Politics & Policy

Fermi’s Anniversary

Seventy years ago, a scientific breakthrough revolutionized nuclear technology.

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.

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.


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