessee, studied chemical engineering and industrial engineering, and graduated from there in 1942, where I was hired by the DuPont Company. For six months, I worked for them making smokeless powder at the Indiana Ordinance Works.

By that time, Enrico Fermi had taken the Chicago Pile critical and the DuPont Company had been selected to do the design, development, and building, operational of the reactors required to produce plutonium. DuPont had to get together a lot of its engineers for this project, so they picked me from Indiana and sent me to the University of Chicago in the spring of 1943. I worked there in the West Stands just down the hall from Mr. Fermi’s pile, where they were still experimenting. He wasn’t there at the time, but we worked there with them and for them. 

We developed a program for measuring the ventilation system for reactors, which required a tall smokestack. We worked on a formula for estimating where the plume from that smokestack would touch the ground. So if there were an accident in the reactor and contamination, radioactivity went up the stack, we could realize where it was going to land and warn the people there to evacuate. Anyway, that was one of the things we did up there.

Then in the fall, when the Oak Ridge Graphite Reactor was under construction, they had problems there that required people from Chicago. I was sent there to help with the canning of the uranium pellets that went into the reactor. They had to be put in a can and welded, and they were having trouble with leaks in those cans, which wouldn’t be desirable in the reactor. We worked that out, and then I for the next six months did many things around the reactor. We were just technical assistants.

After that time, they decided that I ought to learn about plutonium separation from uranium. There was a process called the bismuth process, chemistry process that enabled you to take the uranium, dissolve it, remove the plutonium and leave the radioactivity in the uranium residue. With that background, I was sent in the fall of ’44 to Hanford, Washington, where the reactors were under construction and the chemical plant was under construction. I was there for, I guess nine months working to separate plutonium.

After that bomb [“Fat Man”] was successful, I came back to Oak Ridge. At that time, the idea of forming a material test reactor had been funded and everybody at Oak Ridge at that time was working on the materials test reactor, the MTR, that was eventually built in Idaho.

I was responsible for what’s called a hydraulic mockup, which was really an assembly just like the reactor, with tanks and a grid inside for control rods and so forth. We were testing the flow of water through the fuel elements. We found that the pressure was so great, the fuel elements which were flat would bend like that in this mockup test. Eugene Wigner said, “Well, why don’t we make them bent to begin with? That way don’t have to worry about them bending.”

After a year or more, Alvin [Weinberg] asked me to change that mockup into a reactor, because we had fuel elements that had been built in the meantime with those curved plates in it. We had enough so that we could do a critical experiment in this MTR mockup. We did that, made it critical. Everybody is very nervous when a reactor is made critical, because it could get away. We had a wag technician, who right at the time of criticality blew up a bag and popped it, and he almost got fired.

Kelly: Oh, dear.

Beall: Anyway, we ran that reactor for, well, up to 1,000 kilowatts, and later it was taken even higher and it was operated for years after that. But after we went critical and proved that a water-cooled, flat-plate enriched reactor was a good idea—and, incidentally, at that time, Admiral [Hyman] Rickover was in the reactor school there. He was very interested in this reactor and he visited it often, and that was the basis for his choice of the submarine reactors. Eventually, the electric power reactors, water-cooled enriched uranium, which turned out to be very workable. 

After six months there, Alvin, who always had an idea that was very revolutionary, and that is, instead of having a reactor with fuel rods and having to dissolve them back into a solution and separate the critical things, he said, “Well, why don’t we start with a fluid fuel reactor? We’ll use uranium sulfate instead of uranium rods.” He asked me to build a reactor that could use a fluid uranium sulfate. We did build one in about 18 months’ time that had a tank about this size surrounded by heavy water with a pump that circulated the fluid through a heat exchanger, which made steam and could be directed to a turbine, electric. Eugene Wigner called that a pump, a pot and a pipe. He dubbed the reactor a pump, a pot and a pipe. 

Anyway, in 1952, that reactor went critical. For the celebration, which we always did when a reactor went critical, Alvin was there with a satchel, and he reached in his satchel and pulled out a bottle of Jack Daniels. He said, “Sam, when piles go critical in Chicago, they drink red wine. But when they go critical in Tennessee, we drink Jack Daniels.” He passed the bottle around and everybody took a swig.

About a year later, we took that reactor all the way to 1,000 kilowatts. This is 250-degree liquid uranium. At 1,000 kilowatts, we were able to make steam in the generator and feed it to the electrical generator. We hooked it to the TVA [Tennessee Valley Authority] electrical system and transferred 150 kilowatts of electric energy, the first power electricity from a nuclear reactor. That was a great event, and we’ve got some medals—I thought I brought it in—but I had a medal. We used the electricity to plate a medal that recorded that event.

That was such a successful experiment, Alvin [Weinberg] said, “Well, let’s make a breeder reactor out of this idea of a fluid fuel.” He said we need a design, one that will convert uranium, I mean, uranium-233, into usable material. We designed something called a homogenous reactor test, which was a bigger version of the HRE [Homogenous Reactor Experiment], the smaller one, in the same building, and using a lot of the same equipment. But a bigger tank, a bigger pressure vessel, a lot of better things. Well, that was great. We went through criticality on that and we’d take it up to power, and when we got to full power, 5,000 kilowatts, it suddenly shut down. That was a shock to everybody, because we couldn’t figure out what it was. We decided to look inside this vessel where the reaction takes place and found that some of the uranium sulfate had collected, had precipitated and collected in the side of the vessel, and it burned a hole about that big in the side of the vessel. The heavy water from outside mixed with the fuel and shut the reactor down. 

Well, that was pretty bad news, but we continued, we were able to start up the reactor again, a little more concentration of uranium, and we ran it for another couple of years. But the Atomic Energy Commission decided that it wasn’t a good idea. It was too complicated. We had a chemical separation plant attached to this reactor, so that eventually, if it ever was successful, the purification of the fuel could take place right on site. It wouldn’t have to be shipped anywhere. It was a great idea. It would be a breeder reactor and produce power. But anyway, they decided not to fund it.

Our attention then went to a molten salt reactor, which had been originally designated for aircraft, an aircraft reactor. The idea of using a molten salt uranium was then developed, and that reactor ran for two years, first on 235 and next on 233. It was successful, but at a temperature of 1200 degrees Fahrenheit, very difficult to maintain, and it never did catch on. Although, I understand that a plant in California, anyway, is taking up that idea and trying to maybe produce something in the molten salt category.

Kelly: There were people at Oak Ridge National Laboratory who were talking about working on molten salt.

Beall: Oh, yeah, well, they’ll never stop talking about molten salt at Oak Ridge. But it was fun.

I was made head of the Reactor Division after all that, and we designed reactors for desalination, one for the Army, a small package reactor, the molten salt reactor. We had ten or more different versions of reactor that came out of that design group and development group. That was a lot of fun.

After twelve years as head of the Reactor Division, we had about, I guess, a couple hundred engineers and technicians. It was about the time when everybody was thinking green and trying to do things that would save energy and make use of solar and geothermal. Alvin decided to set up an Energy Division that was non-nuclear, and asked me to organize it, which I did after twelve years in the Reactor Division. We studied, as I say, geothermal, solar, coal-fired plants, and did the safety analysis for all reactors in that one non-nuclear, except for the safety division. I did that a couple of years and decided that I didn’t want to do it any longer.

[The United States Agency for] International Development, yes, asked me to visit several countries who were beginning their atomic energy programs. I went to Pakistan twice. I went to India, South Korea, spent time there getting their programs going in atomic energy research. The Netherlands had a big reactor program that I helped with two years. Finally, we went to Iceland to see if reactors could displace the geothermal heat there, but they couldn’t do it. So Iceland is still geothermal.

I retired after that and I’ve been in some other businesses, food preparation, frozen foods and restaurants, the restaurant business. Anyway, that’s my history.

Kelly: What does food preparation and restaurants have in common with reactor design?

Beall: Very little.

Kelly: Very little.

Beall: There were a lot of, well, general engineering ideas that fit both. How to conserve energy, how to cool things quickly, how to mix right, uniformly, how to cook pasta by the ton. It takes some engineering. Anyway, I’ve been with that company for those years since then.

I was on the board of Ruby Tuesday’s restaurant, which my son began and expanded to 12 or 1500 restaurants around the world. And who also started the Blackberry Farm resort, which is close by in the next county. So here I am all alone at 99 years old. [Laughter]

Kelly: What got you interested in science? You were outside–

Beall: Well, I was in this little Georgia, South Georgia town called Richland. I grew up in Richland, Georgia. We had what they call a plantation. We lived in town, but had the plantation nearby, big dairy farm, a lot of pigs and cotton crops and peanuts. My father also had a department store. Men’s, women’s and children’s clothing and everything. Well, during the Depression, that all went bankrupt.

But in that little town, I learned a lot and I got interested in electricity and signed up for a correspondence course in electricity from the Edison Electrical Institute. So I studied that during my high school years and didn’t continue in electrical engineering, but I decided chemical was a better route. So, when I came to UT [University of Tennessee], I entered the chemical engineering department rather than the electrical engineering. Turned out well as far as I’m concerned.

Kelly: Yes. It’s interesting. One of the observations people have made is that because the first book written about the Manhattan Project, really a booklet, was called the Smyth Report—

Beall: Yes.

Kelly: That came out right, you know–

Beall: I’ve read it.

Kelly: Within weeks. It talks a lot about the physics, because that was commonly known even before the war, with the fission discoveries in late 1938, early 1939, that set a number of countries off racing to develop an atomic weapon. But the chemistry involved, the roles you had in separating plutonium, they’re not described in this report. In part. Can you explain that?

Beall: I can’t imagine why. Except that – well, I don’t know. I don’t know why it wouldn’t be.

Kelly: I think it’s because they felt it was still top secret.

Beall: Well, that was a rare process, the bismuth process was. Might have been restricted, yes.

I had lots of good friends there [at Chicago] and a lot of them moved to Oak Ridge when I did. And some of them continued to Washington State.

Kelly: Tell me about Alvin Weinberg.

Beall: Oh, Alvin. He just had great ideas, and he was just an all-around good, practical scientist. Eugene Wigner was his mentor and favorite person in the world. They did lots of things together, and Alvin was able to, I guess, separate the things that needed to be done from the things that weren’t urgent. He ran a good laboratory. He had a good manager named Floyd Culler, who did hiring and management, and he was so good at that that he complemented Alvin in Alvin’s position. My folder there shows Alvin’s birthday celebration. Did you see that?

Kelly: The photo of you and him on 80th birthday, and it looks like–

Beall: We had a big celebration for Alvin that day. We had a lot of prominent people talk. One of his favorite things was, “I want you to come to my house. If you’ll bring the eggs and come to my house, we’ll have ham and eggs for supper if you’ll bring the ham.” [Laughter]

Kelly: Is that what he said? That’s great.

Beall: Oh, me. He liked to get things for nothing.

Kelly: Wigner also came to Oak Ridge.

Beall: Oh, yes, he was Alvin’s assistant for a long time [misspoke: Weinberg was Wigner’s assistant.] I don’t know how he managed to keep him there, but he did. They were just such close friends. I think they just enjoyed each other. I’m sure he used him for the technical division supervision to back up the regular staff. I didn’t know exactly how Dr. Wigner – I didn’t know what his responsibilities were. But he’d come frequently to the homogenous reactor, because that was Alvin’s favorite and he wanted to—and he was the reason so many of those Nobel winners and prominent physicists came to the HRE. Because, of course, Alvin knew them, too, but Eugene Wigner could attract them to come and see what Alvin has done there. So we had lots of them. It was an interesting development, but it just didn’t work out very well. A little too complicated.

Kelly: You think there’s a way to simplify it?

Beall: Well, it’s just the fact that the chemistry is now part of the regular operation. It has problems like corrosion, and precipitation and composition. They say commercial enterprises would have a hard time operating a power station with those complications. That was the biggest thing against the idea, I think. But it’s still talked about for space use and some specialty things. Nobody’s done it yet. 

Kelly: You were also involved in the light-water reactors, I assume. 

Beall: Well, the light-water reactor was the LITR [Low Intensity Test Reactor], the MTR involvement. When we were studying desalination, of course, that was reactor-powered to produce the heat. We had the Army package power reactor. One of those was built at McMurdo Sound down in the Antarctic and ran for years. A small water-cooled reactor that was designed there, along with a company, a commercial company. I can’t remember the name of it. That was in the reactor business for a short time. That’s about the size of it.

Kelly: Did you go to Antarctica to look at this reactor?

Beall: No, I didn’t. But Mr. [Harold] McCurdy, who was the project manager did, in our division, yeah.

Kelly: So the Army had a number of those transportable, small-package–

Beall: Well, we worked on another one for the space system, but it didn’t turn out either. It used molten salt and it’s just a tough problem to maintain it.

The other thing we did a lot of was to look at how to use waste heat. Back in those days, you could run a power station and the exhaust heat coming out of the turbine would just go to heat water, it’d just be wasted. That’s heat at, let’s say nearly 200 degrees Fahrenheit. So we spent a lot of time studying how to heat cities. We had some projects in which we had a furnace that consumed garbage and waste materials, and made steam that was then piped into the downtown cities, some to heat roadways or stadiums, to melt ice. Others just to maintain the process, to heat buildings and so forth. We did a lot of work on that. Had funding from the HUD [Department of Housing and Urban Development] to finance it.

We looked at heating greenhouses with it, because that was the temperature that’d be perfect for growing plants, and they could be near the reactor, so the heat wouldn’t have to be transferred far. Well, those were good ideas, but none of them really caught on enough to have somebody invest in them. Tennessee Valley Authority actually built a greenhouse and heated it with one of their reactors, so that was some progress. 

Kelly: I guess that is something that some of the scientists were talking about yesterday.

Beall: Well, as a matter of fact, heat recovery from gas turbines now is an important – it’s really an important part of the system, because gas turbines exhaust at high temperature. It’s just wasted if you don’t use it some way. So that has caught on really well.

Kelly: Yeah. That’s great. What were your greatest triumphs in all your years working on these projects?

Beall: The greatest triumph?

Kelly: Yeah.

Beall: Well, I think probably that HRE-1 was the most complicated and the most satisfying one.

Kelly: That’s great.

Beall: It just didn’t turn out very well.

Kelly: Well, it was complicated, as you say. 

Beall: Yes, yes.

Kelly: Right. You worked on the fuel cladding issues as well.

Beall: Well, that was very important at the time. Afraid that that would keep the reactor from being successful, if those things didn’t hold up. We did a lot of experiments with cladding and cementing the uranium slugs so they didn’t leak fission products out into the stream. So they survived the reactor really well without breaking down or leaking.

See, the first graphite reactor at Oak Ridge was air-cooled. DuPont decided that that wouldn’t be a good idea for the big reactors at Hanford, and so they decided to cool them with water. That’s why it was put right next door to the Columbia River. For that reason, at an early stage, we set up some of the access holes in the Oak Ridge graphite reactor for the water cooling. We put pipes through it and put uranium slugs in those channels and cooled them with water to make sure that the Hanford idea would be successful, and it was. The fellow in the photograph that you saw in front of the graphite reactor was responsible for that development, water-cooled slugs.

Kelly: Mr. Biggs?

Beall: Mr. Briggs, Beecher Briggs. He was a very close friend from Chicago and Oak Ridge, and we did a lot of things together. He was a very smart engineer.

Kelly: Is there anything else you’d like to talk about that I haven’t asked?

Beall: No, no. You’ve covered my life practically. 

Kelly: Right.

Beall: There’s not much left of it. [Laughter]

Kelly: Well, it was a full life. 99 years, almost 99 years to account for. That’s a lot.

Beall: It’s been a good one.

Kelly: I know you have two boys. Do you have other children?

Beall: Three. Three daughters, and they’re all great. Good cooks and good wives and good daughters.

Kelly: That’s great.

Beall: We do a lot of things together still.

Kelly: Oh, that’s nice.

Beall: Have a son at Hilton Head who has restaurants there. They’re not the same restaurants that son Sandy operated. Another daughter lives up at Brays Island, which is above Beaufort, South Carolina. Another daughter lives in Gatlinburg. One that lives here, the oldest one still lives here. They’re all good, healthy, just supporting their Papa.

Kelly: Very, very nice. You’re a lucky man.

Beall: I am that.

Kelly: Very lucky man.

Beall: Every day is a treasure.

Kelly: Yes. How many grandchildren do you have?

Beall: 13 grands and 17 great-grands. 

Kelly: Oh, my goodness. You got to have a computer to remember all their birthdays.

Beall: We have a couple of get-togethers every year and there’s 40 to 45 people.

Kelly: Oh, my. That’s marvelous. Oh, what fun. Are there any Sams among them?

Beall: I’m Sam II. Sandy was Sam III. Sam who ran Blackberry was number IV, and his son, who is now 17 years old, is number V. He’s Sam V. 

Kelly: Wow.

Beall: So yes. A lot of Sams.

Kelly: A lot of Sams. Oh, that is great. Wow.

Nathaniel Weisenberg: Could I ask a quick question?

Beall: Yes, sir.

Weisenberg: Did you work with Raymond Grills or Clarence Larson at all?

Beall: Who was the first one?

Weisenberg: Raymond Grills.

Beall: Didn’t know him. I knew Clarence well. Yes, Clarence was involved in a lot of things we did. I think I might have a picture of him in this, I don’t know. Well, I have a picture of him somewhere, because I got an award when I was in the Reactor Division for like twelve years without an accident. He awarded me the prize for that. He was a good manager. No, I don’t have a picture here.

We had a lot of smart people, smarter than I was, and that’s why it was successful, of course. We didn’t mention Miles Leverett, but he was Crawford Greenewalt’s first, I guess first choice of engineers, and he headed our Reactor Division at ORNL [Oak Ridge National Laboratory] for many years. A very intelligent and smart fellow.

Kelly: What was it like growing up in Plains?

Beall: I grew up in Richland. 

Kelly: Oh, sorry, Richland.

Beall: Well, I have to tell you, our postmaster in Richland was Jimmy Carter’s grandfather. His name was Jim Jack Gordy, and my best friends were Jimmy Carter’s first cousins, who lived in Richland instead of Plains. I grew up with them, they were my mentors, and we participated in all kinds of things. Two first cousins. Their mother was my mother’s best friend. 

I’ve been back to Richland two or three times, and it’s kind of funny. Mr. Gordy was the postmaster and he would deliver the mail. The ladies would swear he read their mail, and he was a character. They still say, “Lordy, Lordy, Jim Jack Gordy!” as an exclamation. [Laughter] It caught on somehow, those words, “Lordy, Lordy, Jim Jack Gordy!” That was his grandfather who was the Democratic postmaster. 

Kelly: Was that an elected position?

Beall: Well, it was an appointed position. The Democrats, when they lost out, a Republican was put in charge. But in a small town like that, it doesn’t – like I say, he delivered the mail.

Kelly: That’s great. Yeah, if you read it, you know, you get to know everybody’s secret, right?

Beall: Yeah.

Kelly: That’s funny. Did many of your age-mates go on to college? Were you unique in going on for advanced degrees? Or was that common?

Beall: Yeah, it was common. I stayed in graduate school – well, I took some graduate courses, I’ll put it that way – when I was at Oak Ridge. You have to keep learning if you can, don’t you?

Kelly: You were there when Admiral Rickover set up his–

Beall: Yes. He was in reactor school at the time, and several of his assistants were there also. They were very interested in that LITR, the low-intensity test reactor. People came through ORNL frequently. Prominent people would come and stay for a month or so and do things with the different divisions. Alvin ran a good, good science ship.

Kelly: Talking about prominent people. You have a couple of photographs of President [John F.] Kennedy and Jacqueline [Kennedy].

Beall: Yeah. I don’t know how that happened. Maybe it did happen through [Senator] Albert Gore. But we were glad to see them and, of course, didn’t know that they were going to be even more famous than they were when they came to Oak Ridge. He was still a senator at that time. 

Kelly: Well, he looks very young in the photo. 

Beall: My wife didn’t care for Jacqueline. I had a picture of her with me and she destroyed it. [Laughter]

Kelly: That’s a funny story. Oh, dear. So, I’ve forgotten, where did you meet your wife?

Beall: Here at UT. She was there after I was, really, but we’d go on events together, football games and so forth. She was in the Chi Omega sorority and the head of it. I had a lot of friends in that sorority. It was a growing up experience at UT.

Kelly: Was she with you? When you were at Oak Ridge, at that time, were you married? 

Beall: Only after I was in the Reactor Division.