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

Enrico Fermi


Robert Zubrin

This week marks the 70th anniversary of a turning point in human history.

It was on December 2, 1942, that Enrico Fermi ordered the control rods pulled from the nuclear reactor he had built under the west stands of the University of Chicago’s Stagg Field stadium, thereby initiating the first artificial sustained-fission reaction in human history. A cryptic message flashed the electrifying news back to Washington. “The Italian navigator has landed in the new world.”

The consequences of Fermi’s success were profound. Within two and a half years, the Manhattan Project advanced to build both uranium-isotope-separation and plutonium-manufacturing facilities on an industrial scale, and used these products to build three atomic bombs. One of these was used in a test at Trinity, N. M.; the other two were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, ending World War II and saving tens of millions of lives that otherwise would have been lost in an invasion of Japan and the prolongation of the war on mainland Asia. The bomb also prevented another world war, in Europe, by delivering a forceful check in advance to any ambitions held by Soviet dictator Josef Stalin or his successors to continue the Red Army’s drive farther west than the lines agreed to at Yalta. Finally, through his demonstration of controlled fission, Fermi opened vast new energy resources to humanity, sufficient to power economic growth and the expansion of civilization on this world and others for ages to come.

The anniversary of Fermi’s brilliant achievement is certainly an occasion to be celebrated. However, the only way to truly honor such accomplishments is to emulate them, or at least do all we can to guarantee that, in times of crisis to come, others will be able to rise equally well to the challenge. It is imperative, therefore, that appropriate lessons be drawn from Fermi’s success. Some observations are in order.

1. Fermi’s reactor was built in the middle of the city of Chicago. This would not be possible today, as the EPA and other red-tape-generation agencies would have prohibited any such thing. Chicago, you may have noticed, has survived.

2. Fermi’s reactor was turned on for the first time on December 2, 1942. Construction of the reactor, however, was initiated earlier — on November 16, 1942. That’s right, it took 16 days to build the first functioning nuclear reactor. Nowadays it takes an average of about 16 years to build a commercial nuclear reactor, and the Department of Energy has been working for four decades on constructing a nuclear-waste-storage facility, without getting the job done.

3. The budget of the entire Manhattan Project — not just Fermi’s experiment, but the whole affair, including the creation and operation of massive industrial facilities, the conduct of an extraordinary amount of first-class scientific research, the engineering work, the weapons testing, everything — was $2 billion in 1940s money, equivalent to about $26 billion today. This is 3.25 percent of what was spent on the 2009 stimulus bill, which, in contrast to the Manhattan Project, accomplished nothing.

4. The majority of the top talent associated with the Manhattan Project, including Fermi, Leo Szilard, Albert Einstein, Rudolf Peierls, Otto Frisch, Hans Bethe, Edward Teller, and Eugene Wigner, among many others, were immigrants, brought into the U.S. as exceptions to the anti-Jewish, anti-Italian, anti-Slavic immigration-restriction acts passed into law by the progressive eugenics movement in the 1920s. It is fortunate that the federal bureaucracy of the time was able quickly to make exceptions for many such eminent cases. It is unfortunate that they were unable or unwilling to make much broader exceptions for less notable but still very valuable technical talent. For example, prior to Hitler’s genocide, 13 percent of Germany’s medical doctors were Jewish. Had they been granted immigration status in the 1930s, they could have saved the lives of a lot of GIs. Today, however, the situation is worse, as it can take years to obtain immigration papers for foreign technical talent. The Republican-led House recently passed legislation to remedy this weakness, but the Democratic-led Senate seems set on blocking it.