Then Aladdin brought out the lamp and rubbed it, and straightaway appeared a Genie asking, “How may I serve you, oh Master.”
Sixty-nine years ago, the world was changed forever. With a blinding flash and a deafening roar, the most devastating device known to man was detonated over the Japanese city of Hiroshima. The result was consummate destruction and the killing or maiming of over 100,000 human beings. The date was August 6, 1945, just three weeks after the first test of an atomic bomb in the New Mexico desert.
“Scientists have now known sin,” mused J. Robert Oppenheimer, director of the famed Manhattan project that produced the atomic bomb. But the sin was not in the discovery of the atomic genie: the sin was in its use. Indeed, no scientific discovery in all of human history has such an awesome potential for either good or evil.
In the heady days following the Potsdam conference (July 17 to August 2, 1945) and the Hiroshima blast, the United States emerged as the sole possessor of nuclear technology. Only the U.S. had the bomb and only the U.S. had the sophisticated facilities needed to quickly develop the atom for a multitude of peaceful purposes.
The atomic genie was immediately touted as good for a myriad of applications in medicine, agriculture, and industry. And true to its promise, the nuclear genie has offered mankind gifts ranging from radio-tracer studies of crops and nutrients to atomic-powered heart pace-makers. The past 69 years have indeed seen millions of the earth’s inhabitants benefit from the secrets of the atom.
The promise of cheap, abundant power from the atom also loomed on the horizon in 1945. And today, with the worldwide energy crisis, there is an increased impetus of the development of nuclear energy sources. Yet the promise of cheap and clean power has been assailed as a risk-filled route to reactor roulette.
There may, however, be another energy option – nuclear fusion. Power derived from the splitting of atoms in nuclear fission has two major disadvantages: (1) the fission process, produces large amounts of intensely radioactive waste: (2) the amount of fissionable material available on earth could conceivable be used up in just a few decades.
By contrast, the combining of atoms in nuclear fission releases four times as much energy as fission (on a pound for pound basis) and has neither of the above disadvantages. Only mildly radioactive materials are produced in nuclear fusion, and the raw materials necessary (primarily heavy hydrogen) are copiously abundant in the world’s oceans.
Unfortunately, nuclear fusion has one major drawback: No one has yet achieved a controlled fusion reaction on a significant scale. The energy put in has always exceeded the energy taken out.
The problem is that in order to get fusion to take place, hydrogen atoms must be heated to more than 100,000,000 degrees centigrade. Such temperatures are found only in the stars, gigantic fusion furnaces which are held together by their own gravity. On earth, such temperatures are created only during an atomic bomb explosion, or by means of a powerful laser pulse.
So far, some success has been achieved, and laser fusion expert Charles Gilbert believes a break-through may be made in the next few years. But progress has been slow. Yet the hope remains that man will eventually succeed in creating a controlled “mini-star” on earth and thus tap what is often considered the fundamental energy source of the physical universe. If so, mankind will have a virtually unlimited source of clean power – power that, even at 100 times the current consumption, would last for 10 billion years.
The term “peaceful nuclear explosion” is a mockery and a sham (if not a contradiction in terms) to many people, especially in the after-math of India’s and Pakistan “peaceful” entry into the nuclear weapons club. To be sure, the technology needed for a peaceful explosion is virtually identical to that needed for a military nuclear bomb. Yet many scientists believe in using nuclear bombs for a wide variety of peaceful projects. Underground nuclear explosions could, in the opinion of some, prepare shale oil for in situ processing, stimulate the flow of natural gas, or create storage caverns for natural gas and oil.
By far the most ambitious application of such peaceful nukes is Project Pacer. In the Pacer technique, thermonuclear devices would be fired inside huge partly water-filled cavities leached out of salt domes. Through the use of a heat exchanger, the radioactive stream from the cavity
For a 2,000-megawatt facility, two 50-kiloton nukes would be detonated each day, or roughly 750 each year, all within the same cavity! Some experts challenge whether there are really any benefits to be gained from peaceful nuclear explosions. William Epstein, Special Fellow at the United Nations Institute for Training and Research, is skeptical about it. ”Such operations would be extremely costly as well as hazardous,” explains Epstein, “and no practical way of dealing with the radioactive by-products” has yet been discovered.”
Perhaps Epstein is correct; perhaps such projects as the Pacer “shortcut” to fusion energy may face insuperable technical problems. But the very idea of quite literally taming the stupendous power of the hydrogen bomb cannot help but bring to mind the word of Genesis 11:6: “And now nothing will be restrained form them, which they have imagined to do.”
Of course, it was inevitable that other nations would seek to utilize the services of the atomic genie. Russia, officially “went nuclear” with an A-bomb explosion in 1949, and since then Britain, France, China, India, Pakistan, Israel, North Korea and South Africa have joined the nuclear weapons club.
But at least until recently, there remained a certain mild optimism that “pressure” from the super-powers (and international agreement like that Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty) could successfully hold the line at five or six nuclear weapons powers. Even if many “nuclear-weapons-capable” countries existed. It was hoped that none would opt for atomic weapons.
Today, that optimism no longer exists. Nuclear experts almost unanimously expect that there will be nuclear-weapons-powered nations numbers 10, 11, 12 and eventually numbers 20, 30 and 40.
These expectations, according to nuclear authority Lincoln P. Bloomfield “could be a snowballing fatalistic belief that becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy unless it is countered by a different belief that is equally potent.” Yet given recent developments, more than 19 nations already have 440 power-producing reactors and more than 23 other countries have plants under construction or on the drawing board, it is hard to find much to be optimistic about.
Widespread weapons proliferation is sure to follow on the heels of commercial nuclear power facilities,” contends Denis Hayes former senior researcher at the Worldwatch Institute and author of a report called “Nuclear Power: the Fifth Horseman.” “The world’s nuclear arsenal already contains the equivalent of more than 25 billion tons of TNT,” adds Hayes, “With each additional finger on the nuclear trigger, the chances of an accidental or intentional nuclear war grows greater.” Of course, no country wants to be placed in a position of perceived inferiority to others. If a neighbor or a rival country goes nuclear, a tremendous pressure is exerted to do likewise (case in point India and Pakistan). As a result, more and more nations realize the potential psychological, political and economic values of enlisting the power of the atomic genie.
Red China, for example, was deliberately ignored by the great powers until she went nuclear, at which time China’s international stock rose precipitously. Little wonder then that in introducing a bill calling on the Argentine government to build a nuclear bomb, one legislator declared: “Recent events have demonstrated that nations gain increasing recognition in the international arena in accordance with their power.”
Much attention has been given to the possibility of countries (such as Iran) of taking the nuclear option on the sly or under the guise of “peaceful” research. But increasingly the probability looms that a nation will openly decide to acquire nuclear weapons capability for reasons which since time immemorial have driven nations to seek prestige, influence, power and equality (North Korea).
In a world where dozens of nations have nuclear weapons, the danger of atomic warfare increases drastically. Apart from the danger of the outbreak of such nuclear war by design, there is the more likely possibility of its happening as the result of accident, miscalculation, or sheer madness.
“I would like to remind you of an old but pertinent story,” observes Dr. Edward Teller, one of the sages of nuclear energy. “Adam ate the apple of knowledge and was expelled from paradise. It is true that all knowledge is not dangerous. It is also true that we must work hard, using our heads and hearts as well as our hands, if knowledge is to bear good fruit. It is not true that we should abstain from knowledge or from the practical applications of this knowledge.”
Dr. Fred Ikle, former director of the U.S. Arms Control and Disarmament Agency, puts it somewhat differently. “It is as if mankind has been burdened by a curse, “says Ikle. The fruit of the Tree of Knowledge – the great accomplishment of our nuclear scientists –holds both promise and threat: it can keep alive our civilization and it can destroy it.”
For good or evil, the atomic genie has escaped from the lamp – “Choose life or death,” say the Genie, “whatsoever pleases thee.”