What happened to the Chicago-Pile 1 reactor?

The original location of Chicago Pile-1 is now the Henry Moore Nuclear Energy Sculpture Plaza on South Ellis Avenue on the University of Chicago campus. It is one of the most significant sites in the history of nuclear technology and where the majority of Start a Reaction’s artwork was staged.

One of the most important branches of the Manhattan Project was the Metallurgical Laboratory at the University of Chicago. Known simply as the "Met Lab,” the laboratory’s primary role was to design a viable method for plutonium production. Starting in 1939, a team of scientists, including Enrico Fermi, Leo Szilard, Walter Zinn, and Herbert Anderson, conducted experiments at Columbia University using chain-reacting nuclear “piles” to measure the neutron emission from fission. 

An abandoned rackets court underneath Stagg Field in the middle of the University of Chicago campus was chosen as the test site for the experiment. It was selected after reassurances from Fermi that the probability of an accident was minimal.

The Chicago Pile-1 reactor was soon disassembled and rebuilt with concrete radiation-protecting shielding at the nearby Argonne Laboratory as Chicago Pile-2. The experiment not only proved that nuclear energy could generate power but also showed a viable method to produce plutonium. Large-scale reactors, including the X-10 Graphite Reactor at Oak Ridge and the B Reactor at Hanford, were subsequently built with Chicago Pile-1 as a model.

Although Stagg Field would be demolished in 1957, a plaque commemorating Chicago Pile-1 was dedicated for its 5th anniversary. The plaque, which remains there to this day, reads, “On December 2, 1942, man achieved here the first self-sustaining chain reaction and thereby initiated the controlled use of nuclear energy.”

For the 25th anniversary in 1967, British sculptor Henry Moore erected a bronze sculpture on the site of Stagg Field titled “Nuclear Energy.” Moore commented, “Like anything that is powerful, it has a power for good and evil... the lower part [of the sculpture] is more architectural and in my mind has the kind of interior of a cathedral with sort of a hopefulness for mankind.” Today, the site of Chicago Pile-1 is a Chicago Landmark and a National Historic Landmark.

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