Lentis/Atomic Age Optimism: 1930s - 1960s

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The discovery of nuclear fission in 1934 sparked an explosion of interest in the capabilities of nuclear technology. From the 1930s to the 1960s, many of the defining moments of the Atomic Age revolved around the tragedies of nuclear weapon use and the nuclear arms race between the United States and the Soviet Union. However, optimism during Atomic Age also led to the development of many peaceful civilian applications for nuclear technology.


Physicist Enrico Fermi discovered nuclear fission in 1934 when he bombarded uranium with neutrons. Shortly thereafter, interest in fission nuclear reactions exploded amongst the scientific community, and universities across the US and Europe began further research. Nuclear research focused primarily on the development of defense weapons in the years just prior to and during World War II [1]. The threat of WWII and Germany winning the race to develop nuclear weapons persuaded many of the early nuclear scientists to push for weapon development in the United States. Physicists Leo Szilard and Eugene Wigner met with Albert Einstein and drafted a letter to President Roosevelt urging a rapid buildup of research in nuclear processes, and the acquisition of a stockpile of Uranium. The letter was delivered in October 1939, and Roosevelt appointed an Advisory Committee on Uranium which received modest funding, and began to acquire uranium and graphite, a moderator of neutron velocity, for the fabrication of a pile [2]. However, harassing nuclear energy domestically remained of great importance to many in the scientific community. On December 2, 1942, a group of scientists led by Enrico Fermi at the University of Chicago successfully created the first self-sustaining nuclear reaction; an important scientific breakthrough for the harassing of nuclear power for electricity production [1].

The Manhattan Project[edit]

Domestic research and development of atomic weapons during WWII was done under the code name Manhattan Project. This government run research project relied on the expertise of many of the early nuclear scientists of the 1930s. In 1939, Enrico Fermi explained the status of fission investigations to naval and army officers, and civilian scientists from the Naval Research Laboratory. As oppose to developing a weapon, the Navy expressed interest in developing a potential power source. Naval officials believed the creation of an engine that did not require oxygen would allow submarines to remain underwater for indefinite periods [3].

A world map indicating the destination of all foreign shipments of radioisotopes from the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission during the first twenty-two months of the program.

The Atomic Energy Commission[edit]

After WWII, The Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) was created by the Atomic Energy Act of 1946 to control nuclear energy development and explore peaceful uses of nuclear energy [1]. The AEC oversaw the shipments of wartime radioisotopes to scientists and physicians in order to evaluate thyroid function, diagnose medical disorders, and irradiate tumors. Both researchers and politicians in the United States lauded radioisotopes publicly for their potential use in curing diseases, particularly cancer [4]. By mid-1947, the AEC had 96 unfilled foreign requests for radioisotopes, of which 73 were for medical research and therapy. Overall, between the fall of 1947 to the end of 1948, the AEC sent out 356 shipments of radioisotopes to various laboratories and treatment centers around the world [3]. The AEC also authorized and oversaw the construction of the first nuclear reactor in Idaho called Experimental Breeder Reactor #1. Reactions to the reactor's construction were optimistic, with an article from the Wall Street Journal published in November of 1949 stating the experiment, "...could lead to few atomic power plants within a decade" and "...atom power plants will compete with oil, coal and water power where these fuels are extremely costly" [5]. Experimental Breeder #1 became the first reactor to generate electricity from nuclear energy in December of 1951 [1].

Atomic City[edit]

As the new decade started there was a clear optimism regarding both militant and non-militant uses of nuclear technology. Cold War tension and fear of the spread of communism by the Soviet Union still posed a threat to the United States and therefore nuclear testing continued. At this point the arms race had moved beyond fission bombs, such as the ones which devastated Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and was centered around the creation of a thermonuclear weapon, or hydrogen bomb (18). The new weapon was significantly more powerful than its predecessor, the fission bombs used in WWII yielded an explosion of 15-20 kilotons of TNT while the thermonuclear weapon was to yield 10,000 kilotons of TNT. Fear of this power was present worldwide. However, during the 1950s in America a fetishization of this innovation was seen as people were enamored by the raw power of the technology. The Nevada Test Site, located just north of Las Vegas, became a tourist attraction for visitors to stay at nearby hotels and casinos and witness the awesome spectacle of intense light in the distance (19). Coined “Atomic City” the attraction brought in so many tourist nearby casinos hosted themed “dawn parties” to watch the tests and nuclear themed cocktails (20). Unfortunately, the fetishization of nuclear power caused the dangerous fallout from these tests to be underestimated. Although originally estimated to be low risk, unprecedented spread of radiation especially due to unpredicted weather patterns posed a real threat to tourists and nearby residents.

Eisenhower's Atoms-for-Peace[edit]

The 50s also marked a strong movement towards peaceful uses of nuclear energy. On December 8, 1953 President Dwight Eisenhower spoke before the United Nations unveiling his Atoms-for-Peace proposal (21). With a sufficient supply of uranium for US military purposes, Eisenhower decided it was time to promote and pursue the peaceful uses of nuclear energy. Part of the program was to reorient research funding for electricity generation. This effort wanted to expand on prior work such as the first nuclear reactor, Experimental Breeder reactor (EBR-1), which started up in 1951 producing albeit a trivial amount of power (6). Medical uses of nuclear technology was also explored. Isotopes were primarily used in diagnostic imaging procedures (22). Unfortunately, similar to the events of Atomic City tourism, the operational hazards of using these radioactive materials was underestimated and posed potential danger to both medical professionals and their patients. Optimism over the potential uses of radioactive isotopes spread to commercial uses as well. One far fetched proposal that never came to fruition was the use of nuclear energy in cars. One concept of the atomic car was the Ford Nucleon designed in 1958 (23). An interesting design, this project never made it to a full size concept as the lead shielding which would have been needed to protect passengers from radiation was not a plausible idea.

Commercial Nuclear Power[edit]

The 1960s saw the beginnings of viable commercial nuclear power. In 1960, the first boiling water reactor, Dresden-1, was developed by General Electric and the first pressurized water reactor, Yankee Rowe, was developed by Westinghouse. Both types of reactors saw major improvement throughout the decade, and by 1970, such reactors could generate power output comparable to coal plants[6]. Though nuclear energy was first considered too expensive to be viable for commercial power, improvements in efficiency presented nuclear energy as a potentially viable future option. Despite reliable output, there were early safety concerns regarding nuclear reactors. Throughout the 1960s, there were three nuclear accidents in the United States, resulting in four fatalities[7]. These accidents deterred faith in nuclear energy energy. As reactors grew in size, new safety questions arose and created fear of a severe reactor accident that could release dangerous amounts of radiation into the environment. These safety concerns led to a decline in reactor production in the 1970s and marked the end of the atomic optimism for commercial nuclear energy of the 1960s[8].

Fear of Global War[edit]

In 1957, the United States government started Operation Plowshare, a project involving 27 controlled nuclear explosions to displace land[9]. The chairman of the United States Atomic Energy Commission announced that the Plowshares project was intended to "highlight the peaceful applications of nuclear explosive devices and thereby create a climate of world opinion that is more favorable to weapons development and tests"[10]. Throughout the 1960s, there were many negative effects of Operation Plowshare, including blighted land, radiation, and contaminated water. These effects coupled with a cost of $700 million led to the termination of the project in 1977 due to public perception[11].

In 1961, the federal government started the community fallout shelter program. President Kennedy advised the use of fallout shelters by citizens in the September 1961 issue of Life magazine. This resulted in a cultural phenomenon called shelter mania, where fallout shelters were found fashionable; however, the craze was short lived as it ended in 1963 due to bad public perception of sales techniques and efficacy[12].

The Cuban Missile Crisis occurred from October 16 to October 28, 1962, marking the closest the world has ever come to nuclear war. Fidel Castro requested nuclear missiles from the Soviet Union in response to the Bay of Pigs Invasion, and Nikita Khrushchev agreed[13]. A United States spy plane found the nuclear weapons facilities in Cuba and President Kennedy responded with a naval blockade of the island[14]. Intense negotiations in the following days between the United States and the Soviet Union resulted in the removal of the Cuban missiles and the naval blockade. The event sparked fear in the United States citizens and marked the peak of the Cold War[15].

Two important treaties regarding nuclear weapons were signed by the United States in the 1960s. The Partial Test Ban Treaty of 1963 eliminated all nuclear detonation testing that did not occur underground. This slowed the proliferation of nuclear weapons and the nuclear arms race[16]. The Outer Space Treaty of 1967 outlined a basis for international space law, and prohibited weapons of mass destruction in space[17].

Lessons and Recommendations for Further Work[edit]

(18) Pappas, S. (2017, September 22). Hydrogen Bomb vs. Atomic Bomb: What’s the Difference? | Live Science. Retrieved December 10, 2019, from https://www.livescience.com/53280-hydrogen-bomb-vs-atomic-bomb.html

(19) Nevada Test Site. Atomic Heritage Foundation website: https://www.atomicheritage.org/location/nevada-test-site

(20) Atomic Tourism in Nevada | American Experience | PBS. https://www.pbs.org/wgbh/americanexperience/features/atomic-tourism-nevada/

(21) Buck, A. (1983, July). A History of the Atomic Energy Commission. https://www.energy.gov/management/downloads/history-atomic-energy-commission

(22) Drozdovitch, V., Brill, A. B., Mettler, F. A., Beckner, W. M., Goldsmith, S. J., Gross, M. D., … Simon, S. L. (2014). NUCLEAR MEDICINE PRACTICES IN THE 1950s THROUGH THE mid-1970s AND OCCUPATIONAL RADIATION DOSES TO TECHNOLOGISTS FROM DIAGNOSTIC RADIOISOTOPE PROCEDURES. Health Physics, 107(4), 300–310. https://doi.org/10.1097/HP.0000000000000107

(23) Marquis, E. (2014, July 17). Nuclear-powered concept cars from the Atomic Age. Retrieved December 10, 2019, from Autoblog website: https://www.autoblog.com/2014/07/17/nuclear-powered-atomic-age-classic-cars/


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  13. Mikoyan, S. (2012, Oct 10). Castro, Mikoyan, Kennedy, Khrushchev, and the Missiles of November. The National Security Archive. https://nsarchive2.gwu.edu/NSAEBB/NSAEBB393/
  14. US Department of State (n.d.). Cuban Missile Crisis (Archived). https://web.archive.org/web/20100527171609/http://future.state.gov/educators/slideshow/cuba/cuba2.html
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