Fermi’s Anniversary
Seventy years ago, a scientific breakthrough revolutionized nuclear technology.

Enrico Fermi


Robert Zubrin

5. While it became the subject of a number of prominent scandals during the post-war period, the security of the Manhattan Project was actually amazingly good. Indeed, what is most startling about the wartime nuclear effort is not what leaked out, but what didn’t. Over 130,000 people were employed by the Manhattan Project, yet the Germans never found out about it. In particular, they never found out about Fermi’s experiment or the plutonium-producing graphite-moderated fission reactors that were set up in Hanford, Wash., to put Fermi’s discovery into action on an industrial scale. Because of this, the Nazi atomic-bomb effort continued to rely on an incorrect conclusion by Werner Heisenberg that graphite could not be used as a moderator to enable natural uranium to achieve a critical chain reaction, and that, instead, heavy water is required. As a result, the German atomic-bomb project was made vitally dependent on the heavy-water-separation facility at Vermork, Norway. When this facility and its accumulated product were destroyed by the Norwegian resistance, further progress towards a Nazi nuclear weapon was blocked. Had the Germans known about Fermi’s success achieving criticality using graphite, no such problem would have stood in their way. But they never found out. It is very doubtful that those in the know on such an important matter in today’s Washington would be so discreet.

6. The White House was alerted to the potential military effectiveness of nuclear power by a letter to Franklin Roosevelt written largely by Szilard and signed by Einstein. Szilard and Einstein conceded that a nuclear weapon might be too big to be carried by any available bomber, but argued that a bomb could be put into a ship and then sailed into a port and detonated with devastating results. This indeed would be an effective strategy for Iran to use to attack any American port, should its missile capability prove insufficient to deliver the atomic bomb that it is now building. Unfortunately, as evidenced by Vice President Biden’s dismissal of the Iranian nuclear threat in his debate with Representative Paul Ryan, the current administration appears not to have read the letter. They should review its contents. It is reported to be located in the White House in-basket for October 11, 1939.

7. There is the issue of moral leadership. President Truman was willing to drop two atomic bombs on Japan, killing 150,000 people in Hiroshima and Nagasaki but saving the lives of millions of Americans and tens of millions of Japanese, continental Asians, and ultimately Europeans and Soviets as well who would have perished had the decision not been made. In contrast, President Obama says that he “is not willing to undertake any action that might harm ordinary Iranians” in order to stop the Iranian bomb project.

It is fortunate that America had leadership of a very different caliber during its last great crisis. But what of the next?

— Robert Zubrin is president of Pioneer Astronautics, a senior fellow with the Center for Security Policy, and the author of Energy Victory: Winning the War on Terror by Breaking Free of Oil. His newest book, Merchants of Despair: Radical Environmentalists, Criminal Pseudo-Scientists, and the Fatal Cult of Antihumanism, has just been published by Encounter Books.