Golden Anniversary of Atomic Age Fifty Years after the Famous Test, Nuclear Power Holds Both Risks and Benefits for Humanity

By Robert C. Cowen, writer of The Christian Science Monitor | The Christian Science Monitor, December 2, 1992 | Go to article overview

Golden Anniversary of Atomic Age Fifty Years after the Famous Test, Nuclear Power Holds Both Risks and Benefits for Humanity


Robert C. Cowen, writer of The Christian Science Monitor, The Christian Science Monitor


FIFTY years ago today, Italian-born physicist Enrico Fermi led the experiment that "fired up" the first nuclear reactor. He demonstrated beyond doubt what many atomic physicists already believed theoretically - humans can ignite and control the sustained release of nuclear energy.

His experimental setup was crude. Precisely placed graphite bricks piled 57 layers high and supported by a wooden frame dominated a squash court beneath the University of Chicago's Stagg Field football stadium. Fifty tons of uranium spheres were distributed at precisely determined locations throughout the 400 tons of graphite in what Dr. Fermi and his colleagues called an "atomic pile." Neutron-absorbing rods were inserted in this "pile" to control the rate of nuclear-fission reactions. The rods - all but one of which were operated by hand - were withdrawn to start the reaction and pushed in to stop it.

This setup was not a prototype for a working nuclear reactor. Yet it demonstrated basic principles that underlie the design of the most advanced nuclear-power reactor today. Its successful operation was one of those rare events that change the world.

As Fermi recalled 10 years later in an article in the Chicago Sun-Times: "The event was not spectacular, no fuses burned, no lights flashed. But to us it meant that release of atomic energy on a large scale would be only a matter of time."

But the world at large did not learn of its new destiny for several years. Secrecy cloaked the experiment as part of the United States atomic-bomb program. Even authorized officials could learn of its success only in guarded terms. Hence the now famous phone call from Nobel laureate Arthur H. Compton, who headed the Chicago phase of the program, to Harvard University chemist James B. Conant.

Dr. Compton reported, "The Italian navigator has landed in the New World." Dr. Conant asked, "How were the natives?" "Very friendly," Compton replied.

Like the arrival of the geographical Italian navigator Columbus 500 years ago, this scientific landfall has turned out to be a mixed blessing. Fermi spoke for many of his fellow atomic scientists when he noted in his Chicago Sun-Times article, "We hoped that perhaps the building of power plants, production of radioactive elements for science and medicine would become the paramount objects." But, given the cold-war hostilities of that time, he sadly acknowledged that "fabrication of weapons still is and must be the primary concern."

In spite of the military emphasis of the early atomic age, many nuclear experts also talked optimistically of the potential benefits of what they called "the peaceful atom." They foresaw an era of abundant energy. But Conant warned of the atom's darker side.

He told the American Chemical Society's 1951 diamond jubilee dinner: "I see ... neither an atomic holocaust nor the golden-age abundance of the atomic age. On the contrary, I see worried humanity endeavoring by one political device or another to find a way out of the atomic age." He added that holocaust would be avoided "only by the narrowest of margins.... And only because ... the military advisers could not guarantee ultimate success."

Looking back over the first half century of this atomic age in which he has played a leading role, nuclear chemist and Nobel laureate Glenn Seaborg of the University of California at Berkeley concludes that "probably, on the whole, it's been for the good of mankind."

Conant's prophecy is being fulfilled as the nuclear powers work together to reduce their weapons stockpiles. Plenty of those weapons still exist. But efforts to control them now proceed in an international climate in which the United States is buying fissionable material from Russian warheads to be diluted and burned in nuclear-power plants. …

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