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By Ami Dor-on
Alvin Radkowsky, the exceptional American-Jewish scientist who was the right hand of Admiral Hyman Rikover in the “Nautilus” project, first nuclear submarine launched at 1954, “made Aliya” and lived in Israel during the last 30 years of his life; His specialty was miniaturization of nuclear reactors; In Israel he developed a new discipline – nuclear reactors working on Thorium, which are less polluting and produce very little Plutonium; In activation of “Thorium” reactors there is potential for solving energy problems of Israel; The leading country in the new discipline is India which is already constructing a thorium based reactor, first of its kind.
The nuclear era in the history of mankind that was initiated at the end of World War II after US dropped two American atom bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, brought under the threatening destruction mushrooms also technological benefits with the potential of improving the quality of life of billions of people populating the globe. The fascinating field of nuclear energy presented two important contributions to the mankind: The first one was the possibility of developing cheap and affordable electrical energy answering the need for the expanding demand of the fast-growing world population. The second: the possibility to miniaturize nuclear reactors for activating submarines and airplane carriers. The USA led the world in this special energetic path. Unfortunately, alongside with the enormous potential of benefit there was the never ceasing fear of “nuclear catastrophe” that might occur in case of failure of one of the reactors. Examples of lethal failures are not missing. At least two are well remembered by everybody – Chernobyl in Russia (1986) and Fukoshima in Japan (2011). The inevitable result was abandoning the path of the uranium operated nuclear reactors in parallel to the maximal and surging exploitation of other energy sources, such as oil. Over the years the excessive demands and the need for more energy overcame the fears or caused people to ignore the fears. As a matter of fact, hundreds of uranium-based nuclear power reactors are operating worldwide and, as for 2013, 50 more nuclear reactors are being planned.
Strange as it may sound – one fact cannot be changed: there is a strong and substantial linkage between dealing with nuclear energy and studying Talmud. The proof for the above was presented by an American Jew, wearing a black Yarmulke, named Alvin Radkowsky, who was not known by the public, in spite of his enormous contribution to mankind.
Alvin, who lived in Israel during the last 30 years of his life, was born in an orthodox Jewish family in 1915, in the township of Elizabeth in New Jersey. Since his young age he loved two areas who led him in parallel research paths. One was the Talmud. The other one – sciences and mathematics. With this type of cultural baggage Alvin graduated his engineering studies in the town college of New York, at the age of 20. The study of exact sciences – and in particular the great secrets of physics – triggered his intellectual curiosity and motivation to study in order to find answers to all the questions bothering his analytic brain. Later on he explained his attraction to Talmud: ”There is no better training for a scientist than studying of Talmud. The approach of the Talmud sages is very scientific. They used scientific principles of thinking and problems solving. I think that first of all the scientist needs to ask the right questions and in this respect Talmud is full with questions and quizzes. “
The natural curiosity in finding solutions for the mysteries of creation led young Alvin to advanced studies. The best place in his view for technology studies was the George Washington University, where one of the most prominent scientists in the world was teaching: Prof. Edward Teller, the father of the hydrogen bomb, also a Jew. Alvin performed his M.Sc studies under the supervision of Prof. Teller, and his Ph.D. under another well known physics scientist, Prof. Karl Herzfeld, also a Jew. With Ph.D. title in Physics in his pocket, Alvin found time to establish a family. He married Anette Eisenberg and together they brought to the world their daughter Gila.
Alvin started his rich and unique career in a new specialty for these days. He was appointed chief scientist of the American naval lab who dealt with nuclear propulsion research of vessels. In this lab he and his skills were discovered by Admiral Hyman Rickover, who was at that time head of the project of first nuclear submarine in the world – “Nautilus”. The theoretic knowhow, the engineering title, and the “Talmudic” head brought Alvin to the world of nuclear reactors miniaturization. If Rickover was the project leader, Alvin was the inventor who succeeded in realizing the ideas of Rickover. In 1950 Alvin was appointed chief scientist of the office for nuclear propulsion of vessels. This was the title. In practice Alvin and his professional team were busy building the nuclear reactor of “Nautilus” that was launched in 1954. According to the physical principle developed by Alvin, according to which the unique reactor of the submarine was operating, it was possible to increase substantially the amount of nuclear fuel possible for loading into the miniature reactor while ensuring the optimal conditions for continuous and safe operation.
During his service Alvin won not only exceptional technological success but also fame in the scientific world. He was appointed member of The National Academy of Engineering and fellow of The American Society for Nuclear Sciences. He also won a most important American medal for his “exceptional contribution to the development of engineering systems of nuclear propulsion”.
Like any religious Jew Alvin used to use the words of longing to Zion by one who lives at the exile – “For the next year in Jerusalem”. This saying was not just a saying for Alvin. So – in the peak of his American career, the longing of Alvin to his spiritual home – Israel – prevailed, and he decided “to make Aliya”. In 1972 he arrived to Israel with his wife and daughter, settled down in the Ramat Chen quarter of Ramat Gan and opened a new scientific-applied-research career, that even today, after his death in 2002, is not fully known. Immediately after arriving to Israel Radkowsky was nominated as professor in two universities in parallel: Tel Aviv University and Ben Gurion University.
In those days a question was asked in the scientific circles in Israel: what brings such a prominent nuclear scientist to the Ben Gurion University which was at that time at its infancy. The answer to this question was hidden in the world of secret. The proximity of Ben Gurion University in Beer Sheba to the nuclear reactor in Dimona was key to the mystery. Although Alvin “belonged” to the University – and indeed he was teaching nuclear engineering – most of his time was dedicated to his research in the Dimona reactor. One of the most important studies with which Alvin was busy was activation of nuclear reactors by an element called “Thorium” instead of uranium. According to the principles developed by Alvin, it came off that activating nuclear reactors with thorium is much safer, much “cleaner” from radioactive substances, and – most important for Alvin – in a reactor operated by thorium it is possible to obtain very little radioactive materials, such as plutonium, required for nuclear weapon. Another advantage: the use of thorium can make the nuclear production costs cheaper by 20-30%.
Another important by-product of thorium reactors operation was revealed in a research performed by a team led by Radkowsky in Ben Gurion University. It was found that the amount of plutonium (used for producing nuclear weapon) obtained during the operation of a thorium reactor is about 80% less than the amount of plutonium produced in a reactor with the same power operating on uranium. Furthermore, the research found that the plutonium obtained in a thorium reactor is not suitable for military uses, like plutonium or enriched uranium, since the atom bomb that will be produced from it will not be able to produce the same amount of energy that is produced by a “normal” bomb. 1
Later on, when Alvin explained the importance of using thorium in nuclear reactors, he said words that were a kind of prophecy. “If we do not end the use of uranium operated nuclear reactors, we can find ourselves facing nuclear terror.” This warning was expressed by Prof. Radkowsky also in a scientific congress of the International Agency of Nuclear Energy that took place in Vienna in 1997, where he presented the principles of using thorium for production of energy. Radkowsky stated that: “Western countries who want to encourage the use of nuclear energy in the world should change their policy of selling normal reactors and to decide that there will be no selling of such reactors to “Bandit” states like Iran, Iraq, Syria and Lybia”. This – explained Radkowsky – in order to prevent the possibility that under the slogan of “nuclear reactors for peaceful purposes” the “bandit states” will convert the production of energy to the severe path of nuclear weapons production.”
To what extent was Alvin right and how big is the danger of nuclear reactors producing plutonium, can be understood by the following statistical data: 400 water-cooled commercial reactors operate worldwide, and they produce each year about 70 tons of plutonium. Only 6 Kg of plutonium is needed for producing one atomic bomb.1
Nuclear power reactors operated by thorium, found in abundance, are not a theory for quite a long time. The leading country in this field is India, that already announced not long ago on setting up an experimental model of nuclear power station operated by thorium instead of uranium. India, the owner of the widest resources of natural thorium in the world, already chose the site where the first reactor of this kind will be established.
Ratan Kumar Sinha, the director of the Bhabha Atomic Research Centre (BARC) in Mumbai told that the thorium based reactor will be built next to an existing nuclear reactor, Building of the reactor will last 6 years and it will produced, when operated, 300 Megawatt. The Indian research center manager added that development of thorium reactors is considered in the last decade as a dream of nuclear engineers – in terms of safety, and in terms of energy production costs. Also the environmentalists support this method considered as ‘the great hope” for replacement of oil fuels creating large quantities of hothouse gas.
Activation of a nuclear reactor based on thorium is expected, most probably, to mark a breakthrough for the energy producing industry in India and maybe also in China, and it certainly could have a potential for solving energy problems in Israel. This is due to the fact that substantial part of the advanced information in the world on thorium reactors is found in the nuclear engineering department in Ben Gurion University, managed by Prof. Alex Galperin, Radkowsky’s student.
1] Alvin committed most of his research years in Israel to thorium activated nuclear reactors, and he also founded and initiated a business company called “Thorium Power”, where he was President till his death in February 17th 2002, at the age of 87. By the way, the fuel for thorium reactors is named after him – Radkowsky Thorium Fuel (RTF).
2] The research groupthat dealt with the subject included the following persons and scientific bodies:Prof. Alvin Radkowsky, Prof. Alex Galperin, Prof. Meir Segev, Dr. Gilad Raitses, Dr. Eugene Shwageraus (all from Ben Gurion University), Dr. Michael Todosow from Brookhaven National Laboratory and Dr. Alexei Morozov from Kurchatov Institute in Russia.