The Bad Dreams Of Big Science

Science does not always grow pretty when it gets too big. In 1939, at the eventual cost of over $20 billion (in 2014 equivalent dollars) and the involvement of over 100 000 workers, the Manhattan Project was initiated. Leo Szilard and Eugene Wigner had urged the U.S. president to set the wheels in motion in order to devise and build an atomic bomb before the Nazis could. But Szilard naively envisioned that the innovation would merely serve as a deterrent. Of course, the Allies did not rely on atomic warfare to defeat the Germans, but they used two such bombs to wipe out mostly innocent citizens in 2 cities in Japan, a country which had Kamikazes but no nuclear program. The horrific events haunted the consciences of some physicists, prompting some, including Szilard to switch fields to molecular biology.

Joseph Rotblatt was the only scientist¹ who had left the Project on moral grounds, after he realized the bomb was being developed for use against adversaries other than Nazi Germany.Joseph Rotblatt About a decade later, along with Bertrand Russell, Rotblatt organized the first of the Pugwash Conferences as a quest to seek peaceful solutions to the Cold War and its nuclear threat, and 40 years later he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.

Rotblatt himself was not interested in using nuclear energy as a power source. The peaceful use of the atom, in his mind, should focus only on smaller-scale medical and research applications which require much smaller reactors. I recall an anti-nuclear activist saying in the 1970s that using nuclear energy to boil water for powering turbines was akin to burning your house down to make toast.  To be fair, not all reactors are badly conceived. India is rekindling a better idea from the past, the use of  thorium reactors, which operate at lower temperatures, involve more energy-efficient recycling of material and create less waste. But such reactors were abandoned in the 1960s in favour of  our existing uranium-plutonium reactors to produce more stable byproducts used in nuclear weapons! ²

The nuclear accidents at Three Mile Island, Chernobyl and Fukishima received major media attention. The second one of these was the most serious. The forest is still thriving around the old site; unfortunately the human species is the most sensitive to radiation. At the very least, there were about 4000 cancers caused by the accident after exposing about 240 000 people to  worrisome levels of radiation.  Less known is the 2002 Oak Harbor incident where the control rods were corroded and the plant had to be shut down for two years at a cost of $124 million. Bruce Power may have to spend $15 billion just for a rehaul of 6 reactors in Ontario. The cost of new construction and indispensable implementation of safety measures is even higher. Despite this historical background and such economic realities,  those with conflicting interests focus on just one of its benefits and remind everyone that nuclear power is free of carbon dioxide. Meanwhile, there are still no long term storage sites for the wastes generated.

It’s perhaps because of all this that some believe that the ultimate big science solution to the world’s energy needs is fusion.  ITER is the first reactor designed to ‘ignite’ fusion plasma while generating more energy than it consumes after creating formidable “ignition” temperatures. But it has experienced a $40 billion dollar cost-overrun. Much of the excess expenses have been attributed to the bureaucratic burden of a large international effort. But the irony lies in the chosen isotope-combination of deuterium and tritium. Assuming they succeed, most of the energy produced will be carried off by neutrons, which will contaminate the containment walls and create more nuclear waste, which was supposedly one of the motivations for steering away from fission and moving towards fusion.

¹ We should also give credit to Franco Rasetti, one of the Via Panisperna Boys, who had worked with Enrico Fermi and who never joined the Manhattan Project because of conscientious objections. His friend Ettore Majorana, another brilliant physicist who proposed a connection between the neutrino and antineutrino, was also opposed to the military application of nuclear physics

²For a discussion of how lucky we have been, so far, to have survived nuclear attacks despite bad policies, see


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s