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“The Utopian Promise of the Peacetime Atom”: Predictions and Hopes for Atomic Energy

The Atomic Energy Act of 1946, known informally as the McMahon Act, established the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) as a federal institution to have total control of developments in the field of atomic energy. To replace the predominate image of atomic weapons as destructive, the AEC began a public relations campaign to show the atom’s positive side. Hopes for a utopian society with atomic-powered cars and airplanes had died down by the late 1940s. But the promise of atomic energy for medical research, diagnosis, and treatment and for preventing starvation through duplicating photosynthesis remained. In 1954, President Dwight D. Eisenhower signed a revision to the McMahon Act opening development to private industry. In the following article from the popular magazine Look published a year later, David O. Woodbury reprised the “utopian promise” rhetoric of the late 1940s, as he discussed the potential of radioisotopes for health, food production, and industry, as well as the production of electric power through atomic energy. The first nuclear power plant began operation in 1957 and facilities proliferated during the next two decades. Due to a drop in demand for electricity, a strong grassroots antinuclear movement concerned about safety and the disposal of nuclear waste, and national anxiety after the Three Mile Island accident in 1979, no new facilities were built after 1979 and many have been shut down.

Our generation lives between Hell and Utopia.

For the very force that can destroy the human race can create wonders without end on earth. It is small wonder that men’s minds today shuttle between fears of doom and dreams of unprecedented bounty.

The article which follows describes some of the fantastic promise of the atom. Here are miracles within our reach—in medicine and science, production and power—possibilities so immense, so magical that we can create a life on earth more golden than man ever before dreamed possible. Here is the Utopian Promise of the Peacetime Atom.

By David O. Woodbury, author of Atoms for Peace (Dodd, Mead & Co.)

In a Boston hospital, a patient with a tumor on the brain is wheeled into the operating theater. Before the operation starts, he gets a radiophosphorus solution to drink. It’s an atomic tracer developed by Dr. Bertram Selverstone and his associates to spot tumors that X rays can’t catch. The solution quickly lodges in the tumor. As the doctors operate, a nurse works a Geiger counter. She calls out the radiation readings on the dial. “O-five, O-six, O-nine. . . . There it is, doctor!” she cries. Like a little searchlight, the counter pinpoints the trouble spot. Scalpels flash and the doctors cut out the growth, neatly avoiding the brain.

At the Brookhaven National Laboratory on Long Island, agronomists are given a problem that has cost Midwest farmers millions of dollars a year. It’s rust fungus, a disease that attacks oats—our second largest cereal crop. In a recent season, rust ruined 40 per cent of the crop from Texas to Iowa.

The agronomists decide to try radiogenetics. They bombard oat seeds with atomic particles, then they plant the seeds and watch the mutations—which result from changes in the tiny genes, the carriers of heredity.

Most of the altered plants are monsters and are thrown away, but the agronomists finally turn up a strain that is immune to rust.

By old-fashioned crossbreeding methods, it could have taken decades of research to develop the new hardy oats. Twenty years of painstaking experimentation were needed to produce hybrid corn. But seed radiation produces mutations on a production-line scale. The Brookhaven agronomists developed the new strain of rust-free oats in two years.

Achievements like those only barely hint at the new life that lies ahead for humanity through atomic energy used for peaceful purposes. Employed with intelligence and skill, the gigantic forces that have been tapped for military destruction also promise us a life of abundance and health and of permanent peace.

What has been achieved—and what is in store for us?

The first major application of atomic radiation since X rays and radium were discovered came soon after the war. Scientists at the Oak Ridge, Tenn., atomic research center announced that they could create hundreds of new substances called “radioisotopes.” All the familiar chemical elements—gold, iodine, iron and the rest—could be “soaked” in an atomic pile similar to that which made the A-bomb’s plutonium, and would come out exploding with tiny particles, just as radium does.

Here, suddenly, was a whole new kit of tools for medical research, thousands of times cheaper than radium and infinitely more versatile. The radioisotopes could be “built” into the bodies of test animals, or even of humans, and though diluted to billionths of their original quantity, could always be traced minute by minute because detectors could pick up their radiations. In such infinitesimal amounts, they were harmless in the most delicate experiment on living tissues.

These peaceful descendants of the A-bomb quickly stimulated research, first giving new insight into the human body and its troubles, then gradually tackling ailments that had resisted older research methods for centuries. . . .

Humanity also has a vital stake in the application of atomic energy to agriculture. In the U.S., we still lose about one third of our crops to pests, weather, spoilage and poor farming methods; about $13 billion a year. College and Government laboratories are working full time to cut this serious loss, for the problem of how to feed the new millions that will be born in the next 30 years will soon be serious.

If we are to increase the world’s food supply, we must understand the miracle of growth; we must study nature’s greatest chemical reaction: photosynthesis. . . .

The secret weapon that is breaking the case of photosynthesis is the adaptable isotope carbon-14. Readily made in atomic piles, this radioactive form of everyday charcoal and pencil lead shoots out invisible particles for thousands of years. Whatever path it takes as it is put to work in test plants, it can be followed simply by picking up its radiation. Your modern biochemist “builds” it into carbon dioxide, grows his plants in that atmosphere and watches what happens. Simple in principle, yes. But the actual experiments are very intricate and supremely delicate. Their interpretation requires the utmost in skill and scientific knowledge.

Once we understand photosynthesis, what then? First, we shall know why less than one per cent of the sun’s energy is used by the plant it falls on, and we may learn how to double or triple the efficiency of growing crops. This alone would cause a revolution in agriculture. Further, suppose the basic chemistry of creating living plants is mastered. What is more logical than to build factories for making food under artificial light, regardless of weather?

Half the world today is close to famine. But already the radioisotope that came from the A-bomb has put the means of increasing the basic food supply within our grasp—with better fertilizers, effective pest control, the promise of food manufacture in “factories,” independent of the land. . . .

Isotope devices no bigger than a table radio can be used many different ways in industry. They can spread a coat of paint just so thick. They can examine and catch badly printed containers, poorly filled bottles—any of a hundred products that formerly had to be monitored by slow human examination. They can regulate the level of liquids inside metal tanks, and abruptly shut off machines if an operator’s hand blunders into the path of flying knives or whirling gears. They can do what no human eye or finger can do, for they never tire or misinterpret the facts.

Once installed, these atomic gadgets cost practically nothing, and the little pellet of radioactive material inside, no bigger than the head of a pin, will last for years.

Just as useful as split-second control is the isotopes' talent for digging out the hidden weaknesses of common commodities such as lubricating oil. Various auto makers wanted to know what caused friction inside a gasoline engine. Piston rings were sent to Oak Ridge and made radioactive, then run in test engines, which were finally torn down and examined. The result? Detergent oils that you need to change only half as often. Similar tests have produced floor waxes that stay shiny longer; tires that wear better and have more traction. Radioisotopes are also helping to find oil in the ground, to refine it and transmit it to market, as well as pointing the way to more economical mining methods in metals. “Hot” chemistry, speeded up with atomic energy, is just now beginning to short-cut the lengthy processes of making insecticides, industrial chemicals, blood-plasma substitutes.

If you have ever noticed a big steel forging, such as the massive frame of a bulldozer or power crane—or, for that matter, the axles on your car—you will wonder how they can be relied on not to break. Once, they did break, especially the front axles of the early cars. Now they don’t, because they are examined for internal flaws by radiation machines that take photographs and throw out metal parts that might some day cause a tragedy. . . .

Two years from now, we shall be using the first experimental electric power made by the atom. Under the new, liberal Atomic Energy Act, passed in 1954, the AEC is really going to work to develop peacetime atomic power. In the past few months, the AEC has been busy with industry’s requests for information on atomic-power projects. Groups not only in the United States but also in Canada, South America and Europe are driving ahead with experiments to see if the atom can hold its own against conventional methods. This may sound overcautious, but since billions are at stake, the peacetime atom must compete commercially or stay in the laboratory. At present, it can’t compete with coal and oil. There are still fantastically expensive machinery to build in atomic-power plants, elaborate safety precautions to take, costly fuel to prepare.

But what is five years in a world-wide engineering revolution? It took the diesel engine 50 years to reach its present state of efficiency and wide use in industry.

Within the next five years, however, you will hear of small atomic plants going into action in obscure areas of the world, where economy is less important than ending a power famine: India, for instance, where there is virtually no power but human muscle; Spain, with insufficient coal; North Africa, with limited waterpower resources; even frozen Greenland. Already, the U. S. Army is well started on a portable atomic-power plant that can be knocked down and taken anywhere by plane. Within three years, the first unit will undoubtedly take over in an Arctic military base.

These small, isolated stations won’t have to compete with ordinary fuels. It costs ten times as much to make electricity in Greenland as in New York. Enough oil to heat and light such a remote base takes half the cargo space in the supply ships. You could fly in a three to four years' supply of atomic fuel in a single plane. Pound for pound, uranium has at least a million times the energy of oil.

There is little doubt that, within a few years, atomic power will have become a major diplomatic weapon throughout the world. Even now, the U. S. and Russia are in a race to pioneer the atom in the backward countries. Power, and other atomic products, can be the deciding argument in Indochina, India, perhaps in Africa as well. That is why President Eisenhower has strongly urged a world atomic bank and offered American help in setting up reactors in other countries. The United States has offered to contribute 200 kilograms of uranium fuel to the international account. What could this 440 pounds of concentrated energy do? It would be enough to set up reactors that could turn out medical, industrial and agricultural isotopes for 22 countries, and perform basic power experiments as well.

There seem to be no limits to what the atom can do for us in the next 50 or 100 years. Many authorities, among them Adm. Lewis L. Strauss, chairman of the AEC, foreseeing vast improvements in atomic power, predict that, throughout the world, people will get energy for very little cost.

Energy is the key to civilization. The world demand for power increases about 25 per cent every ten years. By A.D. 2000, if this keeps up, the supplies of petroleum and cheap coal will have sharply diminished. But atomic energy will be as commonplace as gasoline. First, you will see big power units. Next, say in 10 to 20 years, atomic ships will ferry you across the ocean, driven by an atomic engine the size of a present-day turbine. (There is an atomic sub already and others are coming soon.) In maybe 25 years, you will see atomic planes in the air. Already, the Air Force is at work on a reactor that will fly a plane around the world on a few pounds of uranium.

Nearer home, there will be central atomic heating of homes and offices. You won’t have a furnace but will buy heat through a pipe along with the rest of the community. It doesn’t look now as if your car will ever work on the little atomic pile often dreamed of. But why should it? With the atom running power plants and ships and trains and taking care of the military, gasoline should be dirt-cheap.

Atomic control and power in all factories; water for big coastal cities, recovered from the oceans by atomic heat; cancer a thing of the past; diseases reduced to the vanishing point; teeth that do not decay; new metals and plastics, new woods and paints—who is to say that atomic research and atomic power cannot give us the life of abundance and happiness that the atomic pioneers have promised?

The most extraordinary possibility of all, perhaps, is the taming of the super-giant, the hydrogen bomb. The hidden secret for peace in this awesome weapon is that, once you touch it off, you can explode as little or as much of it as you wish. A piece of hydrogen fuel the size of a matchhead could be used to remove a good-sized hill. And in one truck could be carried all the brute force needed to dig a Panama Canal or tunnel a mountain.

Eventually, I believe, the heavy tasks of the world will be accomplished by some form of nuclear reaction under perfect control. Polar ice will be melted away to expose vast new mineral wealth, dams and roads will be built, the face of the land changed as needed. And, no doubt, some of the force of nuclear fusion will be used to escape from this shrinking planet, to explore the solar system and, eventually, the universe.

These things are dreams—but not fantasies. Only war can keep them from becoming realities in a new human Utopia.

Source: David O. Woodbury, “Here is the Utopian Promise of the Peacetime Atom,” Look, August 9, 1955, 26–31.

See Also:"The A-Bomb Won't Do What You Think!": An Argument Against Reliance on Nuclear Weapons
"I'm Not Afraid of the A-Bomb": An Army Captain Tries to Dispel Fears about Radioactivity
"The Gravest Question of Our Time": A Senator Lays Out Military Alternatives in the Post-Korean War Atomic Age