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Response to NNadir (Reply #4)

Tue Dec 25, 2018, 01:54 AM

5. This fear is very destructive.


You and I agree on the necessity of nuclear power in the face of global warming. I mostly agree with your position on the phantom fears of nuclear power. I think those fears are fed in large part by the nuclear weapons and nuclear weapons industry that is so entwined with nuclear power in America.

Leo Szilard took an amazingly prescient view in turning his patents over to the British admiralty right away and trying to reduce the chance of the Germans acquiring knowledge of them. The potential nobility of his role late in the war of urging the United States to abandon the use of nuclear weapons is tempered by the fact that he helped arrange for Einstein to write the letter to Roosevelt that set the whole thing in motion.

The place where I think it might possibly have changed was Copenhagen 1941. Had Niels Bohr come to a frank understanding with Werner Heisenberg that the Germans would not pursue such a weapon, maybe that would have changed the course of things. As it was, the allies didn't learn that the Germans had made no progress until Heisenberg himself said as much in British captivity. The secret microphones in his prison lodgings caught Heisenberg's reaction and disbelief on hearing of Hiroshima. In such a high stakes environment, with Germany being such a powerhouse in physics at the start of the war, would anyone in the U.S. government have trusted Bohr's word? I doubt it.

A war without the atomic bomb? Would that mean no reactors? Probably Weinberg is right. Production of nuclear fuel took quite a bit of effort. I'm reminded of the encounter between Edward Teller and Bohr at Los Alamos. Progress was well along by then and Bohr, fresh from escaping the Nazis in Europe, had been out of circulation while the vast enterprise was begun. When last they met, Bohr had said the bomb would never get built because enrichment would take a factory the size of a country while Teller was, as always, bullish on nuclear weapons. I'm paraphrasing here, but Teller reached out his hand prepared to say "I told you so," to Bohr who got in the first word instead saying, "See, I told you you would need to make a factory out of a nation to build it."

Physicists in such a world without a bomb would not have had the vast resources they later enjoyed, but science itself was well along toward bigness. Ernest O. Lawrence's cyclotrons were pointing that way and Glenn T. Seaborg and Edwin M. McMillan had used Lawrence's 60-inch Cyclotron to isolate Plutonium in 1940. Space exploration's value as a high platform from which to transport and observe one's enemies would probably have driven science towards bigness. There would have been big money in that as nations grasped at it. Eventually, someone would build a reactor. In my science fiction musings, I imagine what a delay of 20 years might have meant. I cannot imagine anything but disaster in The United States and the Soviet Union acquiring nuclear weapons in the midst of the cold war without the cautionary tales of Hiroshima and Nagasaki to temper their reactions.

And in the end, we have the world we have. We can't wish it away.

Have a happy Christmas and thanks for the interesting articles.


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