Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Dangers of Nuclear Energy: 1950s Era Concerns Include Admission that Reactors Produce Poisonous Materials Worse by "A Million or Billion Times Than Anything Else Ever Known"


The idea of using nuclear energy for civilian purposes was legitimized publicly in an address by President Dwight D. Eisenhower to the 470th Plenary Meeting of the United Nations General Assembly on December 8, 1953. This speech has come to be known as “Atoms for Peace.” The text is a masterpiece of inversion, transforming the horrors of nuclear weapons into the productive, peaceful promise of nuclear energy:

[Eisenhower] "...The United States would seek more than the mere reduction or elimination of atomic materials for military purposes. It is not enough to take this weapon out of the hands of the soldiers. It must be put into the hands of those who will know how to strip its military casing and adapt it to the arts of peace.
The United States knows that if the fearful trend of atomic military build-up can be reversed, this greatest of destructive forces can be developed into a great boon, for the benefit of all mankind. The United States knows that peaceful power from atomic energy is no dream of the future. The capability, already proved, is here today. Who can doubt that, if the entire body of the world's scientists and engineers had adequate amounts of fissionable material with which to test and develop their ideas, this capability would rapidly be transformed into universal, efficient and economic usage?"
 
Eisenhower outlines the U.S.’s leadership role in this transformation: “The United States would be more than willing - it would be proud to take up with others ‘principally involved’ the development of plans whereby such peaceful use of atomic energy would be expedited.” 

Eisenhower tasked the United Nations with the creation of an international atomic energy agency responsible for monitoring and governing a stockpile of uranium and fissionable materials that could be employed for the “peaceful” development of nuclear energy. 

In 1954 the U.S. amended its Atomic Energy Act to enable it to assist other nations in the development of their nuclear power facilities.  In 1955 the U.S. took the lead in drafting the Statute of the IAEA with participation from government representatives from Australia, Belgium, Canada, France, Portugal, South Africa, the United Kingdom, and USA. In 1956 the USSR, Czechoslovakia, India, and Brazil contributed representatives. 

Eisenhower’s speech is widely regarded as a symbolic turning point in tempering western public concern about all matters nuclear. However, nuclear horrors were not so easily swept away. Nuclear reactors were not safe and the news media reported accordingly. In 1954 The New York Times reported that in 1952 an “atomic plant” at Chalk River Ontario had “caused peril” resulting in the “worst nuclear reactor accident that has been disclosed.” 

In July 1955, The Manchester Guardian observed that Dr. McCullough, Chairman of the Advisory Committee on Reactor Safeguards for the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission, acknowledged that reactors were far too dangerous to locate in populous areas. He was quoted in the article as stating:
 
[McCullough] "If there is an accident. . . the reactor may be lost but the public will be protected. . .  Many of us feel that this record [of few accidents] is just due to plain good luck, and our luck may not hold. We should be prepared for an accident. The thing we should try to avoid is a really bad accident. The key to the whole business is that reactors manufacture extremely poisonous materials, rather worse by a million or billion times than anything else ever known. Though we have tried, we can find no valid comparison. It is a brand-new problem to us." [my emphasis, end quote]
 
The article noted the retrospective nature of Dr. McCullough’s admissions: “There is something anomalous, he conceded, in worrying so much about safety regulations after the programme has been under way for some time.” 

McCullough’s greatest stated concern about reactor safety was continued heat creation, known as “delayed heat,” that occurs after a reactor has been shut off. The safety challenge was to develop a reactor that could automatically shut off and control delayed heat production. McCullough warned that “we can’t depend entirely on gadgets” to resolve this significant safety problem.

REFERENCES

Dwight Eisenhower “Atoms for Peace.” Address by Mr. Dwight D. Eisenhower, President of the United States of America, to the 470th Plenary Meeting of the United Nations General Assembly.Tuesday, 8 December 1953, 2:45 p.m.. General Assembly President: Mrs. Vijaya Lakshmi Pandit (India). IAEA: http://www.iaea.org/About/history_speech.html.

International Atomic Energy Association “IAEA Turns 40: Supplement to the IAEA Bulletin” (1997, September ): http://www.iaea.org/Publications/Magazines/Bulletin/Bull393/Chronology/chronology.pdf.
DANGERS OF NUCLEAR RADIATION: U.S. Plans for Public Protection
Freedman, Max The Manchester Guardian (1901-1959); Jul 15, 1955;
ProQuest Historical Newspapers: The Guardian (1821-2003) and The Observer (1791-2003) page 9  http://search.proquest.com.ezproxy1.lib.asu.edu/docview/479866824/136B74FF0E260A4EEE8/3?accountid=4485

REACTOR ACCIDENT CAUSED PERIL IN '52: Flooding of Atomic Plant With Deadly Radioactive By ROBERT K. PLUMB
New York Times (1923-Current file); Dec 1, 1954;

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