Pubblicazioni : Nucleare e solare negli anni '50 e '60

Nuclear or Solar?
Energy Choices for the 1950s and 1960s

John Perlin
Solar Energy Historian

The early 1950s seemed especially bright for the future of solar energy technologies. In 1952, the President' Materials' Commission appointed by President Harry S. Truman came out with a report called "Resources for the Future." The Report warned that the United States and its allies would start to run short on fuel by 1975. It therefore urged the United States Government should look to solar energy to take up the slack. The Commission complained, "Efforts made to date to harness solar energy are infinitesimal though the United States could make an immense contribution to the Free World" by exploiting solar energy. The Commission predicted that, if the government followed its recommendations, solar energy would heat 13 million homes in America by the mid-1970s.

Solar technology also showed its stuff in the early 1950s when the silicon solar cell, called at the time the solar battery, developed at Bell Laboratories in 1954, produced 50 million times more power than a similar sized nuclear powered silicon cell, referred to at the time as the atomic battery, built almost simultaneously at RCA Laboratories.

The silicon solar cells' stellar performance led many to believe, as U.S. News & World Report stated in 1954, The Silicon Solar may provide more power than all the world's coal, oil and uranium..."

With such praise lavished on solar energy, why did the world turn away from solar and focus on nuclear as the one alternative energy source that governments generously provided unlimited funding. The answer has little to do with energy issues and everything to do with winning the cold war.

In the battle for the hearts and minds of the world, the Soviets, in the early 1950s, appeared to hold the lead. The memory of Hiroshima and Nagasaki still haunted the world. There two bombs leveled entire cities, leaving in its wake thousands stripped of flesh and survivors to die a slow and horrible death. The toll of destruction wrought by the A-bomb struck fear into the hearts of reasonable men and women throughout the globe. International movements rose to fight against the production and use of weapons of mass destruction. Demonstrators shouted, "Ban the Bomb!" "Stop Nuclear Testing Now!" Protesters directed most of their ire towards America. Hadn't the United States dropped the first and only nuclear bombs? Didn't the majority of atomic weapons belong to the Americans and their allies? Such irrefutable evidence allowed the Soviets to charge America with "warmongering" and for much of the world to agree.

In one bold stroke America wiped away its charnel image. President Eisenhower, on December 8, 1953, speaking at the United Nations, pledged America's "determination to help solve the fearful atomic dilemma - to devote its entire heart and mind to find the way by which the miraculous inventiveness of man shall not be dedicated to his death, but consecrated to his life" (D. Eisenhower, quoted in L. Fermi, Atoms for the World, p.6).

The crowd listening to Eisenhower numbered over three thousand. They represented almost every nation in the world. When the President proposed replacing atom bombs with nuclear reactors, everyone sprang up and applauded and kept on cheering.

Eisenhower's speech earned rave reviews. His plan, boasted the New York Times, "has swept away the last vestige of Soviet propaganda that the United States rather than Soviet Russia obstructs progress toward easing international has made President Eisenhower the unchallenged leader of the camp of peace" (NYT, 12-11-53, p.30). The Premier of France concurred with the Times' assessment, stating, "Systematic propaganda of Soviet inspiration tried to give the great powers a guilt complex about their large stocks of atomic materials. President Eisenhower's speech has radically changed this situation" (NYT, 12-11-53, p.17).

Eisenhower's U.N. presentation made Theodor Streibert's job a lot easier. Streibert was in charge of spreading America's propaganda overseas. He no longer had to waste his time answering Russian accusations. The President suggestion of turning the bomb into a weapon for peace had the Soviet Union squirming, Streibert triumphantly told the Times, "It was the best idea to come out of the cold war so far," he added (NYT, April 13, 1955, p.9)

Someone called Eisenhower's plan "Atoms for Peace," and the phrase stuck. Selling the peaceful atom as the world's future energy source began immediately after the President addressed the United Nations. No one in the Administration wanted America's "vigorous answer to hostile efforts to picture [the United States] as a nation whose nuclear energies are devoted to producing weapons for an 'Imperialist' war" to lose momentum (L. Strauss, June 24, 1955, "Overseas Press Luncheon, N.Y., N.Y.," in Atoms for Peace Manual, p.488). The American Government therefore "went all-out," according to a high-level employee at the U.S. Information Service, "to get [the President's Atoms for Peace] message to all parts of the world" (NYT, April 13,1955, p.9). It filled the world's air waves, libraries and exhibit halls proclaiming a new savior, the "good" atom.

The "bad" atom poked out its ugly face once more when the world learned in April, 1955 that a new bomb added to the United States' arsenal, the H-bomb, could destroy a city the size of New York in a single blast. The testing of the first H-bomb a month before polluted 7,000 square miles of the South Pacific with deadly nuclear wastes, killed one Japanese fisherman and injured many of his companions and contaminated the tuna they had caught. Surely, the Communists would try to make political hay out of these horrific developments. To deflect any attempts by the enemy to play on anti-H-bomb sentiments, America upped the ante in its Atoms for Peace game.

The Americans promised to provide the world's nations with fissionable nuclear material for peaceful atomic research. Eisenhower announced the establishment of a reactor school where scientists and technicians from around the globe would learn to operate nuclear facilities and pledged to build reactors in "friendly" countries. The United States also revealed plans for an international conference where the world's top scientists would meet to discuss the peaceful uses of the atom. The plan received the blessings of the United Nations and in August, 1955 the political and scientific leaders of the world met in Geneva to discuss the peaceful uses of atomic energy. The conference also made page 1 news for weeks on end. Listen to the tone of the piece written by their science writer W. Laurence for page one coverage of the upcoming Geneva conference on the peaceful atom. "It was on August 6, 1945, a Monday that the first atomic bomb transformed the city of Hiroshima into a gigantic mushroom cloud of life-destroying dust," Laurence wrote. "It is on the second Monday of August, 1955 [the opening of the Geneva conference] that the people of the world may look upon the future as the day heralding the ultimate deliverance from fear of atomic annihilation, the day that marked the beginning of the atomic realization of biblical prophecy of beating swords into plowshares" (NYT, Aug 7 1955 p.1).

In contrast to the world-wide political and scientific sponsorship and news coverage of the Atoms for Peace Meeting in Geneva, the World Symposium on Applied Solar Energy, from which the International Solar Energy Society emerged, which met during the same year had to settle for sponsorship by a few private industrial organizations and foundations and received interest by the media.

By 1955, the die had been cast. The now powerful nuclear juggernaut steamrolled world opinion into almost unanimous support. Walt Disney produced Our Friend the Atom to win over younger readers for the peaceful atom. Heinz Haber, the author and head of the studio's science department, portrayed the atom to his youthful audience as a genie, who "comes forth at the beckoning of modern science - a smiling, magic servant to all mankind" (H. Haber, OurFriend the Atom, 1956, N.Y.).

The American Church Press commended the Eisenhower proposal. Democrats approved. The liberal Norman Cousins hailed the peaceful atom program as "a strong demonstration of American desire to build a peaceful world" (NYT, Dec 10, 1954, p.32). Senator Joe McCarthy of witch hunt fame concurred, calling "atoms for peace" "an excellent suggestion" (NYT, 12-14-53, p.6).

"Atoms for peace" also had enthusiastic backing of the scientific community. Niels Bohr considered harnessing atomic energy as "the hope of mankind" (NYT, Oct.17, 1954, p.1). Fellow builder of the Bomb, I. Rabi, agreed. "Atoms for peace," Rabi felt, was "the first step on the road we have to travel if civilization is to survive" (NYT, June 2, 1954, p.35).

The peaceful atom initiative gave scientists like Bohr and Rabi their chance to make amends for the terrible work they previously had done. Instead of bombs, "they were going to make reactors, energy for mankind," according to a physicist entering the profession in the 1950s, "they were going to do good things at last."

Even Farrington Daniels, considered by many as a solar visionary of the 1950s, threw in his support for the Peaceful Atom. In fact, Daniels served as the technical advisor to the United States Delegation at "Atoms for Peace" conference at Geneva.

Corporate America saw the peaceful atom as beneficial to their bottom line. The Government promised to share with companies like General Electric its 14 years and 10 billion dollars of research to help industry develop nuclear power. To return a favor, GE and other corporations helped sell "atoms for peace" in their advertisements. In one full-page ad, General Electric warned America, that among the poor countries, "[W]here Communism alone has failed, Communism plus atomic energy might succeed. America's course is therefore clear...," it must beat the Communists in building nuclear power plants throughout the world, with GE reactors, of course (NYT, July 24, 1955, p.10, Section E). "Atoms for peace," it promoters promised, would stimulate an ever burgeoning global market for American made atomic products.

Underdeveloped nations seeking regional military hegemony viewed Eisenhower's offer of fissionable material and reactors as a rare opportunity to get the ingredients for making their very own atomic weapons. Israel, it was reported, "showed remarkable interest in" the "atoms for peace" program (L. Fermi, p.195). India and Pakistan, usually at odds over everything, displayed an amazing unanimity in wanting to get their hands on anything fissionable. Dr. Nazir Ahmad, Chairman of the Atomic Energy Committee of Pakistan, begged the great powers to "extend to us the hand of cooperation so that humanity as a whole might gain the benefits of this truly remarkable development" (L. Fermi, pp.198-199). His Indian counterpart likewise stressed the importance of nuclear energy for progress. "For the full industrialization of the under-developed areas, for the continuation of our civilization and its further development," Dr. Hami Bahba stressed, "atomic energy is an absolute necessity" (United Nations, 1956. Proceedings of the International Conference on the PeacefulUses of Atomic Energy, "Record of the Conference, v.16, p.33).

Even the Communist nations supported Eisenhower's "Atoms for Peace" initiative. The Soviets and their allies demonstrated to the world how such a program coincided with Marxist-Leninist thought. Developments toward harnessing the atom, the Russians contended, lent "particular force to Lenin's remarkable words: 'Human nature has discovered many amazing things in nature and will discover more, and will thereby increase its power over nature" (P. Semenovsky, 1956, Conquering the Atom, p.12).

People of every political stripe agreed that the world had arrived at the threshold of the Atomic Age, "the third great epoch in human history," preceded by the Agrarian revolution in the Euphrates, Indus and Nile valley and the Industrial Revolution of the 19th century (United Nations, 1956. Proceedings of the International Conference on the Peaceful Uses of Atomic Energy, v.16, p.33 & p.31 [Dr. Hami Bahba]). The new Nuclear Age had little or no need for solar technologies. Newsweek judged "the sun's diffuse radiation" as "paltry" when compared with what nuclear could do ("Toward a Captive Sun," Newsweek, Nov.14,1955, p.66). A Marxist scientist, parroting the new Soviet line, gave an even bleaker assessment. We don not " seek for a way of energy," J.D. Bernal wrote, Because of "the discovery of how to produced and usefully direct the enormously concentrated energy" of the atom (J. Bernal, World Without War, p.46). The best solar enthusiasts could hope for, according to the prevailing wisdom of the middle and late 1950s, was to plan for far-off energy needs. The New York Times best articulated this point of view, predicting, "Electricity from the atom will keep industry turning and homes lighted for centuries in the future. And the energy of the sun...will be available after the last atomic fuel is gone" (NYT, June 13,1954, 6.20).

Facts arose that suggested flaws in the nuclear dream. Various analyses demonstrated that nuclear energy would not be cheap. Several years before Eisenhower put forward his "atoms for peace" proposal the Atomic Energy Commission concluded, "No one should expect that commercially feasible atomic power would mean radical reductions in power costs" (R. Lapp, The New Force, p.155). Eisenhower's Secretary of the Treasury George Humphreys presented an even bleaker economic appraisal when he told Newsweek in 1957, "I have never seen any program anywhere yet of really cheap power out of nuclear power" (The Basic Papers of George Humphreys, ed. by N.R. Howard, Cleveland, Ohio, 1965, p.271).

The Noble Prize-winning chemist Dr. Glenn T. Seaborg argued that the difficulty of finding sites to dispose of the dangerous radioactive wastes produced by atomic power plants would severely limit their development (NYT, April 6, 1955, p.25). George W. Russler, Chief Staff engineer at the Minneapolis-Honeywell Research Center, elaborated on the nuclear waste disposal problem. "If one projects the problem into the future when all the world's conventional power plants...are replaced by atomic plants," Russler stated, "then the enormity of the problem of waste disposal becomes apparent. Perhaps, on this scale, the problem may not be solvable" (G. Russler, "Nuclear or Solar Energy: Which Is More Practical for Space Heating?" Heating, Piping and Air Conditioning, v.31, p.107).

Worst, experts agreed that the owners of an atomic power plant could quickly convert it to build bombs. Dr. Robert Oppenheimer, one of the leading scientists working on the Manhattan Project, testified to the United States Senate that a large atomic power plant could be changed over to atomic arms production in a matter of months (Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists of Chicago, v.1&2, p.3). Even members of the Eisenhower Administration admitted having "some unhappy second thoughts...about the Presidents 'atoms for peace' program" turning into "'atom bombs for all'." They confessed, the specter of the underdeveloped world arming themselves atomically was "terrifying," but the program "already had gone so far that it is impossible to pull back" (NYT, Oct.28,1955, p.18). 'Not so!' Dr. James Conant, the American scientist who oversaw the making of America's first nuclear weapons. 'Put the Genie back in the bottle and cork it.' (Lapp, The New Force, p.103). Nuclear power is too dangerous and expensive, Conant contended. Instead, America should take on a Manhattan Project-like program for the development of solar energy.

The problem remained getting the world to end its enchantment with nuclear energy and embrace an all-out effort to harness the sun's power. This could only happen, Dr. Oppenheimer opined, with a little whimsy, if Government took the following steps:

"(a) Classify the sun as Top Secret;

(b) Establish a commission to manage it for the benefit of all mankind;

(c) Give appropriate high-level indications of a super weapon based on the sun;

(d) At the same time, make an official policy pronouncement indicating that we wish to use the sun, not for devastation and war, but for the betterment of mankind."

(R. Oppenheimer, quoted in J. Hershberg, 1993, James B Conant: Harvard to Hiroshimaand the Making of the Nuclear Age, p.595).

Unfortunately, such a scenario remained in the realm of fantasy. Unlike atomic energy, the Air Force concluded in a special report, "Weapons utilizing solar energy directly are not a fruitful avenue of endeavor" (J. Fisher, Feb.1959, An Analysis of Solar Energy Utilization, Aeronautical Research Laboratory, AF 33 616-5564, Project 7116, Task 70189, Wright Air Developmental Center, Air Research & Development Command, USAF Wright-Patterson AFB, Ohio, v.1, pt.1, p.10). What nation would embrace "peaceful" solar power, knowing this?

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