Cutting Graphite for the BGRR

After reading a February 2007 article in BNL's newspaper, The Bulletin, on the August 1947 ground-breaking for the Brookhaven Graphite Research Reactor (BGRR), retiree Tyrell S. Wilson, Jr., sent in the following reminiscence.

In 1947, I applied for a machinist job with Liberty Motors in Bethpage, Long Island. I was told that the company was operating a machine shop in Brookhaven National Lab. They had openings, and Upton, where the Lab was sited, was very close to where I lived. I applied and got hired to work on the ‘pile’ — the new graphite reactor.

Graphite cutting for BGRR

This 1948 photo shows men wearing cotton gloves and cutting blocks of graphite on a bandsaw before the graphite was used in the reactor. Each piece needed to be cut into shape so it would fit in the reactor properly. Tyrell S. Wilson, Jr. is third from left, in the act of cutting the graphite.

Security at the Lab was very stringent.* The badges were color-coded, and you had to stay in your area and not wander around. Security checked you in, and at the end of the shift you were checked out. If you didn’t check out, they went looking for you. One time, the bolts on my car’s drive shaft loosened and the drive shaft dropped. Security found me and I had to call my father to come and tow the car home. We could not leave it on site.

The graphite was handled with cotton gloves because the oils in your hands could contaminate it. We had drums of cotton gloves to change when necessary. The graphite came in slabs of approximately 4 ft. by 8 ft. by about 6 inches, as I recall. The pieces were rough-cut to size on a band saw. They were then machined to size, using Simplex and Duplex and conventional milling machines. On our lunch hour, we would sit on the loading platform and watch the pouring of the base for the stack.

The work lasted one to two years, I think. At the termination of the job, we were told that we could stay on if the custodial foreman appeared. We couldn’t find him, so we left the site.

I returned about 16 years later in February 1965, when Republic Aviation, where I worked, was going out of business. I started as a Plant Maintenance custodian, then transferred to machine maintenance in Central Shops. In 1968, I moved again, to become a firefighter in the Fire Department, from which I retired in 1988 [as a Firefighter/Emergency Medical Technician].

Wilson told the Bulletin staff that a group photo of his graphite-cutting team used to be on the wall of the old reactor, Bldg. 701. The Bulletin investigated and with the aid of present 701 inhabitants — Kathy Schoenig and Frank Mitchell of Environmental Restoration Projects — found the photo and caption still stuck, frameless, halfway up the old concrete staircase, presumably after almost 60 years. Once scanned, the photo was returned and is now back in its place.

*A fascinating description of the political ins and outs of early security at the Lab and how it was eventually relaxed is found in "Making Physics, the history of BNL’s first 25 years," by Robert Crease, now Chair of the Philosophy Department at Stony Brook University.

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Tyrell Wilson, Jr.

Tyrell Wilson, Jr.

A May 1948 view of “the pile” as the Brookhaven Graphite Research Reactor was called.

BGRR under construction

BGRR graphite blocks being assembled.

Graphite Blocks