There are incredible archives available to us within a few keystrokes. The following article from the October 22, 1939 edition of the New York Times might be useful to dispel the myth that interest in using atomic energy to replace coal came from a desire to domesticate the atomic bomb.
This is a transcript that is assumed to be public domain as a result of expiration of copyright protection. It was published in 1939, nearly 80 years ago. It predates the start of the Manhattan Project by about a year. Intriguingly, it was published just 11 days after Roosevelt received his first exposure to Einstein’s famous letter about progress in experimental work with uranium and progress towards a controlled chain reaction.
Science in the News
New York Times
October 22, 1939
Atomic Energy From Uranium
In March, 1934, Professor E. Fermi, once of Rome, now of Columbia, discovered that if uranium were bombarded with neutrons new radioactive elements arose. These were supposed to be elements of 93, 94, 95 and 96 in the atomic table. In other words, uranium, which occupied the last place (92) was not the heaviest possible element, as we had been taught. Since Fermi made his announcement, the tenth of a whole series of trans-uranium elements was produced last Summer by Mme. Irene Curie-Joliot. She decided that it was no new element at all, but lanthanium (sic), a rare earth.
Out of Mme. Joliot’s work came the discovery that the other nine trans-uranium elements, which were supposed to be new, are also normal elements. then came the startling announcement of uranium “fission” or division by neutron bombardment. Calculations showed that part of the bombarded uranium should vanish and give rise to enormous bursts of energy. Dr. R. Joliot, Mme. Irene’s husband, found that neutrons used in the initial bombardment were “thermal” neutrons. In other words, they possessed energies about equal to those of ordinary molecules.
Just when the uranium atom splits new fast neutrons are emitted. They have energies of at least 11,000,000 volts, so that uranium bombarded with slow neutrons emits fast ones.
Control of Chain Reaction
Naturally physicists have been wondering if at last the way of utilizing atomic energy is indicated. What would happen if the neutrons were liberated in a lump of uranium large enough to prevent their escape? Theoretical studies showed that one neutron will set off another. Can this chain reaction be controlled?
This question is examined by Douglas W. F. Mayer in the scientific monthly, Discovery (British) and by R. B. Roberts and J. B. H. Kuper in the Journal of Applied Physics (American). Mayer quotes Adler and von Hahn of the College de France to the effect that “the danger than a system containing uranium in high concentrations might explode, once the chain is started, is considerable.” The two have been trying to control the process by diluting the uranium with an absorbent such as cadmium, Mayer reports.
Roberts and Kuper agree that “a chain reaction cannot be ruled out definitively for either slow or fast neutrons,” but decide that “there is no evidence of any kind that such a reaction will really occur.” They throw more cold water over dreamers by showing that uranium has no very great economic advantage over coal even if it could be used. “Uranium oxide (96 per cent pure) sells for approximately $2 a pound, which is roughly equal to the price of a ton of coal at the mine. in terms of energy dollar–uranium is cheaper by a factor of 8.5”
Though this may look good to a financier, Roberts and Kuper point out that as the demand for uranium increases, so does the price. In the end, further refinement would be necessary and the limited supply of high-grade ore would soon be exhausted. “If uranium were to replace 500,000,000 tons of coal used annually in this country,” argue these skeptics, “the amount of uranium consumed would increase 15,000 per cent.”
The above piece from the October 1939 provides evidence that there was publicly available information about atomic energy technology development that was generating interest in finding ways to liberate atomic energy using fission. It provides testimony proving that at least some of the researchers were focused on determining if fission could replace part – or all – of coal combustion.
It also shows that there were status quo defenders who noted that the nascent phenomenon, just discovered at the end of 1938, was still a long way from being ready to replace coal, which was then a primary energy source.
Some talented researchers were diligently pursuing the technology. Science communicators like Waldemar Kaemffert were covering atomic energy developments and were informing their readers about the possibility that atomic fission could be a capable future competitor to coal.
There were no guarantees of success, but articles like this one should torpedo any claims that atomic energy development only happened because of the investments made during the Manhattan Project. In reality, the diversion of such an incredible quantity of human and material resources into the bomb development was far more likely to have constrained atomic energy technology development.
The Manhattan Project consumed the efforts of researchers who would have otherwise been pursuing what was the most exciting scientific field of the time. It moved all of the necessary and useful materials under total government control. It eventually gave the technology a bad name and scared people who should have been excited instead.
It’s time to finally move past the accident of a poorly timed birth to allow atomic energy to seek to fulfill its early promise.