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October 31, 2006

Nuclear pioneer dies at 91

Alvin M. Weinberg, a famous nuclear scientist, nuclear energy advocate, and U of C graduate, died October 18 in his Oak Ridge, Tenn. home. He was 91.

Weinberg was born and raised in Chicago and received his bachelor’s degree, master’s degree, and Ph.D. at the University of Chicago. A few years after graduation, he joined the U of C group that created the first nuclear chain reactor and eventually developed the technology behind the atomic bomb as a part of the Manhattan Project.

Weinberg was the director of the Oak Ridge Laboratory from 1955–1973. During that time, the Laboratory transitioned from the Cold War weapons-making era to research on the effects of radiation. As director of the Institute for Energy Analysis at Oak Ridge Associated Universities, Weinberg was one of the first to research greenhouse gases and alternative energy sources, according to Oak Ridge Associated Universities.

He was a firm supporter of nuclear energy, which he saw as the best way to deal with the increasing demand for energy in the U.S. Even the Three Mile Island accident, in which a Pennsylvania nuclear power plant leaked a low level of radiation, did not stop Weinberg from advancing his cause.

Other sources said that he saw the disaster as a positive sign for the future of nuclear power because a large-scale leak had been prevented. However, he did say that more commercial reactors would be needed for nuclear energy to be a long-term solution.

Weinberg coined several well known phrases, the most famous being “big science,” which referred to the large, federally funded groups of experts who collaborated to make the greatest technological and scientific discoveries of the 20th century.

Presidents Kennedy, Johnson, and Nixon all chose Weinberg to serve as an advisor on science in their administrations, according to various news reports.

Weinberg was the recipient of the 1980 Enrico Fermi Award and the 1960 Atoms for Peace Award alongside Walter H. Zinn, amongst many other honors. The Alvin M. Weinberg Award is presented by the American Nuclear Society for “contributions to the understanding of the social implications of nuclear technology.”

He also authored three books: The Physical Theory of Nuclear Chain Reactors with Eugene Wigner, The First Nuclear Era: The Life and Times of a Nuclear Fixer, and Reflections on Big Science.

He is survived by son Dr. Richard Weinberg of Durham, N.C.; sister Fay Goleman of Stockton, Calif.; and three grandchildren.