Recently an Atomic Insights reader shared a document that inspired a new line of thinking about the chronology of atomic energy development.
The inspirational document was a PDF copy of a chapter titled Little Red Schoolhouse from Freeman Dyson‘s memoir, Disturbing the Universe. It was a brief tale about a memorable burst of creativity in the company of 30-40 free-thinkers who spent the summer of 1956 in San Diego in a rented school building conceiving new ideas for marketable nuclear power sources and research tools.
In addition to Dyson, the group included Ted Taylor and Edward Teller. They had been called together by Frederic de Hoffmann, who had spent the fall of 1955 persuading the top management of the General Dynamics corporation that the time had arrived for the company to get involved in the commercial development of atomic energy products.
“Freddy” de Hoffman had a solid basis for his recommendation. He had just returned from the first Atoms for Peace conference held in Geneva, Switzerland in August 1955. In addition to attending the conference, de Hoffman had been one of the two American members of the group of 17 international experts chosen to curate the technical program for the conference by reviewing and selecting the papers to be presented. In that position he saw not only the ideas that made the cut to be presented, but others that were in earlier stages of maturity.
Dyson reported that he was invited to join the group based on a previous encounter with Edward Teller, even though he had never had anything to do with nuclear energy. He accepted the invitation because he wanted the chance to work with Teller and because he had carried a vision about the potential of almost unlimited quantities of atomic energy since 1937. His vision did not come from a fictional work like H. G. Wells’s classic The World Set Free, but from a book of lectures by one of the leading scientists in Great Britain that he had read as a boy growing up in Winchester.
Here is how Dyson described the impact of that book on his thinking.
Eddington the astronomer, in the book New Pathways in Science, which I read as a boy in Winchester, not only warned us against nuclear bombs but promised us nuclear power stations. here is the happier side of his vision of the future:
We build a great generating station of, say, a hundred thousand kilowatts capacity, and surround it with wharves and sidings where load after load of fuel is brought to feed the monster. My vision is that some day these fuel arrangements will no longer be needed; instead of pampering the appetite of the engine with delicacies like coal and oil, we shall induce it to work on a plain diet of subatomic energy. If that day ever arrives, the barges, the trucks, the cranes will disappear, and the year’s supply of fuel for the power station will be carried in a tea-cup.
This vision had always remained vivid in my mind, together with the warning against the military use of subatomic energy which appears a few pages later in the book. Eddington used the word “subatomic” to describe what we now call nuclear or atomic energy. We all knew even in 1937 that the world would soon run out of coal and oil. The possible availability of nuclear energy to satisfy the peaceful needs of mankind was one of the few hopeful prospects in a dark period of history.
(Source: Dyson, Freeman, Disturbing the Universe, p. 94)
Like the vast majority of the world’s population, Dyson believed that developing an abundant, incredibly dense source of energy would be a boon to mankind. Like so many of the straight-talking people I talk or correspond with, however, he appears to have been unable to envision how the people who own or operate “the barges, the trucks, the cranes,” or who control access to the “delicacies like coal and oil” might react to protect themselves from being made obsolete.
I had heard about Eddington and his prediction about subatomic energy before reading that passage. Almost two years ago, I mentioned him in a post titled Smoking Gun Research Continuing in Earnest, describing how he given an address at the 1930 meeting of the World Power Conference. His talk included a phrase so memorable in the collective mind of the energy industry leaders that it still appears prominently on the history page of the World Energy Council.
In his address, Eddington said that in the future “subatomic energy would provide the plain diet for engines previously pampered with delicacies like coal and oil.”
I’d searched in vain to find the full talk, but Dyson’s mention gave me the clue I needed. A few keystrokes, a click or two, and $10 later I was able to begin reading Eddington’s lectures to find out more about the discoveries that had given him the ability — well before 1930 — to confidently predict in print and at internationals gatherings of businessmen, politicians that subatomic energy existed, could be released for either vast good or harmful weapons, and would someday reduce the market’s appetite for coal and oil.
Despite my decades of interest in atomic energy and its history, I had not thought much about the fact that a whole segment of the scientific community was absolutely sure that “subatomic” energy could be released based on their studies of heat and light production from stars.
I have called it a vision; but to the astronomer it means much more than an extravagant flight of theory. We look up at the sky and our telescopes show a thousand million stars. Everyone of those is a celestial furnace which apparently defies the law that limits our terrestrial undertakings–that if you do not continually replenish your furnace it will die out. Geological, physical, biological evidence seems to make it certain that the sun has warmed the earth for more than a thousand million years; but the calculation first made by Kelvin still stands incontrovertible that the sun’s heat cannot have been maintained for more than twenty million years unless it is being fed from some secret store of energy of a kind unknown in his day. By all ordinary rules the sidereal universe which we see blazing with light should have long since been cold and dead. None of the sources of power utilised by our present civilization could have kept it alive for more than a small fraction of the time it is known to have existed. It seems then quite plain that the “cup of water” method of maintenance is actually in operation in the stars, or that there is some partial adaptation of it. To the engineer the prolific liberation of subatomic energy is a Utopian dream; to the physicist it is a pleasant speculation; but to the astronomer it is just a common well-recognized phenomenon which it is his business to investigate.
(Source: Eddington, Sir Arthur, M.A.,D.Sc., LL.D., F.R.S., New Pathways in Science, Messenger Lectures delivered to Cornell University, 1934. Printed in Great Britain. p. 137)
A more cynical man — like me — might have included a mention that “to a coal or oil businessman, the prolific liberation of subatomic energy is an existential nightmare which it is his business to block as long as possible.”
For astronomers, subatomic energy was a demonstrated fact; they had no doubt that it could be made to work on Earth someday.
By 1956, when Dyson and his visionary friends were devising new ways to beneficially use atomic energy, other scientists and engineers had discovered how to release and control atomic energy. There were submarines plying the world’s oceans using nuclear energy and several reactors had already produced useful electricity for grid distribution.
It was during that same hopeful summer that the Rockefeller Foundation-sponsored National Academy of Sciences committee on the Biological Effects of Atomic Radiation (BEAR) was putting the finishing touches on a report with “findings” and recommendations that continue to discourage people from replacing coal and oil with atomic energy. As the BEAR Genetics subcommittee’s heavily promoted report concluded:
We ought to keep all of our expenditures of radiation as low as possible. Of the upper limit of ten roentgens suggested in Recommendation C, we are at present spending about one-third for medical X-rays. We are at present spending less–probably under one roentgen–for weapons testing. We may find it desirable or even almost obligatory that we spend a certain amount on atomic power plants. But we must watch and guard all our expenditures. From the point of view of genetics, they are all bad.
A similar committee working in Great Britain, another nation whose wealth and political power was tied to petroleum production and financing, produced a similar report at the same time.
People who regularly read Atomic Insights have heard this story before, but it’s important to review the highlights.
The Genetics Committee, one of six subcommittees of the BEAR committee, was chaired by Warren Weaver, the director of natural science programs for the Rockefeller Foundation. His committee included 12 carefully selected geneticists, at least 7 of whom had received significant financial support from his program at the RF.
Hermann J. Muller, a Nobel Prize winning scientist who owed his career to Rockefeller Foundation grants and academic endorsements, came to the first meeting of the committee prepared with an assertion that there was no threshold for damage from radiation. He had been on the stump with that assertion for at least a decade. Unbeknownst to almost everyone, that assertion had been disproven by experiments that he oversaw.
In order to defend his position regarding the lack of a threshold for radiation damage he had cooperated with several others, including Curt Stern and to obscure the results of those experiments. (Calabrese, E.J., How the US National Academy of Sciences misled the world community on cancer risk assessment: new findings challenge historical foundations of the linear dose response, Arch Toxicol (2013) 87 p 2064)
The BEAR Genetics committee members deferred to Muller’s authority and spent the rest of their meetings devising methods to estimate the slope of the line. Their estimates of radiation risk varied by almost three orders of magnitude. Some of the committee members refused to provide estimates because there was so little experimental data available and what little was available provided massively divergent results. The disagreements among the committee members were obscured in the final report by discarding the low effects estimates and by failing to note the refusal of some of the members to provide an estimate. (Calabrese, E.J., On the origins of the linear no-threshold (LNT) dogma by means of untruths, artful dodges and blind faith, Environmental Research, 142 (2015) p. 437)
Though there is far more to the story to tell, a few more facts are worth noting in this brief summary. The effort by the NAS to study and produce a publicly promoted report on the biological effects of atomic radiation was initiated and funded by the Rockefeller Foundation. As the sole funding source for the studies, which lasted from 1954-1962, the RF provided the study charges to the National Academy of Sciences.
They stacked the deck by placing the man in charge of their grant program in the role of Chairman of a key subcommittee and providing several of their steadily supported scientists to serve on the committee. They achieved a desirable–for them–result of producing a clearly worded, extremely credible report that instilled enough fear of radiation to permanently hamper the development of the technology.
The fear produced a predictable call for multiple layers of protection and approvals that were never applied to technology with greater proven harm, all because a committee of their creation had asserted that all doses of radiation cause harm even if that predicted harm couldn’t ever be detected. There is nothing like an unseen, undetectable, incurable agent that might lead to damage to distant generations to cause long-term psychosis.
The RF had all of the means, motive and opportunity needed to create the fear, uncertainty and doubt campaign. There is documentary evidence that the participants in the creation of the key 1956 report were at least partly motivated by their desire for increased funding. There is also indication that they were promised that those increases would follow their agreement to go along with the report. (Calabrese, E.J., On the origins of the linear no-threshold (LNT) dogma by means of untruths, artful dodges and blind faith, Environmental Research, 142 (2015) p. 438)
It’s time to discard the no threshold model and to recognize that there is no evidence that supports the hypothesis that all radiation, no matter how low the dose, is bad. In fact, there is a growing body of evidence to support the contrary result. At certain doses and dose rates, ionizing radiation stimulates adaptive protection systems. When received at a dose rate on the order of 0.1-0.2 cGy/day, it is an antioxidant that makes us healthier.
Until the publication of the carefully crafted, economically motivated report of the NAS BEAR I genetics committee, the low dose stimulatory effect of radiation had been recognized and accepted by nearly all radiation scientists. That acceptance was based on observational evidence of human responses, not on falsified reports of high dose experiments conducted on fruit flies.