Remembering the Atomic Dream
It would have been a world transformed
The two most consequential developments of the past century were things that did not happen. And they both involved the atom.
The first, obviously, is nuclear war.
I find it astonishing that, between the end of the Second World War and today, the world has not suffered nuclear apocalypse, or a more limited nuclear war, or any use of tactical nuclear weapons on the battlefield. There hasn’t been a single nuclear strike of any size. Or even an accidental detonation (although we came close many times).
The odds of these things happening over that period are debatable, naturally, so perhaps you don’t share my astonishment. But if you look at what statesmen and generals were saying and doing in the early Cold War years, it is clear that if you were to time-travel back and share the good news, the statesmen and generals would be as astonished by the news as the time travel.
The second dog that didn’t bark is less obvious. It is nuclear power.
I understand if you find it strange to think of nuclear power as something that did not happen. There is, after all, lots of nuclear power in the world today. And it has done a lot of good.
Nuclear power currently generates 10% of the world’s electricity. It is the world’s second-largest source of clean electricity (after hydro). Over the past half century, reports the International Energy Association, nuclear power reduced global carbon emissions by 60 gigatonnes. That’s almost as much carbon as all of humanity currently emits over two years, so if nuclear power didn’t exist climate change would be much further advanced. And we would be in even more danger.
(I should also note, for the record, that I am writing this on a computer connected to an electrical grid that gets 60% of its supply from nuclear power. I live in Ontario. Between nuclear and hydro, we have some of the cleanest electricity in the world. Remarkably, most Ontarians don’t know that. Many don’t even know that nuclear power doesn’t emit carbon: A recent survey found that one in three Canadians thinks nuclear power emits as much carbon as burning oil; almost three in ten think it emits more.)
So if there is lots of nuclear power in the world, what do I mean by saying that nuclear power is massively important as a development that did not happen?
Let me explain by turning to what inspired me to write this.
A few weeks ago, I got a copy of an old book entitled Fabulous Future: America in 1980. As regular readers will know, I collect old books that peer into futures that are in our past. This one was published in 1955 and it asked an array of contributors to look ahead 25 years — to 1980.
The Eisenhower era was paradoxical. On the one hand, children did duck-and-cover drills in school, their parents dug bomb shelters in their back yards, and there was widespread nostalgia for a time when imminent thermonuclear incineration wasn’t haunting dreams. On the other hand, there was peace and prosperity, Americans adored the technology they credited for bringing them that peace and prosperity, and they loved to talk about the shiny, exciting world of the future that was surely coming … if the world wasn’t incinerated in the meantime.
So when I came across a reference to Fabulous Future, I had a pretty good sense what I would find in its pages.
It was that. And more.
The quantity of new powers and products and processes at man’s disposal is important; but even more important is the increasing speed at which these things have come. We need only project the curve into the future to realize that we are merely on the threshold of the technological age.
That is from an essay written by David Sarnoff, a figure not much remembered today but a legend of early- and mid-20th century technology and business. Sarnoff was a young manager with American Marconi around the time of the First World War. In that era, people overwhelmingly assumed the technology they called “wireless telegraphy” would continue to be used as they were then using it — like a telegraph without writes — but Sarnoff saw that an idea called “broadcasting” could give rise to a huge new industry. Sarnoff went on to lead the electronics giant, Radio Corporation of America (RCA), and found and lead the National Broadcasting Company (NBC), thus helping to bring his vision into being.
When it came to foreseeing technological advances and their social impacts, David Sarnoff was someone you wanted to hear from in 1955.
And in 1955, despite having personally witnessed the world progress from morse code to early computers, David Sarnoff was sure the changes to come would overshadow all that had preceded them. Two fields in particular gave him hope.
The very fact that electronics and atomics are unfolding simultaneously is a portent of the amazing changes ahead. Never before have two such mighty forces been unleashed at the same time. Together they are certain to dwarf the industrial revolutions brought about by steam and electricity. There is no element of material progress we know today — in the biological and chemical fields in, atomics and electronics, in engineering and physics — that will not seem, from the vantage point of 1980, a fumbling prelude.
In December, 1953, President Dwight Eisenhower delivered a speech before the United Nations in which he pledged to give nuclear technologies to other countries so they could develop non-military applications of atom-smashing. He called this program “atoms for peace” and it became a common label for all non-military uses of nuclear technology. In his essay, Sarnoff heads his section on nuclear energy with it.
The released energies of the atom, though born in war and baptized in destruction, are already being funnelled to man’s constructive purposes. Because nuclear power is so recent and impressive, we have not yet digested it psychologically as we have earlier miracles. The real mission of science should be to create, not destroy. While the first atomic propulsion has been assigned to a submarine, it can be taken for granted that before 1980 ships, aircraft, locomotives, and even automobiles will be atomically fuelled.
The era of nuclear power for peaceable civilian purposes is already at hand. It dawned in America when President Eisenhower waved a neutron wand in Denver, Colorado, that broke ground at Shippingport, Pennsylvania, for the first commercial plant powered by atomic energy. The first nuclear-power plant will surely rank with the first steam engine, the first electric lamp, and Marconi’s first wireless message as milestones of man’s material progress.
Sarnoff was personally involved with one of the wonders to come.
Two years ago the Radio Corporation of America publicly demonstrated an atomic battery that gives promise of many useful services. Only a minute amount of electric current was generated: barely enough to send the short telegraphic message I had the privilege of tapping out — “atoms for peace.” But the potentials of that event are enormous. This was no longer the use of atomic energy to make steam to make electric current — it was the direct conversion of nuclear energy into electricity.
I do not hesitate to forecast that atomic batteries will be commonplace long before 1980. The waste products from the fast-multiplying commercial reactors will make available abundant captive radiation for direction conversion into electricity. Small atomic generators, installed in homes and industrial plants, will provide power for years and ultimately for a lifetime without recharging. Coal, oil, and gas will be increasingly displaced as fuel by nuclear energy, but will in turn be devoted to other uses by new developments of chemistry and engineering.
Other sources of energy — the sun, tides, and the winds — are certain to be developed beyond present expectations.
It’s all up and up for humanity. Deserts blooming thanks to mass-scale desalination. Pilotless aircraft. Personal helicopters. Radically advanced medicine. And computers doing all the work that requires mental drudgery. “The era of ‘automation’ is upon us.”
Not labor but leisure will be the great problem in the decades ahead. That prospect should be accepted as a God-given opportunity to add dimensions of enjoyment and grace to life. We have reason to foresee a fantastic rise in demand for and appreciation of the better, and perhaps the best, in art, music, and letters.
For anyone familiar with how most people use the godlike powers of the Internet, that last sentence hurts. But let’s not go there.
Sarnoff concludes his tour of the fabulous future with the cautionary note that any reader in 1955 would have expected.
The fabulous future may not come to pass, Sarnoff writes. Because of war. Or worse, a Soviet victory. The latter wouldn’t end material progress, he writes. (This was a time when Soviet science and technology were widely considered the equal or superior of that in the West.) But by erasing human freedom, it would ensure that material progress wouldn’t be progress at all, but rather “a foundation for a new savagery.”
So to sum up, the future will be incineration, enslavement, or The Jetsons. That’s 1955 in a nutshell.
As bullish as Sarnoff is on nuclear power, it’s another essay in the collection that really pops the eyes today.
The author is none other than John von Neumann, one of the most influential minds of the 20th century, and a contender for the crown of Most Intelligent Human Ever. As a mathematician, he advanced the field in too many ways to list. He changed economics with game theory. He played major roles in the foundation of computer science. He did pioneering work in meteorology and climate modelling. If that were the end of his resume, he would have been a giant of the era. But some of his most important work involved physics. And atoms.
Von Neumann made critical contributions to the Manhattan Project that delivered the atomic bomb. He helped create the hydrogen bomb and miniaturize it so it could be delivered on new intercontinental ballistic missiles. He was a top advisor to the US military and government on all matters atomic. And, in 1955, he was appointed chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission.
In The Fabulous Future, von Neumann was more worried about war then Sarnoff. And even more optimistic about nuclear power.
In the short term, von Neumann expected successes to come soon.
Reactor techniques appear to be approaching a condition in which they will be competitive with conventional (chemical) power sources within the US; however, because of generally higher fuel prices abroad, they could already be more than competitive in many important foreign areas. Yet reactor technology is but a decade and a half old, during which period effort has been directed primarily not toward power but toward plutonium production. Given a decade of really large-scale industrial effort, the economic characteristics of reactors will undoubtedly surpass those of the present by far….
That would just be the beginning.
Existing nuclear power released energy by smashing atoms apart. That’s fission. Von Neumann foresaw a shift to fusion, which releases energy by fusing atoms together. The difference between the two is the difference between an atom bomb and the vastly more powerful hydrogen bomb. Very different pathways to power generation would open.
…reactors have been bound thus far to the traditional heat-steam-generator-electricity cycle, just as automobiles were at first constructed to look like buggies. It is likely that we shall gradually develop procedures more naturally and effectively adjusted to the new source of energy, abandoning the conventional kinks and detours inherited from chemical-fuel processes. Consequently, a few decades hence energy may be free — just like the unmetered air — with coal and oil used mainly as raw materials for organic chemical synthesis, to which, as experience has shown, their properties are best suited.
Energy might be free “like the unmetered air.” That’s a powerful phrase. And in the context of the time, a provocative one.
In 1954, Lewis Strauss, von Neumann’s predecessor as head of the Atomic Energy Commission, said this in a 1954 speech before an audience of science writers:
It is not too much to expect that our children will enjoy in their homes electrical energy too cheap to meter, will know of great periodic regional famines in the world only as matters of history, will travel effortlessly over the seas and under them and through the air with a minimum of danger and at great speeds, and will experience a lifespan far longer than ours, as disease yields and man comes to understand what causes him to age
Strauss later repeated a variation of that claim, saying nuclear power would be “too cheap to be metered, just as we have water today that's too cheap to be metered.”
It was controversial at the time. The nascent nuclear power industry was much more cautious in what it promised. Nuclear power is likely to be more expensive than electricity from burning coal and oil, it said, but the costs would come down, and it would eventually become cheaper than other sources.
In the following decades, “too cheap to meter” became a phrase mockingly repeated by the critics of nuclear power. Even today, the industry bristles if you mention it. Lewis Strauss wasn’t a physicist or even an economist, they say. He was a former naval officer, businessman, and philanthropist. And he got carried away. Don’t hang that around our neck.
But it wasn’t only Lewis Strauss. It was also the legendary John von Neumann, probably the best-informed scientist and official on the planet.
That is enough, it seems to me, to make “free energy” much more than one man’s flight of fancy. It was, in 1955, a reasonable hope for the future.
The gap between that possible future and what actually unfolded is almost impossible to describe.
Climate change? Problem solved. Done. But that’s the least of it.
Energy is the root of everything we do. Energy that is effectively limitless and free? It’s almost impossible to exaggerate how much that would have changed the world today.
But that immense good — like the immense horror of nuclear war — did not come to pass. That’s why I think of nuclear power as a non-development — one of the most consequential non-developments in history.
So why did it fail?
Some will argue that nuclear power was crippled by excessive, costly safety regulations. I think that’s false for reasons that will appear in a book that will be released next February, so I won’t pre-empt that here. (I co-wrote it with Oxford’s Bent Flyvbjerg, the world’s leading authority on megaprojects. This is the first time I have shamelessly promoted it in this newsletter. It will not be the last.)
But the gap between what was hoped for and what came to be is so large that the problems must be much more fundamental.
At least one lies in scale. Notice that David Sarnoff described a world in which science and industry have harnessed the power of the atom at a small scale. Individual ships. Houses. Even cars. But from the beginning, nuclear power went in the other direction. It went big: Huge reactors were built in sprawling, enormously complex facilities.
It’s that model that never delivered the atomic dream.
But that’s not how nuclear power started. Before there were civilian plants, the United States Navy built reactors and put them into service on submarines and, later, aircraft carriers. These were (and are) relatively small reactors. If a ship needs more power, the Navy doesn’t design a new, bigger reactor. It adds a second reactor. The first nuclear-powered aircraft carrier, the USS Enterprise, had eight reactors.
The Navy’s program was (and is) a success. And it’s striking that the big new thing in nuclear power that is attracting a lot of investment is not some cool new design for a gargantuan power plant. It is “small modular reactors.”
The name says it all. They’re small. Install one. Need more power? Add another. Or a third. As they do on ships. The hope is that these reactors could be constructed in factories and assembled on site, like prefab houses, and by keeping things simple and cranking out units repetitively in a factory, costs will plunge — as they have plunged, finally, for solar and wind power.
It won’t get us to the ever-receding dream of fusion. And it won’t deliver electricity too cheap to meter. But if it follows the same trajectory as solar and wind power, it could make a major difference to the fight against climate change. Some day, any way. Almost 70 years after Fabulous Future was published, this is still all on drawing boards.
But please don’t get me wrong: I have no expertise in this field and I don’t know much about the early history of nuclear power. Why there is such an immense gap between the vision sketched by John von Neumann and what unfolded is a very big question. Why did civilian nuclear power go big rather than small? Why didn’t costs come down dramatically? And wherefore art thou, fusion?
I don’t know the answers to these questions. If you are a nuclear engineer who knows the early history, or an historian who studies the field, please share your thoughts, suggestions for further reading, corrections, whatever, in the comments. Tell me what became of the atomic dream.
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