OSA / Guide / RIP / Atom

The Paradoxical Atom | Rise of the Nuclear Age | From Hiroshima and Nagasaki to Cold War | The Industrial Atom | Chernobyl and Beyond | Concluding Comments

II. From Hiroshima and Nagasaki to Cold War | Timeline

Invisible: Nuclear Testing, the Hydrogen Bomb, and Nuclear Engines

A thermal nuclear test conducted
in the Pacific.

Scientists and politicians in the United States hoped that openness about the nature of atomic weaponry would head off an arms race at the end of the war. When the United Nations was formed at the end of World War II, its members established a forum to address the future of atomic energy. The US Secretary of State, James F. Byrnes, appointed a committee to develop an American policy on the international management of atomic energy. Their report, known as the Acheson-Lilienthal report, was published in March 1946. In it, the US proposed that there be an international ’Atomic Development Authority’ with a world-wide monopoly over nuclear materials, research and manufacture. The report proposed international cooperation and control rather than outlawing atomic weapons or establishing some unworkable means of inspection. For these reasons, the USSR rejected the report and the Baruch Plan which was based on it and in which the US proposed to the United Nations international controls. The USSR was working on a bomb, did not trust the US without inspection, nor would it permit US investigators on its soil. And it did not want the US to be the only nation with a bomb.

A group of scientists advanced another proposal for international control under the call for ’One World Or None.’ They addressed such questions as whether there was any defense against the bomb, the prospect of an arms race and the immediate and long-term problems associated with nuclear energy. Including Oppenheimer, Bethe, Bohr, Szilard and others they naively suggested that a world government could prevent disaster.

Instead, efforts to control nuclear weapons and head off an arms race failed. The United States embarked on a series of very public nuclear tests in the South Pacific at Bikini atoll to inform the world of the power of the atom. Rather than encourage arms control talks, the tests triggered an arms race that continued until the 1990s. The USSR shocked the world with its own atomic bomb test in August 1949. Both countries then embarked on hydrogen or thermonuclear bombs. These secret programs to develop bombs, some with 1,000 times the power of the Hiroshima explosion, were accompanied by secret programs to develop delivery systems for those bombs -- Intercontinental ballistic missles, jet bombers and Submarines -- and by secret programs for new ways to power those craft: Nuclear rocket ships, nuclear airplanes and nuclear reactor engines for submarines. Testing of weapons in the atmosphere continued until 1963, with radioactive fallout becoming a grave problem and concern for citizens of the world.

The most important bikini is not a swimsuit, but a set of islands in the Pacific. According to the official Bikini Atoll Website, Bikini Atoll ’is one of the 29 atolls and five islands that compose the Marshall Islands. These atolls of the Marshalls are scattered over 357,000 square miles of a lonely part of the world located north of the equator in the Pacific Ocean.’ The US forces captured Bikini at the end of the war. In December 1945 President Harry S. Truman issued a directive to permit the Army and Navy to test the effects of atomic bombs on American warships. US officials persuaded the Bikinians to leave the island with the promise that they might return, and indicating that nuclear tests were for "the good of mankind and to end all world wars." A series of nuclear tests occurred, in almost every case involving several nuclear detonations. They include Operation Crossroads (1946) and Operation Castle (1954) that employed a air delivered powerful hydrogen bomb. These tests led to the destruction of Bikini, the Bikinians’ way of life, and the radioactive ruination of their fisheries. Since those tests the Bikinians have lived in forced exile from their homes and have been moved from island to island in search of safety from the nuclear legacy. The Bikinians also suffered severely from malnutrition since the US had not supplied them with adequate supplies of food and water.

The Sov iet government created its main range for nuclear tests on Novaia Zemlia. This required the removal of the Nenets from much of the island, although not all of it, even though 94% of all nuclear explosions in the former Soviet Union occurred there. The Nenets therefore suffered the fate of the Bikinians. Only now are specialists openly dealing with the impact of the nuclear age on the Bikinians, Nenets and other indigenous people.

The people of Eastern Europe fell prey to the nuclear age, too. Under military occupation, the governments of Poland, Hungary and Czechoslovakia operated uranium ore mines for the Soviet military industrial complex. Using both slave labor (political prisoners) and underpaid workers both of whom were poorly equipped, the mines generated both ore for the USSR and a legacy of radioactive waste and public health problems for the nations of East Central Europe.

In addition to nuclear bombs, another program was the secret effort of both the United States and the Soviet Union to develop small propulsion reactors to submarines and icebreakers. The USSR built hundreds of submarine reactors. Their safety record and haphazard disposal practices in the Arctic and Pacific oceans have contributed significantly to the spread of radioactive waste. Russia today pursues a floating 70 MW reactor to produce electrical energy and heat for peaceful purposes to be deployed on a barge in a bay or gulf.

Physicists east and west were also involved in joint programs to halt the spread of nuclear weapons. Even during the war, scientists connected with the Manhattan project had raised their objections to using the bomb for military purposes, but because of the secrecy of the program they could not publish their call. O f the many differences between the Soviet and American atomic bomb projects one of the crucial ones was the rise of open opposition to nuclear weapons development in the west among politicians, citizens and scientists themselves. The opposition actually began under the umbrella of the Manhattan project when scientists in the Metallurgical laboratory penned the Franck Report (named after one of them, James Franck, and including Donald J. Hughes, J. J. Nickson, Eugene Rabinowitch, Glenn T. Seaborg, J. C. Stearns and Leo Szilard) in which they called for a demonstration use of a weapon to instruct the Japanese about what fate awaited them if they failed to surrender. They anticipated the unabated cold war arms race if the US acted unilaterally and lost any moral superiority by bombing innocent civilians. The military had prevented discussion of moral issues through compartmentalization of the Manhattan project.

In the USSR those who opposed weapons development essentially had to maintain silence or fear reprisals at work and home from the authorities. An alternative was to join officially-sanctioned anti-nuclear war groups. In the 1950s and 1960s Soviet scientists worked through such arms control groups as Pugwash (founded in 1955, Nobel Peace Prize in 1995) and the Physicians for Social Responsibility (founded in 1961 to protest continued atmospheric nuclear tests, Nobel Prize in 1985) to express concerns about proliferation. In the late 1950s Kurchatov and Andrei Sakharov, father of the Soviet hydrogen bomb and not yet known as a dissident, published a series of articles in the Soviet press calling for an end to atmospheric testing because of the egregious threat of cancer to all the world’s citizens. But largely they and citizens in the Soviet bloc had to tread wearily to voice opposition to domestic nuclear options. They were free to criticize the west, however. In these ways, even protest against the threat of nuclear war was invisible. While not as extensive as the protest movements against the threat of nuclear war, nuclear weapons, nuclear proliferation and nuclear power in Western Europe, in East European countries nonetheless dissidents, intellectuals and ’establishment’ individuals protested against those threats in a variety of ways. They came together first as environmentalists generally, and after Chernobyl joined national independence with anti-nuclear movements. In many cases these individuals were the core of Gorbachev era independence movements.

Two thousand nuclear weapons tests contributed to radioactive fallout throughout the globe. The US relocated the Bikinians from Bikini Atoll to use their island as an atomic bomb test site; the USSR relocated the Nenets from Novaia Zemlia to use their island as a nuclear test site. Scientists have been relatively silent about these costs of the nuclear age and their contribution to them.

Visible: Atoms for Peace and the Cult of the Atom

In 1953 United States President Dwight D. Eisenhower delivered a speech before the United Nations in which he called for international sponsorship of peaceful nuclear programs and international stewardship of nuclear materials (’Atoms for Peace’). The speech contributed to what might be called the domestication of the atom. Military applications had dominated the public perception, and they certainly consumed significantly more resources and manpower. But Atoms for Peace gave rise to nuclear power stations around the globe, applications in medicine, agriculture and industry through nuclear tracers and other methods, and to ’Peaceful Nuclear Explosions’ to build dams, harbors, and canals. Peaceful nuclear programs became a source of great competition between the United States and the USSR in which France also participated.

Eisenhower’s call for ’Atoms for Peace’ led to the formation of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), which successfully operates to this day in promoting peaceful nuclear programs. (In 2005 the IAEA and its Director General, Mohamed ElBaradei, split the Nobel peace prize for ’for their efforts to prevent nuclear energy from being used for military purposes and to ensure that nuclear energy for peaceful purposes is used in the safest possible way .’) In July 1955, scientists from around the world gathered in Geneva, Switzerland, for the first international Conference on Peaceful Uses of Atomic Energy. While the US and USSR dominated in terms of scientists attending and papers delivered, East European specialists also participated. A second conference followed in 1958, and two others in the 1960s.

Together with the Americans, the leaders of the Soviet Union and East European nations recognized the opportunity to use peaceful nuclear programs as a Cold War propaganda tool. They quickly organized joint research efforts and expanded peaceful directions of study in order to demonstrate that they used the atom in the name of peace, not military as in America. They founded new institutes, created university programs to train students, and sought out support from the USSR. The support included access to a newly-founded institute in Dubna, Russia, on the Volga River, the Joint Institute for Nuclear Research (JINR). Research programs at the Joint Institute centered on high energy and neutron physics, and involved scientists on short-term and long-term visits from all of the socialist countries, including ultimately China and Cuba. East European physicists frequently journeyed to the JINR for fellowships, short-term research trips, and long-term collaboration.

The Dubna program was aided by the Council for Mutual Economic Assistance (also known as CMEA and COMECON), founded in 1949 by the Soviet Union, Bulgaria, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Poland, and Romania. CMEA was intended to ensure healthy trade among the socialist nations and to provide an alternative to the Marshall Plan, adopted by the United States to help rebuild Western Europe and to prevent socialism from spreading further. CMEA had a Permanent Nuclear Commission called ATOMENERGO.

During this period physicists touted dozens of applications that today seem far-fetched to us. They included nuclear locomotives, automobiles, jet airplanes and rocket ships, although the last two were more for military purposes. The point was that nuclear engines would run for a year or longer without refueling. Such journals as Popular Mechanics, Nauka i zhizn’, Tekhnika-molodezhi, Scientific American and many others plus newspapers published articles on these wondrous applications. Physicists and political leaders were engaged in an effort to ’domesticate’ the atom, to demonstrate that a peaceful, ultimately constructive aspect of atomic research existed side-by-side with the military efforts, and in fact would be more important and beneficial than the military aspects. Once the initial enthusiasm had faded, so did publication, and attention turned to now standard, less fantastic applications in atomic energy production in nuclear reactors, nuclear medicine and some agricultural and industrial uses.


The Paradoxical Atom | Rise of the Nuclear Age | From Hiroshima and Nagasaki to Cold War | The Industrial Atom | Chernobyl and Beyond | Concluding Comments

© 1995-2012 OSA Archivum at Central European University