Tuesday, December 19, 2017

Atoms for Peace

Red Baron happened to be in Geneva when in 1958 the United Nations hosted the Atoms for Peace Conference and Exhibition. During semester breaks I used to serve my father as a driver on his business trips. So we visited the exhibition and we were both impressed.

When I was looking for an illustrating picture - the slides I took at that time have long since faded - I came across a citation by Frederick Reines. He was awarded the 1995 Nobel Prize in physics for his detection of the neutrino in experiments he had conducted together with Clyde Cowan in 1956. So he surely had given a paper in Geneva in 1958. In 1996, following his Nobel Prize award, he came to CERN and gave a lecture that Red Baron attended.

Atoms for Peace had started with President Eisenhower’s speech at the United Nations in New York on December 8, 1953, expressing the conviction that from then on atomic energy would solely be used peacefully under the auspices of an atomic energy agency.

He said, “The atomic energy agency could be made responsible for the impounding, storage and protection of the contributed fissionable and other materials. The ingenuity of our scientists will provide special safe conditions under which such a bank of fissionable material can be made essentially immune to surprise seizure.

“The more important responsibility of this atomic energy agency would be to devise methods whereby this fissionable material would be allocated to serve the peaceful pursuits of mankind. Experts would be mobilized to apply atomic energy to the needs of agriculture, medicine, and other peaceful activities. A special purpose would be to provide abundant electrical energy in the power-starved areas of the world.

How far did we get? With respect to the first paragraph, the checks and inspections of fissionable material by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA)* in their member states are thorough and efficient.
*established in 1957

Red Baron still remembers the nuclear inspectors visiting CERN to check the quantity and quality of the tons of depleted uranium (DU) the organization kept on its premises. Due to its high density, the material was and is still used in particle detectors as absorber or shielding material. Proudly the inspectors demonstrated their ingenuity showing that the degree of depletion of 235U was smaller in DU acquired from Russia than in material coming from the States, proving that the extraction of fissionable 235U from natural uranium was more efficient in the US.

These inspections were peanuts and fun for the men from Vienna, but what about checks in countries operating nuclear power reactors breeding fissionable plutonium as a by-product? There are states that meticulously grant IAEA inspectors access to all their nuclear stock, but a few countries are less open. The situation does not look so bright with Iran although the government agreed to inspections but is absolutely somber with North Korea openly building the hydrogen bomb.

One may think that at least Eisenhower’s hopes expressed in the second paragraph were fulfilled, i.e., applying atomic energy to the needs of agriculture, medicine, and other peaceful activities. Today the euphoria of 1958 has considerably faded. Yes, there are powerful diagnostic tools in medicine based on radioactive tracers, but the use of radioactive materials in the therapy of cancer is already being more and more replaced by effective and more specific chemotherapies.

Finally, the use of nuclear power has developed into a major problem for future generations. The energy is not clean, producing radioactive waste for which we cannot guarantee safe storage at present. Red Baron has reported on this.

Three weeks ago the University of Chicago celebrated the 75th anniversary of Enrico Fermi‘s first successful nuclear reactor experiment in a structure beneath the viewing stands of a football field on December 2, 1942.

Enrico Fermi's reactor set up
During my professional life visiting Fermilab I made a pilgrimage to the site that is honored by a Henry Moore sculpture symbolizing an atomic mushroom - and a skull.

It is this mushroom, the portent of the atomic age, that Cai Gu-Quian, a 59-year-old Chinese artist who lives in New York and stages ephemeral art based on fireworks and gunpowder, wanted to simulate. About the event we read in the press:

Cai Guo-Qiang said: “In the 1990s, I used black gunpowder to create mushroom clouds, humankind’s most iconic visual symbol for the 20th century. These mushroom clouds formed part of my Projects for Extraterrestrials. Today, the color mushroom cloud symbolizes the paradoxical nature of employing nuclear energy: Who is it for?”

“The work dramatizes the creative and destructive forces of nuclear fission,” said Steward*. “It takes the iconic shape of nuclear energy’s most destructive form and animates it with color as a profound symbol of creativity and peace.”
*Laura Steward, curator at the Smart Museum of Art on the campus of the University of Chicago

Wosh ... (©UChicago)
Ah ... (©UChicago)
The mushroom (©UChicago)
Sorry, this event was just macabre and not at all colorful!

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