The Yin and Yang of Nuclear Energy

A recent letter in The Japan Times complained that opponents of nuclear power always conflate good nuclear power (electricity) with bad nuclear power (bombs). This blog is guilty as charged, and it’s a valid question to ask, but unfortunately, there are some very good reasons why you can’t have your yin without your yang. Seriously, viewing the photo above of the Fukushim Dai-ichi Unit 3 detonation, who wouldn’t be terrified by both the civilian and military uses of nuclear energy?
To understand why the two co-exist requires a look at the origins of nuclear energy. The history shows that during the days of discovery, no one had the faintest thought of using nuclear fission to boil water, even though it wasn’t too hard to imagine how the chain reaction could be moderated. The history also shows that a vast, expensive infrastructure for building weapons had to exist before nuclear power plants were built – mostly as an afterthought justification for having made the weapons complex.
Consider how hard it has been to get modern civilization off its addiction to fossil fuels. There has been no transformative, massive investment in renewable energy, and the likely reason is that it has no potential for massively destructive weapons that would change the balance of power in the world.
Imagine that the discovery of fission had happened during peacetime. Instead of Einstein writing a letter to President Roosevelt warning that the Germans might build a terrible new weapon, he would have been asking for government subsidies for a new kind of energy that some friends were trying to launch in a start-up company. He would have explained that a multibillion-dollar infrastructure was needed to set up the mining, processing and power stations. Massive fossil fuel-burning generating stations would be needed to run the enrichment facilities. The outcome would be uncertain, and the details worked out along the way. Oh, and by the way, devastating military applications would be possible, but a system of global surveillance could ensure that no nation ever submitted to the temptation to make such a weapon. Furthermore, the used fuel would be the most toxic thing ever known, and potentially a weapon of mass destruction. A way to dispose of it would have to be worked out. Devastating accidents could happen that would have catastrophic effects on populations and food supplies. We don’t yet understand what this stuff does to living tissue, but it’s just a matter of control. What do you think? This could be the way of the future.
The opinion you have about to this speculation depends on your theory of human nature. No one can say what would happen in this alternate reality, but my conclusion is that there is no leader now or ever who would have supported this start-up. The likely response would have been, “Spare me the science fiction nonsense, but tell me more about the weapons.” As it was, the most Einstein ever said about making electricity from nuclear energy was that it was “one hell of a way to boil water.”
Another interesting speculative question is whether any nation would have built nuclear infrastructure if the implications had been thoroughly discussed and put to a vote. The Manhattan Project was carried out in secrecy under the leadership of General Leslie Groves, without the knowledge of Congress, and $2 billion was spent on a massive system of laboratories, mines, factories and enrichment facilities. The political leaders didn’t understand the science or the health dangers, and the scientists naively believed the bomb would be used to deter a Nazi nuclear attack. They were shocked, shocked to realize that the $2-billion bomb would have to be used to justify its cost and to make a show of strength to the Soviets.
The American public has always excused this Manhattan Project secrecy as a necessity of the war, but nonetheless it was one massive blank check that wasn’t really essential. The Americans quickly realized that enormous generating stations and industrial plants were required, not to mention access to lots of uranium ore, and the USSR, Germany and Japan all lacked the prerequisites, under the conditions that existed from 1943-45. America was the only country that had the capacity. By the spring of 1945, Germany had surrendered and General Groves was worried that Japan would be done too before “the gadget” was ready. The outcome of the war would not have been much different without the bomb.
Few historians believe anymore that the atomic bombs were essential to end the war. There was no CNN in those days, so most of Japan barely knew anything had happened. The generals in Tokyo had heard only vague reports of a terrifying new kind of weapon, but they didn’t know enough about it to be scared of it, and they certainly didn’t care about the fate of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. It was just two more bombed out cities after all the others that had been bombed by conventional methods.
After the Nagasaki bomb the generals still wanted to fight on, and if they had had a chance to call a bluff and see if the Americans would drop another one, they would have found out that there weren’t any more. (The Bikini Islanders still had 11 months to enjoy their homeland before the next bomb was ready for them.) The surrender happened only because some cabinet members were able to get around the military leadership, sneak the recording of the Emperor’s speech out of the palace, and get it on the radio. According to historian Tsuyoshi Hasegawa, what really got the political leadership to surrender was the entry of the USSR into the war in August 1945. They concluded, predictably, that going with the capitalists would be the lesser of two evils.
As late as 1995 (and still now for a large segment of the population), this was still a wild, revisionist theory in America. A proposed exhibit at the Smithsonian, commemorating the 50th. anniversary of the atomic bombings, was to present a contextualized, multifaceted approach to the interpretation of the history, but political opposition shut it down. It was offensive to veterans to suggest that factors beside the bombs had an influence in ending the war.
The standard defense is that the bombings were justified because they eliminated the necessity of a land invasion in which hundreds of thousands would die. Some even suggested there would have been a million American casualties. The trouble with this reasoning is that it ignores an obvious possibility: pack up and go home if you don’t want to invade. The war was already over. Japan could no longer wage war outside its territories, it could not have held on to Korea and Taiwan, and it was under blockade. The threat of Soviet invasion would have made Japan come begging for an American occupation, which is basically what really motivated the actual surrender. 
   Thus the atomic bombings were a sideshow, but a nice demonstration of American power to usher in the post-war world. The entire Manhattan Project seems like a series of events that spun out of control and went beyond any outcome that anyone imagined at the outset. It expanded like as a headless monster, and the mission creep has continued all the way to Fukushima and the present nuclear standoff with Iran.

Colonel: What’s that you’ve got written on your helmet?
Private Joker: ‘Born to Kill’, Sir.
Colonel: You write ‘Born to Kill’ on your helmet and you wear a peace button. What’s that supposed to be, some sick joke?...
Private Joker: I think I was trying to suggest something about the duality of man, sir.
Colonel: The what?
Private Joker: The duality of man. You know – the Jungian thing, sir.

Stanley Kubrick (dir.) Full Metal Jacket. 1987

There are problems with speculating about how things might have happened under different circumstances, but it is worthwhile to run such thought experiments. I find it hard to believe that humanity would have first tried to harness nuclear energy for anything other than weapons. The struggle to establish renewable energy has shown that the fossil fuel paradigm would not allow itself to be threatened by such a novel, risky and expensive undertaking as nuclear power, which requires energy inputs from fossil fuels in any case. Using nuclear energy to produce electricity was a side-benefit promoted to soften the criticism of the nuclear arms race and ease the conscience of the scientists who had contributed to the destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and it was made affordable only by the pre-existing infrastructure for weapons. Once nuclear power plants exist, they are all plutonium factories that add to the risk of nuclear weapons proliferation and fill the world with nuclear waste for which there is still no disposal solution. We could imagine a world with nuclear weapons and no nuclear power plants, but not vice versa.

The secret revealed in August 1945 shouldn't be considered to have been a total a surprise at the time. News headlines from 1939-43 (below) told the world about the coming nuclear age, and a Scientific American issue from 1939 (excerpted below the table) recounted the discovery of uranium fission by Otto Hahn in December, 1938. The article explicitly describes the possibility of developing a new kind of weaponry.

Articles about Uranium Fission Reported in The New York Times before Manhattan Project Censorship took hold completely:

·      Vast Energy Freed by Uranium Atom; Split, It Produces 2 'Cannonballs,' Each of 100,000,000 Electron Volts Hailed as Epoch Making, New Process, Announced at Columbia, Uses Only 1-30 Volt to Liberate Big Force. Jan. 31, 1939.
·      The Week in Science; When Uranium Splits Doubtful Source of Power Cancer and X-Rays Neutron Possibilities News Notes. March 5, 1939.
·      Vision Earth Rocked by Isotope Blast; Scientists Say Bit of Uranium Could Wreck New York. April 30, 1939.
·      Release Largest Store Known on Earth A ‘Philosopher’s Stone’ When Separated in Pure Form It Can Yield 235 Billion Volts Per Atom of Its Own. May 5, 1939.
·      New Key is Found to Atomic Energy; Actino-Uranium Is Credited With Power to A Mixture of Physics and Fantasy. March 17, 1940.
·   Vast Power Source in Atomic Energy Opened by Science; Report on New Source of Power. May 5, 1940.
·      Third Way to Split Atom Is Found By Halving Uranium and Thorium; Scientists at University of California Say Cleavage Creates Much Energy -- Tokyo Men Also Report Uranium Fission. March 3, 1941.
·      Scientist Reaches London; Dr. N.H.D. Bohr, Dane, Has a New Atomic Blast Invention. October 9, 1943.
·      Research Institute is Seized in Denmark; Germans Are Expected to Work on New Secret Weapon. December 12, 1943.

(List of references made by Korean Minjok Leadership Academy)

Jean Harrington. "Splitting the Atom." Scientific American. October 1939:
“These secondary neutrons constitute a fresh supply of ‘bullets’ to produce new fissions. Thus we are faced with a vicious circle, with one explosion setting off another, and energy being continuously and cumulatively released. It is probable that a sufficiently large mass of uranium would be explosive if its atoms once got well started dividing. As a matter of fact, the scientists are pretty nervous over the dangerous forces they are unleashing, and are hurriedly devising means to control them.
It may or may not be significant that, since early spring, no accounts of research on nuclear fission have been heard from Germany — not even from discoverer Hahn. It is not unlikely that the German government, spotting a potentially powerful weapon of war, has imposed military secrecy on all recent German investigations. A large concentration of isotope 235, subjected to neutron bombardment, might conceivably blow up all London or Paris.”

Other sources:

Philip Nobile (ed.). Judgment at the Smithsonian: The Uncensored Script of the Smithsonian’s 50th Anniversary Exhibit of the Enola Gay. Marlowe and Co.1995.
The Pacific War Research Society. Japan’s Longest Day. Kodansha. 1968.
Tsuyoshi Hasegawa. Racing the Enemy: Stalin, Truman, and the Surrender of Japan. Belknap Press of Harvard University Press. 2006.
Ward Wilson. “The Myth of Nuclear Necessity.” The New York Times. January 13, 2013.

from sources posted on Wikipedia: Debate over the Atomic Bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki:

After the war, Admiral Soemu Toyoda said, "I believe the Russian participation in the war against Japan rather than the atom bombs did more to hasten the surrender." (John Toland, The Rising Sun, Modern Library Paperback Edition, 2003, p.807) Prime Minister Suzuki also declared that the entry of the USSR into the war made "the continuance of the war impossible." (Edward Bunting, World War II Day by Day. Dorling Kindersley Limited, 2001, p.652) Upon hearing news of the event from Foreign Minister Togo, Suzuki immediately said, "Let us end the war", and agreed to finally convene an emergency meeting of the Supreme Council with that aim. The official British history, The War Against Japan, also writes the Soviet declaration of war "brought home to all members of the Supreme Council the realization that the last hope of a negotiated peace had gone and there was no alternative but to accept the Allied terms sooner or later."

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