On December 2, 1942, a small team of scientists and technicians methodically pulled neutron absorbing rods out of a carefully stacked pile of graphite bricks and natural uranium/uranium oxide spheres. The pile has been assembled in just a few weeks with a total project budget in the range of a few hundred thousand dollars.
The pile behaved exactly as predicted.
I often wonder about how different the course of human society development would have been if that event had not taken place at a time when a whole category of people were being persecuted by a nation full of followers bent on world domination. The scientists who figured out the details of splitting atoms in the period leading up to that demonstration were not thinking about weapons, but about unlocking a vast new source of concentrated, reliable energy that could alleviate suffering for countless people who had little or no access to the warmth and utility of commercial supplies of coal or oil.
At that time, natural gas was rarely used because few pipelines existed. Most of the people who knew about methane considered it to be an enormous hazard; it was the source of countless explosions in coal mines and at oil wells. In almost every case, miners and drillers burned it off as quickly as it came out of the ground.
Though numerous energy commentators seem to believe that there was a time before the Arab Oil Embargo of 1973 when fossil fuel was so abundant and cheap that no one worried about finding alternatives, that view is a complete misunderstanding of the long struggle that mankind has had to find ever better and more available sources of controllable power. There is a reason why there were so many impressive fortunes built around supplying fuel. There is a reason why people referred to the coal industry as King Coal.
The nuclear physicists who unlocked atomic energy generally came from poor enough backgrounds that they had a first-hand understanding of what it was like to shiver through the winter or to not be able to afford to travel freely due to a lack of affordable fuel. They came from a time when people would never dream of being able to flip a switch to have all of the interior lighting they desired. The CP-1 team was full of people who were really excited about the prospects of introducing a new source of power. Sadly, their timing was a little off and wartime thinking turned their amazing tool into a weapon before they had a chance to prove it as a useful, controlled power source.
However, on this anniversary day, I would like to ask you all to think about the gift that the atomic scientists gave the world and think more about all of the good that the gift could do if we unshackle it from the association with fear inspiring weapons. Controlled fission is awe inspiring – 2 million times as energy dense as burning oil and 4-6 million times less waste material to handle.
Society really needs what atomic fission offers. That need is more obvious now than ever before, but even in 1942, there were many people who realized just how important abundant energy would be.
Happy December 2.
PS – Sometime in the next day or so, I will be writing about the event titled University of Chicago Report Rollout on Small Modular Reactors: Key to Future Nuclear Power Generation in the U.S. that I attended yesterday.
Additional Birthday Wishes for Atomic Fission
Nuke Power Talk – Celebrating Many Milestones in December
Atomic Power Review – December 2, 2011 – An anniversary piece