on the World Today
IN February, 1944, our forces captured Eniwetok atoll from the Japanese at the cost of more than a hundred American lives. A coral reef linking hall it dozen small islands in a circle some fifteen miles in diameter, the atoll lies southwest of Wake Island in the central Pacific. It came back into the news this winter when the United States Atomic Energy Commission announced that construction had been started there for the Pacific Ocean installations suggested in the Commission’s second semiannual report to Congress.
The Commission pointed out the particular suitability of Eniwetok for the purposes in hand. The atoll has only about 145 inhabitants (who are to be resettled on Ujelang); it possesses land surface ample for the instrumentation involved in the scientific experiments contemplated; and it is surrounded by hundreds of miles of open seas in the direction in which winds might carry radioactive particles.
The purpose of the installations is to establish by experimentation the indicated results of laboratory studies already performed. New fundamental data and a broader understanding of nuclear fission should come from this field work, which will facilitate advances in peaceful as well as military applications of the forces of the atomic nucleus. All test operations at the atoll will be conducted under laboratory control conditions.
Moreover, the Commission announced that all operations would be conducted under full security restrictions as required by the Atomic Energy Act of 1946. The area of the installations will be closed, and the Security Council of the United Nations will be duly notified of this fact. Closing of the area as a safety measure was provided for in the United States Trusteeship Agreement for the former Japanese mandated islands, under which the United States has authority for the atoll.
How much secrecy?
The press tried to read significance into the fact that the word “weapons” was used in the plural in the Commission’s terse announcement. But as far back as last July, in reporting to the Congress as required under the Atomic Energy Act of 1946, the
Commission said that it was establishing proving grounds in the Pacific for routine experiments and tests of atomic “weapons.” At that time, the plural seemed to draw no unusual attention. And if the United States today possesses more than a single atomic bomb — as indeed it should in view of the two years and a half of steady work since Hiroshima — the plural might sensibly have been taken as referring to those bombs.
The belated interest in the plural focuses at tention on the thorniest problem confronting the United States Atomic Energy Commission — the problem of security. So much has been secret about atomic energy that even an extra s becomes significant. It is important to understand why some questions cannot be answered; but it is even more important to realize that the answers to many other questions are available and should be sought out by the average citizen.
Restriction comes home
The five members of the United States Atomic Energy Commission are agents of the people. The Commission’s powers and its responsibility to the nation are set forth in detail in the Atomic Energy Act of 1946. This piece of legislation, which candidly declares that revision from time to time is to be expected because of the unknown factors involved in the field of atomic energy, came into being only after thoroughgoing deliberation.
Section 10 of the Act provides that until effective and enforcible international safeguards against the use of atomic energy for destructive purposes have been established, the dissemination of restricted data shall be controlled so as to assure the common defense and security. All data concerning the manufacture or utilization of atomic weapons, the production of fissionable material, or the use of fissionable material in the production of power are put under wraps.
This is a sweeping order. But thoughtful people, remembering the explosive force of the atomic bomb and the potentialities of radioactive materials, and alert to the implications of the present world situation, will agree that it makes sense.
And the Act makes more sense, for it specifies the principles that knowledge of industrial possibilities in atomic energy should be shared with other nations reciprocally as soon as security permits and that the interchange of ideas and criticisms essential to scientific progress should be fostered.
The Commission is empowered to determine from time to time what data may be published without adversely affecting the common defense and security. The task of removing data from the restricted list demands the utmost in discrimination, judgment, and comprehension. The Commissioners have these qualities; and what is more, they have full knowledge. The Act makes sense in thus localizing and focusing this critical responsibility.
Misconceptions of the layman
What does not make sense in the whole affair is the unhappy tendency of many people to jump to false conclusions. One such conclusion, too widely held and attributable in part to the blasts at Hiroshima and Nagasaki, is acceptance of what Mr. Lilienthal has called the myth of the atom bomb — the idea that atomic energy is useful only as a weapon, and nothing else. Another is the easy notion that the existence of security restrictions means that no general information is available. A third, and lazier, notion is that knowledge of fission is too complicated for the average person and hence had best be left to the physicists.
These are all pernicious, for, in spite of present international stumbling blocks, we may look forward to the day when atomic energy is central in industry and in agriculture as well as in health all over the world. But when that day comes, because of the admitted essential physical difficulties in practical application of atomic energy, there will of necessity be safeguards and hedges entirely aside from such restrictions as are today required by security. Unless the reasons for them are understood, these safeguards will be annoying.
For example, legislation to assure continuous operations at key installations may be required. “ We can’t stand for work stoppages, either by strike or lockout,” says Senator Bourke B. Hickenlooper of Iowa. This suggests a new phase in American labor policy.
The prohibitions which the unsettled international situation demands are concerned primarily with abstruse scientific knowledge, or with intricate technological processes, or with highly specialized applications. They do not apply to the basic knowledge, the broad general foundation of physical fact underlying the technical applications.
The critical mass of nuclear explosive necessary to an atomic bomb must remain a matter of security for the time being. The critical fact that a mediumfast neutron will split an atom of Uranium 235 into atoms of barium and krypton with the release of free neutrons to repeat the process and produce a chain reaction giving off an enormous amount of energy according to the Einstein law of mass and energy equivalence, however, is free and open.
Getting at the facts
The security of the future depends in very large measure upon the grasp which the citizen gets on these broad matters that lie outside the realm of the “security” of the present. Only as they become part of the thinking of an intelligent electorate can we count either on sound legislation or on acceptance of the inevitable social, economic, and political effects of the civilian use of atomic energy. The basic facts of atomic energy are under no security limitations and in essence are more important than those withheld. The mechanics of fission, the products of fission, the fabulous by-products of the release of nuclear energy — it is this sort of thing with which the layman must be familiar.
The essential physics involved is not so forbiddingly intricate; it has been detailed in a number of able books in the past two years, notable among them Selig Hecht’s Explaining the Atom, which in an evening’s thoughtful reading sets up the entire background and summarizes the accomplishments. A book of this sort lays firm basis for Henry D. Smyth’s Atomic Energy far Military Purposes, the famous “Smyth Report,” and for A Report on the International Control of Atomic Energy, the Department of State Publication No. 2498, known as the Acheson-Lilienthal Report, which is basic to the proposals made by Mr. Baruch for the United States to the United Nations for the establishment of the international control of atomic energy.
Out of this reading, the citizen will get information that will help him understand day-to-day announcements concerning radioisotopes in medicine and in agriculture. And he will have perspective from which to appraise both the assertions of military experts concerning the changed face given to war by the existence of the bomb, and the analyses by students of social science—such as The Absolute Weapon, which Bernard Brodie edited for Yale’s Institute of International Studies, and the perceptive study, The Problem of ReducingVulnerability to Atomic Bombs, which Ansley J. Coale wrote for the Social Science Research Council.
The people must be informed
No group in the country is more alert to the need for periodic revision of legislation and for spreading information as soon as security allows than are the members of the Commission itself. Both in their daily operations and in their public pronouncements, the Commissioners have consistently emphasized the responsibility of the individual citizen to learn the basic facts. They have urged collaboration of the press, of schools, of clubs, and of study groups, and have called for the active participation of the technically trained members of each community who have the special knowledge to clarify the facts for the layman.
At times there has been a frantic ring to some of these statements. Speaking at Crawfordsville, Indiana, last fall, Chairman Lilienthal declared, “ If schemers or fools or rascals or hysterical stuffed shirts get this thing out of your hands — it may then be too late to find out what it is all about.”
Addressing the American Society of Mechanical Engineers in December, Mr. Lilienthal put the case in these words: “Atomic energy is not only science and engineering; it is one of the most vital of all areas of public policy, in which as a people we must make decisions affecting the course of the Republic, the peace of the world, and the future of the twentieth century. If these decisions are to be made by the democratic process . . . then the people as a whole must be adequately informed of the essential facts of this new force, and of its meaning to laymen. This education . . . must not come from a centralized official source, an American version of a Minister of Enlightenment and Culture, but instead, as far as possible from within the communities and neighborhoods of America.”
The Commission welcomed the appointment of a committee of representative newspaper editors, named by the American Society of Newspaper Editors, which a few weeks ago conferred with the Commission on plans to bring before the people all unrestricted information on atomic energy.
Better coöperation between the nation’s press and the Commission was one purpose of the meeting. It also considered ways in which the Commission could help the press by furnishing news and feature material concerning atomic energy. Avowedly pedagogical feature stories — even cartoons and puzzles — which had already begun to appear in December, showed that the effort at wider public understanding was getting under way. Reliable newspaper publicity will counteract the overzealous censorship of which Commissioner W. W. Waymack — himself an experienced newspaperman — warned. Thus, however obscure the prospects for sane international handling of the new force, in the United States at least, a sound beginning on general education in the fundamental intricacies has been made.