I’m bringing nuclear power to the 19th century and need to know who had the tools and connections to become the 19th century “Father of nuclear power.”
Background: The Real World
Raw, unenriched uranium and graphite can sustain a very powerful thermal reaction; but we never knew this until 1942. So, what if someone else stumbled upon it earlier?
In the 1970’s we "stumbled upon" a fusion reactor that just formed itself in nature (this is true). The earth now has seventeen known nuclear powered reactors which had formed naturally in Gabon, Africa. Others may exist but have not been found. In one case it is estimated that the reactor generated about 100 kW of power for a period of over 110,000 years when it formed. (enough power to keep one thousand 100W light bulbs lit for 1,100 centuries) It doesn’t run today because it is dry. It has no water or graphite to moderate it. Raw uranium and graphite are all that is needed to create a Chernobyl-like event; again, but In my story we tripped over this natural phenomenon before 1970. We found one in 1790.
But even before we found a reactor in the wild, we built one with raw uranium. In 1942 Enrico Fermi built the CP-1 graphite moderated reactor in downtown Chicago, USA, and quickly shut it down when it grew to 200 Watts output, narrowly avoiding a Chernobyl-like meltdown by replacing the cadmium poison control rods. The reactor was supercritical, only the control rods prevented it from reaching prompt criticality.
But we have known about unranium since 1789, when leading German chemist Martin Heinrich Klaproth was studying pitchblende recovered from Bohemia, and separated Uranium from it for the first time. He gave the element its name after the newly discovered planet Uranus.
He never did anything with it!
Now, FICTION: the premise:
Assume we found one of these natural nuclear reactors earlier in history. What if the first person to put raw uranium and graphite together was not Enrico Fermi?
Here are the events which have unfolded in my alternate world: We had accidentally stumbled upon a naturally occurring nuclear reactor in 1790. It was heating up a lake or a pond. They didn't know why, but it had localized concentrated uranium of 60 wt% (this is what comes from the deep mines in in Cigar Lake, Canada). By strange chance, however, sedimentary erosion had left graphite on the lakebed covering the concentrated pitchblende. This formed a natural fission reactor at the bottom of the lake, making it heat up. The pond never froze over, and it was unusually warm for no known reason. On studying the mystery, some pitchblend was removed, because it was warm to the touch. But when removed from the lake, it cooled off! They learned it only heated up when near the graphite.
First: the reality check part: I may be answering my own question here, but I am not sure. This is the reality-check part: If Klaproth had continued experimenting with his Uranium, by putting it in water maybe and closely watching the temperature; I assume he could have discovered nuclear power. Or at least, that someone would have.
And now on to the heading problem: Not any random person would discover the low heat from a natural reaction like this; and certainly only a few would have pushed this new find to attempt an engine with it. The average person would just stich the rocks in their socks on a cold night and warm their toes up. But surely someone was in the position to study, and exploit this new strange, seemingly limitless heat source.
My question is simple: Into whose hands did this discovery land? NO OPINIONS PLEASE! The question asks for a real person or agency. Who would have pursued it until they created a small heat engine with it - the first nuclear engine? An answer MUST:
- Consider the person/agency's real-world areas of specialty
- Consider the person/agency's access to resources, and
- Consider the person/agency's contributions
Who of all the brilliant revolutionaries would be the most likely to have unlocked the secret of making a steam engine from Uranium before 1900?
It would also be useful to know who would have "envisioned" a nuclear steam engine first as well; such as Jules Verne perhaps, upon discovering that a certain rock 'magically' heats water.
The words BEST OPPORTUNITY in the title are put there on purpose. The question is asking for that.
Thank you for reading the question first.
It is obvious no one would know why certain Uranium samples heat water, and the concept of nuclear fission—radioactivity—would remain a mystery; but we have no idea at all what gravity is today, yet Archimedes of Syracuse used it to lift water up a hill with a screw pump.
To the off-topic "discovery of radioactivity" comments: I can not believe that a brilliant mind who stumbled across rocks heating up a lake would wait until they knew why it works before they started experimenting with it. Some answers are suggesting this is how science works: First, know why it happens. Then, try to experiment with it to see if it is useful. That isn't reasonable, someone was in the best position to become the Thomas Newcomen of nuclear power.