The Atom Bomb Part 3: Its Technological Legacy
After World War II the benefits of atomic power seemed virtually unlimited, if only we could control it and ourselves. Half a century later we’re still here—and still burning coal.
FEW TECHNOLOGIES HAVE TOPPED nuclear energy in its capacity to bring forth sweeping predictions of either doom or nirvana. Either we were going to blow ourselves up or, as Lewis Strauss of the Atomic Energy Commission suggested in 1954, we would have electric power too cheap to be worth metering. In the heady days of the 1950s and 1960s, the possibilities of a fuel that packed 400,000 times the wallop of TNT seemed endless. Visionaries spoke of atomic-powered ships, airplanes, and trains; food preserved indefinitely by irradiation; the use of nuclear explosions in mining and excavation; portable atomic generators; even atomic desalination of seawater. Some writers predicted that the wondrous atom would make material goods so plentiful that war and social unrest would disappear. From the perspective of half a century, though, we can say that the consequences of controlled fission have been both modest and ironic.
There is particular irony in noting that the industries most closely associated with atomic research—nuclear power and space flight—have had only limited significance in American life. Other activities of very great importance have grown from such studies: computers and commercial airliners, for example. However, their nuclear links are much less direct; we might say that they came out the Manhattan Project’s back door. The research behind them would have been done anyway because of its importance in its own right. As for the weapons themselves, no one has been able to find much military value in them except as a last-ditch threat. Eike the poison gas of World War I, nuclear arms are too horrible and unselective to have any place in regular warfare.
Nuclear power holds a solid place in the world, with more than two dozen nations operating power reactors. The 2.1 trillion kilowatt-hours that these plants produced in 1993 exceeds the world’s total generated electricity, from all sources, as recently as 1959. Yet the atom today accounts for no more than 17 percent of the whole, and this share is not likely to increase. There were 430 plants in operation worldwide at the end of 1993, virtually unchanged from the figure of 426 four years earlier. With many former communist countries hoping to shut their unsafe reactors and only Japan and South Korea planning significant numbers of new ones, reductions are likely in the future.
In 1945 the promise of nuclear power seemed boundless: Vast amounts of energy would come from a tiny bit of fuel. In the ensuing decades nation after nation has found extracting that energy to be more trouble than it’s worth. Nuclear reactors can be competitive with conventional plants—even slightly cheaper if you fiddle with your projections enough—but the idea of unlimited power virtually free is a mirage. Fuel costs are indeed low, but the other expenses build up fast.
Nuclear fission is a messy business that requires shielding, coolant, containment vessels, and elaborate safety equipment, as well as a lot of highly trained personnel and regulatory review. It also creates nasty waste products by the ton and large decommissioning costs when a plant wears out after forty years or so. All these concerns, while legitimate, can be dealt with, but they tend to be magnified by an excitable public, and the list of countries where public opinion can be ignored has been dwindling considerably of late. In specialized applications, such as military submarines, where the fuel question is critical and cost and public exposure are minor concerns, nuclear power has found a niche. For running the toasters and hair dryers of America, its advantages have been minimal. Barring sudden public alarm about carbon dioxide emissions, they seem likely to remain so.
ONLY ONE MAJOR NATION, FRANCE, HAS MADE A REAL commitment to nuclear power, relying on the atom for close to 80 percent of its kilowatt-hours. Belgium and Sweden are around 50 percent, but both plan large cutbacks by the early 200Os; Britain and Germany are rather less active, at 25 percent. Japan stands at 30 percent, yet although that nation has virtually no domestic fuel reserves, the Japanese are expanding their fleet of reactors only modestly. As for the United States, our 109 plants in operation are a legacy of decisions made in prior decades. Even before the 1979 accident at Three Mile Island, the utility industry had virtually ceased to order new reactors, and afterward it canceled nearly 100 plants that had been on order. Since 1974 no nuclear power plant has been ordered without later being canceled.
Space flight stands as a second legacy of the atom. The world’s launch vehicles, including the space shuttle, grew out of the nuclear-tipped ICBM programs of the 1950s. To this day our unmanned launchers—Atlas, Titan, and Delta—are the direct descendants of the long-range missiles of the Air Force. Yet these rockets and astronauts have done little to transform our lives. As with the power reactor, space flight has found no more than a modest economic role. Communications satellites are important, but today they face strong competition from fiber optics. Weather satellites address only a specialized niche. And manned space flight, that focus of so much hope and excitement, plays no role whatever in our lives.
No such caveats attach to two other nuclear legacies, the jet airliner and the computer, both of which descend from the Manhattan Project. The technical basis of today’s jetliners lies in the engines, bombers, and tankers of the Strategic Air Command (SAC), which arose during the postwar years as America’s instrument of nuclear striking power. (SAC carried the A-bomb, much as the ICBM carried the H-bomb.) The programmable computer, in turn, sprang from the wartime work of John Von Neumann, who was deeply involved in using electronics to compute the extremely intricate dynamics of the plutonium implosion bomb and later of the hydrogen bomb.
Yet for both these technologies the nuclear link has been largely a matter of happenstance. Well before Hiroshima the heavy bomber had already come to the fore as a war-winning weapon; jet aircraft held a high priority for development as early as 1943. Even without the atomic bomb, turbojet engines and jet bombers would still have gone forward with strong Air Force support. As for the computer, its development never received more than limited funding from the Atomic Energy Commission. Instead it advanced chiefly within IBM and other firms as a commercial enterprise, with its designers stirred by the rapidly growing power of postwar electronics. Had the atom gone unsplit, airliners and computers would still have emerged via other paths—unlike the space program, whose background indeed lay with the military and depended on the existence of enormously destructive weapons.
There remains the matter of proliferation and the risk of nuclear war. Still, the last nation to join the nuclear club in a big way was China, more than thirty years ago. India (which set off a single atomic bomb in 1974), Pakistan, Israel, Iraq, and North Korea all have nuclear-weapons programs in some stage of development, prompted in each case by regional power struggles. Yet even during the Cold War, when the Soviets were fond of fishing in the troubled waters of the Middle East, such threats proved manageable. In today’s world, with the United States as its sole superpower, they may well pose even fewer problems.
Without question, nuclear research has had numerous and substantial benefits, from the reactor-born isotopes used in nuclear medicine to the americium in your smoke detector. Yet both of those rely on tiny amounts of expensive substances; with the exception of the beleaguered power industry, nuclear science has not made the jump to large-scale applications. Among postwar technological developments, fiber optics, computers, television, even polymer chemistry have transformed our lives as much or more. The Manhattan Project will always remain an impressive scientific and technological achievement, because its technical basis was so esoteric and because of the speed with which it got everything done. Subsequent events have shown, however, that in most cases atomic energy is too fearsome in war and too unwieldy in peace to define an era the way bronze, iron, and steam did in the past.