THE forces of nature filled our ancestors with awe and fear. Eclipses, great storms, even the change of the seasons gave rise to rituals of thanksgiving or appeasement. Gradually understanding lessened fear. Men learned to adjust themselves to their natural environment and even to make effective use of it. First by observation, later by experiment, men learned to relate cause to effect in the sequence of events that occur in the physical world. Such knowledge was increasingly turned to man's advantage until today we find that the structure of modern society depends on our understanding of the laws of nature through science and on our use of those laws through technology. Not only the way we live but the way we think is affected by the results of science. Yet we remain instinctively aware of the dangers and the limitations of our knowledge. When a great discovery is made in science and applied in technology, our hopes are tempered by awe. We are now more afraid of what man will do with nature than of what nature will do with man.

Probably the three greatest technological discoveries ever made have been the use of fire, the production of mechanical work from heat and the conversion of nuclear energy into heat. Of these, the first was prehistoric, the second largely empirical with little assistance from science and the third came almost directly out of the scientific laboratory--inevitably so, since there is no natural process on earth which produces significant quantities of nuclear energy.

Recognition of the extraordinary nature of the discovery of nuclear energy has gone around the world, emphasized of course by the melodramatic manner of its announcement. If one recalls the persistent and profound popular interest in the theory of relativity 30 years ago, one hesitates to attribute all the interest in nuclear energy to atomic bombs. It seems likely that the minds and imaginations of men everywhere would have been kindled by this discovery regardless of its first use. The idea that the kind of energy which keeps the stars alive can be produced and controlled by men is a stirring one. If the extraordinary nature of the discovery was not sufficient to excite men's minds, certainly the manner of its revelation was. The first use of nuclear energy was in the greatest war the world has known; it was incorporated in the most destructive weapon ever devised; and it was immediately followed by the war's end.

I have recalled this history to emphasize the fact that decisions about the peacetime development of nuclear energy have not, cannot and probably should not be made on the basis of strict economic realism. Paradoxically, it is more realistic to take account of the profound hopes and illusions which surround the peacetime use of nuclear energy. In the mind of the world it is linked with the desire to promote peace, with regret that one of man's greatest discoveries was first used for destruction and with the belief that such a triumph of the human mind must ultimately bring good.

In his address before the United Nations in December 1953, President Eisenhower announced this Government's "atoms for peace" program. This was an idealistic speech appealing to the hopes and longings of people everywhere. It proposed that our knowledge of atomic energy should be used as a major instrument to promote our foreign policy of universal peace and freedom. It was a bold proposal not easily implemented. In the nearly three years that have elapsed since that speech, its principles have been reaffirmed but it can hardly be said to have been put into effect.

There are three aspects to the use of atomic energy. Of these, the military aspect is familiar and has been discussed several times in these pages. It will be omitted from the present article. The use of radioactive isotopes both directly and for research may well be the most important application of atomic energy in the long run. However, this second aspect of atomic energy does not involve large expenditures of funds or great concentration of technological effort. It will be felt in a multiplicity of small activities no one of which is very important in domestic or international politics. Distribution of radioactive isotopes and knowledge about them should and can play an important rôle in our atoms for peace program but it is only a part and the least controversial part of that program.

Nuclear energy as a source of industrial power is the idea that has caught the imagination of the world. The belief prevails that energy from the nucleus can be cheap and that cheap power will solve many of the world's ills. In fact, however, there is real uncertainty as to how cheap nuclear power can be and how important it will be in the next ten or twenty years.

One reason for the uncertainty is our delay in turning our attention to this third aspect of atomic energy. Because we already have cheap and plentiful power in this country, we have fixed our attention on discharging our military obligations. Until recent years, our efforts have been concentrated on improving atomic weapons and building up a stockpile of such weapons. We are operating 13 large reactors for the production of plutonium and many smaller reactors designed for research or test purposes. But it is misleading to cite the number of reactors in existence as proof of progress toward nuclear power. We have not entirely neglected the power field. We have built nuclear power plants for submarines, we have acquired knowledge and we have materials available. But we do not have a single plant in operation producing significant amounts of commercial power from nuclear energy. One such plant is under construction. Others are planned but the future of such plans is clouded by controversy arising out of the old public versus private power issue. By contrast, the British with less knowledge and experience but with far more pressing domestic needs have embarked on an ambitious program of construction of full-scale power plants.[i] Announcements from Russia suggest a large program there also. However greatly the idea of nuclear power may appeal to the imaginations of our people and our leaders, there would seem to be a discrepancy between our statements and our actions.

We should be aware of the known facts. We should examine the assumption that the development of nuclear power is of major importance to us. We should review the factual basis for decisions about specific policy and actions. On the technical side we need to know the present status of nuclear technology and what problems remain to be solved. How much is nuclear power going to cost? What are the limitations and probable future costs of power from conventional fuel? What are the predicted needs for power in the future in this country and elsewhere? How important is cheap power in an industrial economy? Are the aims of our foreign policy consistent with the aims of our domestic policy as far as nuclear power is concerned? How can we help foreign countries to obtain nuclear power? If we ought to accelerate our own program, how can we do so? The answers to these questions should determine the size, scope and methods of our Government's activities in nuclear energy for the next several years.

As a basis for answers to some of these questions it is necessary to review the present status of nuclear technology and its implications. Particularly we should understand the uncertainties that still surround this field.


As early as 1920, it was suspected that certain rearrangements of the particles in atomic nuclei might release large amounts of energy. Such rearrangements usually involve two nuclei and are called nuclear reactions. Specifically, such energy was expected from the combination or fusion of light nuclei like hydrogen or from splitting or fission of heavy nuclei like uranium.

Soon after nuclear energy was first discussed, astronomers suggested that perhaps the stars were kept hot by fusion of light nuclei in their interiors where the temperature is many millions of degrees. By 1939 this theory had been worked out in detail and had been successful in explaining relevant astronomical data. In this sense, energy released by fusion was observed before the discovery of fission in uranium.

While the astronomers had been establishing their explanation of the heat of the stars in terms of fusion, atomic physicists had been studying nuclei in the laboratory. Many nuclear reactions that released energy had been discovered but none of them was self-propagating. None appeared to be of value as practical sources of energy. There was no indication that any drastic splitting of heavy nuclei could be brought about in spite of the theoretical knowledge that such a splitting would release energy. Much to everyone's surprise, such a splitting in uranium was discovered in 1939. This splitting we call nuclear fission.

The fission of uranium is a remarkable kind of nuclear reaction. Because of a freak of nature, a high temperature is not required either to initiate it or to sustain it. Fission is caused by neutrons and produces neutrons. Under the right conditions, more neutrons are produced than are used up so that the reaction is self-propagating (i.e. a "chain reaction" occurs). Apparently all that is needed is a mass of uranium and some neutrons. There are always some neutrons around and there is ample uranium in the earth's crust. Why, then, 17 years after the discovery of fission, do we not have a single plant in the United States producing commercial power from uranium?

There is one basic reason for this delay, besides a host of technological difficulties arising from it. When a uranium atom fissions it produces two or three neutrons to replace the one it has absorbed, but it is by no means certain that any one of these new neutrons will be absorbed by uranium in such a way as to cause another fission. On the contrary, they may be absorbed in uranium without causing fission, they may be absorbed by other materials present or they may escape entirely. This problem of "neutron economy" dominates any nuclear reactor design. Obviously, the chain reaction must occur; that is the first requirement. It will not occur if neutrons are wasted.

There are two principal ways in which the neutron economy question can be answered. One is to use enriched uranium and the other is to use a "moderator." If natural uranium is dispersed in lumps or rods through a mass of graphite or heavy water (called a moderator), the probability of neutrons causing fission is enhanced and the reaction can be made self-sustaining, though not by a wide margin. Enriched uranium is uranium from which some or all of the naturally dominant U-238 has been removed, leaving the rare U-235 isotope in which the probability of fission resulting from the absorption of a neutron is much higher. There is no reason why both these measures for insuring a chain reaction cannot be used in the same reactor, and they often are.

Once a chain reaction is started it produces radiation (neutrons and gamma rays), energy (principally in the form of heat), plutonium and fission products. All of these products have their uses. For purposes of this paper, heat energy is the most important. It is this heat energy which we wish to convert into electrical power. From the power point of view, the neutron's gamma rays and fission products are a nuisance, whereas the plutonium is a potential nuclear fuel either in situ or after processing.

An assembly consisting of uranium, moderator, cooling ducts and other components for producing and controlling a fission chain reaction is called a nuclear reactor. Both the design and method of operation of a reactor depend on its primary purpose. Without going into technological problems of reactor design, it may be well to list the categories into which most such problems fall. They are: heat removal, corrosion and similar effects enhanced by radiation, fuel elements and their reprocessing, health and safety, and control. Let me repeat that neutron economy dominates all elements of design. Because the number of neutrons produced in fission is barely enough to maintain the chain reaction, limiting conditions, often difficult to meet, are imposed on the answers to all other design questions.

All of these problems have been attacked in a number of different ways and all have been solved with varying degrees of success. Several different moderators have been used. Heat has been extracted by water, by molten sodium or by air. Uranium fuel has been introduced in solution, as metal protected by various coatings and as oxide. Novel structural materials have been tried. In short, if we think of a nuclear reactor as made up of various components corresponding roughly to the fuel, the boiler, the water and the controls of a conventional steam plant, a great variety of such components has been considered and many of them tested successfully.

It is not yet clear what combination of such reactor components will give the cheapest power nor, in fact, whether any combination will give power cheaply enough to compete with other sources. Only one combination has been thoroughly tested by use for sustained production of power. That is the power plant in the submarine Nautilus which uses enriched uranium fuel elements clad in zirconium with ordinary water under pressure acting as both coolant and moderator. Costs were not the dominant factor in the design of that reactor.

An effective summary of the technical situation was presented at the Geneva Atomic Energy Conference of 1955 by Dr. Alvin Weinberg, Director of the Oak Ridge National Laboratory. He pointed out that there were no less than 900 conceivable types of nuclear reactors made up of various combinations of components tried or suggested. To be sure, many of these combinations can be discarded without trial, yet there are probably at least 100 combinations worthy of serious consideration. A well-rounded development program must select from this welter of possibilities the five or ten most promising types and carry them to the point where some are demonstrably better than others. The cost of carrying one type of reactor through the experimental and prototype (large plant) stages is roughly $100,000,000, which suggests the magnitude of the research and development program that may still be necessary to learn how to get cheap power from nuclear fission.

The amount of energy that can be extracted from a ton of natural uranium is still very much in doubt. Natural uranium contains two different species (isotopes) of uranium. One of these, uranium-235, is readily usable as fuel for the fission chain reaction; the other, uranium-238, is not. Unfortunately, uranium-235, the useful one, is present only to 0.7 percent in natural uranium. By neutron bombardment such as occurs in any nuclear reactor it is possible to convert U-238 into plutonium which is suitable as a reactor fuel. Similarly, neutron bombardment of the element thorium produces a new material (U-233) which is also suitable as a reactor fuel.

A properly designed reactor can produce one of these new fuels faster than it consumes U-235. Such reactors are called "breeders." Successful development of breeder reactors will make it possible to multiply the energy available from a ton of uranium by more than a hundred, since all the uranium would then be used--not just 0.7 percent. Thorium is somewhat more plentiful than uranium so that its use would mean a further doubling of nuclear fission energy available from the ores in the earth's crust. Unfortunately, the design of a large-scale breeder reactor is particularly difficult.

Even with breeders there is a foreseeable end to the fuel in the earth's crust available for nuclear fission reactors. On the other hand, were it possible to use the fusion of deuterium (heavy hydrogen) as a source of electric power, we would no longer need to worry about fuel for our children, our grandchildren or our descendants to the hundredth generation. Deuterium is present to about one part in 5,000 in all water. The energy released by the fusion of the deuterium in the oceans would supply man's needs for millions of years.

It has been known for some time that if hydrogen nuclei could be forced to combine, forming helium, great amounts of energy would be released. In fact, this is the nuclear reaction that occurs in the so-called hydrogen bomb. Unfortunately, the techniques worked out for producing nuclear fusion of hydrogen in a bomb are entirely inapplicable under controlled conditions in a fusion power plant. Unlike the fission chain reaction where much of the technology is common to reactor and bomb, the only basis that hydrogen bomb technology gives for controlled fusion is knowledge of the nuclear reaction itself, and this was already familiar before nuclear bombs--fission or fusion--had been thought of.

The amount of energy given off per gram by the fusion of deuterium is comparable to the energy given off per gram by the fission of uranium. However, there is no known way of producing fusion on a useful scale except to heat a gas to a temperature of millions of degrees. This is difficult and it is still more difficult to confine a gas at such temperatures. It is hoped that electromagnetic fields can be used as a non-material container. A substantial effort to achieve such conditions of temperature and confinement in the laboratory has been going on in this country for a number of years under the auspices of the Atomic Energy Commission. Such work is also going on in Great Britain and in Russia.

No one knows yet whether the fusion reaction can be produced under controlled conditions. I believe it will be. Once that is achieved, no one knows how long it will take to make a practical power plant nor how much it will cost. We shall be lucky if we get a prototype thermonuclear power plant running before we have spent a billion dollars.


In spite of the fact that no reactor yet exists in this country designed for the production of commercial power, innumerable studies have been made of the probable cost of power from such plants. To orient ourselves, it should be recalled that the cost of electrical energy in this country ranges from a low of perhaps 2 mills per kilowatt hour from certain hydroelectric stations up to 4 mills for modern coal-burning plants near the mines and to 10 mills or more in less efficient plants in regions where fuel is more expensive. These are prices at the generating station. There are many special uses or special locations where much higher costs occur and are acceptable. In Western Europe costs are perhaps 40 percent higher and elsewhere much higher. In Japan, for example, power from coal-burning plants costs about 20 mills.

All cost studies made at this stage of experience, or lack of it, have to make a number of assumptions. The optimism with which these assumptions are made determines the cost figure which is derived. Inevitably, there has been a great variation in the conclusions reached. The most reasonable conclusion seems to be that power from large central station nuclear power plants can eventually be generated at a cost between 5 and 10 mills. The word "eventually" is used advisedly since the cost of the first power from the Shippingport plant now under construction will be about 50 mills and is expected to be reduced to 15 or 20 mills only after several years of operation.

We are forced to the general conclusion that the cost of nuclear power in this country will be barely competitive within the next five or ten years. If conventional fuel goes up in price after that period, successful competition becomes more likely since it is probable that nuclear power costs will go down. Nuclear power is almost certainly competitive in some countries, such as Japan, and is probably competitive now in parts of Western Europe.

Not only is the present situation different in this country and in Europe; the disparity in power costs is likely to increase within a very few years. There are still great coal reserves in this country that can be mined at little or no increase in costs beyond the present level. In Western Europe, mining costs are high and likely to go higher because of the exhaustion of readily accessible coal reserves. It is for this reason that the British are pushing the construction of power reactors, even though they are of a type that our technical people consider somewhat primitive.

Enthusiasts not only assume that nuclear power is going to be cheap but that it is a panacea which will bring prosperity to all. In the thousands of words published about the world paradise that nuclear power will make possible, there has been little sober discussion of the importance of power to paradise. To anyone who has visited the Tennessee Valley or the low-cost power areas of the Northwest the advantages of cheap power appear obvious. But are they so essential? Certainly the Delaware Valley is in the midst of an industrial boom; yet it is not a conspicuously lowpower area. In fact, economic studies show that the cost of power is a significant part of the cost of production only in a few specialized industries like aluminum. In international trade, great differences in power costs might tip the balance in highly competitive industries, other things being equal. But, of course, other things are not equal. Japan can be a very effective competitor in many areas of international trade even though its power costs are very high.

Nor can we say that cheap power will be a panacea to raise the standard of living of Asia or other industrially undeveloped areas. It is obvious that some of the backward countries of the world have vast sources of water power which have remained undeveloped. Again, the Near East has been supplying half the world with oil for a generation but does not have cheap power. Initiative and capital are needed to develop such resources. There would remain the problem of finding markets for the power.

On purely economic grounds nuclear power is of most immediate importance in countries already highly industrialized but facing rapid increases in power costs. Such countries are to be found principally in Western Europe.

Though cheap power cannot by itself revolutionize the economy, it can indeed be an important factor. Furthermore, the uses for power multiply rapidly as industrialization progresses and the standard of living rises. For example, electrical generating capacity in the United States has recently been doubling about every ten years and this trend shows every sign of continuing in the coming decades. Similar increases are occurring all over the world. The availability of large amounts of power independent of foreign sources of fuel may be very important to a country even if costs are high.


Evidently our "atoms for peace" program rests more on faith than on solidly established economic and technical data. Furthermore, we have the curious situation in which economic estimates, uncertain as they are, suggest stronger reasons for nuclear power development in other countries than in our own.

Yet there remain three reasons why the United States should pursue a vigorous development of nuclear reactors for the production of power. These reasons are: first, the responsibilities of our present world leadership; second, the implementation of our stated foreign policy; third, the rapid growth of our need for electrical power in this country.

During the past 15 years we have developed a great industrial technology devoted to the extraction of energy from uranium. It is generally recognized that at present we lead the world in this development. We have not been backward in claiming that the peacetime uses of nuclear energy can be an important factor in lifting the general standard of living everywhere. We are at present the richest country in the world and technologically the most advanced. The United States has a great opportunity and a great obligation to maintain leadership in the development of this new technology of nuclear power.

We have not only spoken of the importance of peacetime use of atomic energy. Beyond that, this Government has specifically offered to assist other nations in this development. Consequently, we have a specific obligation to back up our foreign policy gestures in this field with growing technological strength. To do so, we must maintain a vigorous program of reactor development. How can we offer to build reactors abroad without building enough reactors here to know what we are doing? How can we expect to send materials and helpful information abroad if we let our technology fall behind?

It is true that power in this country is now relatively cheap. It is true we have great coal reserves. But our growing need for electric power has been clearly demonstrated in recent years. Our power needs in 1970 or 1975 will certainly be several times greater than our total electrical generating capacity at present. Possibly the coal industry, with help from oil and natural gas, can be developed to take care of these needs. But these conventional sources of fuel are not unlimited. We should be investigating now, long before our present fuel supplies are exhausted, every other promising source of energy. The fission of uranium is such a new source. Common sense and national prudence alike require us to explore its possibilities.

Both inside and outside the Government there seems to be general acceptance of the need for nuclear power development, but there is a great difference of opinion as to how this responsibility should be discharged. Such differences of opinion about the scope and methods of our nuclear power program are exacerbated by the domestic issue of public versus private power but arise principally from the technical uncertainties of the situation. Before discussing how our nuclear power program should be shaped to meet both our domestic needs and those of our foreign policy, we should inquire what help we might be able to give foreign countries and the mechanism of providing that help.

To outline specifically the kinds of action that may gain us advantages in foreign fields we need to distinguish between different countries. The kind of help that might be welcome and useful varies greatly between countries like England and France, which already have vigorous atomic energy programs backed by large groups of technically trained people, and more backward countries where the atomic energy programs have hardly started and there is a great shortage of scientists and engineers.

For the most advanced countries our most useful contributions would probably be materials, not only uranium but enriched uranium, heavy water, zirconium and possibly others. Instruments and special reactor components such as pumps and perhaps fuel elements might also be useful. In nearly every case such materials or component parts could be obtained elsewhere so that we will have to compete in quality or price. A second category, perhaps as important, is information. Again this is competitive with other sources. To retain viability the information we supply must constantly be refreshed and brought up to date to a degree effective only if we maintain a vigorous program of research and development. Included in such information should be operating data on full-scale commercial power plants. The actual export of nuclear power plants or construction of such plants abroad by American firms is important for countries just starting nuclear energy programs. For those countries which are highly industrialized, demands of this sort might diminish rapidly after the initial phase of their program is completed.

For the least developed areas, small-output nuclear power plants should be important for a considerable period. This is a field which has not been considered very important domestically since it is generally believed that power costs will be high for such plants. Consequently, this can be considered as part of our program specifically aimed at the foreign field. It is important to develop packaged power units as cheap and foolproof as possible. Probably such units sent abroad would have to be accompanied by trained crews for the initial operating period. Information, supported by trained people, is also needed by the less developed countries. Visits by scientists and engineers to all countries will be important but in the less developed countries the visits should be longer and should include not only specialists but men capable of teaching basic background material.

There are two advantages to foreign aid in this form. It might be used as a lever to control future use of nuclear materials and reactors, specifically to prevent diversion to military uses, and it might be far more effective psychologically than equal amounts of money for more prosaic purposes.

The mechanisms which can be used to provide foreign aid are limited by the Atomic Energy Act of 1954. Under that act it will be possible for the United States to coöperate with other countries individually, in groups or through the medium of an international agency such as is under discussion in the United Nations. Already some 40 bilateral treaties have been negotiated for the exchange of materials and information. However, it should be pointed out that all but a few of these are concerned not with power reactors but only with research reactors. These have their uses as training instruments but the amounts of material and of information they require are trivial compared to the needs of power reactors--roughly in the same ratio as costs, or about 1 to 100.


At present we are in a strong position to help foreign countries obtain nuclear power. However, if we are to make our "atoms for peace" program an effective part of our foreign policy we must realize that we are in a highly competitive situation. Other countries have vigorous atomic energy programs. They have already proven their competence. They have already shown that there is no such thing as a monopoly on the laws of nature. In many instances they have more compelling domestic reasons than we have for pushing nuclear reactors as practical operating components of their national power systems. Our present commanding lead is bound to lessen. It could easily disappear if any part of our program lags seriously.

Unfortunately, one whole part of our program is currently in a state of confusion. In 1954, the Atomic Energy Commission recognized that the time had come to build some full-scale nuclear power plants that could be run on a continuous basis supplying power to regular customers. The question arose as to whether such full-scale "demonstration" power plants should be financed by the Government or by private industry. This question immediately involved the Atomic Energy Commission in the longstanding private versus public power question, an involvement accentuated by the unfortunate Dixon-Yates affair.

To a large extent, the public versus private power question as it relates to nuclear energy has been misrepresented. The whole development of nuclear energy in this country has depended on the cooperation of government and industry. The actual work on reactor development has been carried out entirely by industries and universities although largely in government laboratories and at government expense. All plants and laboratories have been constructed and operated by private industry under government contracts. Furthermore, it had been the tacit understanding of the Atomic Energy Commission that nuclear power plants would eventually be built by private companies on the same basis as ordinary coal-burning plants. Private companies had vociferously upheld this view and by the summer of 1954 had already begun to put substantial sums of their own money into research and planning for such construction.

Early in 1955, the Commission invited private companies to make proposals for the construction of full-scale nuclear power plants with varying degrees of financial support by the Government. Under this arrangement, quite a number of proposals have been made and accepted. Yet as of the summer of 1956, only one plant was actually under construction.

It is not possible to judge the motivation of the private companies, but clearly the genuine desire to keep abreast of technological progress is strengthened by eagerness to prove the company progressive and the wish to forestall government power plants. However, private industry must necessarily be concerned with immediate costs and with reliability. When a novel type of reactor is chosen for construction by private industry there may be a temptation to minimize risk by a long period of preliminary research. Probably as more and more reactors are built for the production of power by utility systems, the tendency will be to build reactors of a type already tested in practice. For example, in the proposals currently before the Commission there is a preponderance of pressurized light water reactors. Most experts would say that such reactors are not the reactors of the future.

During the past year private industry has expressed great concern over the limit of their public liability for the real or imagined injuries that might arise from reactor accidents or even from normal operation. This is understandable. The Joint Congressional Committee on Atomic Energy recommended to the last Congress a government insurance bill to take care of this difficulty. The Committee also introduced a bill authorizing the Atomic Energy Commission to build several full-scale power reactors up to a total cost of $400,000,000. Neither bill passed.

In opposing the bill authorizing it to build full-scale power reactors, the Atomic Energy Commission expressed the view "that while it must take the lead and carry most of the burden of developing nuclear power reactor technology, industry should take the initiative and assume the major responsibility for full-scale prototype reactors." Such a policy might be reasonable if we were concerned only with the development of nuclear power for the United States, but we are not.

We cannot simultaneously make "atoms for peace" a major part of our foreign policy and atoms for private industry a controlling part of our domestic policy. However desirable it may be to get the Government out of the nuclear power business, it is more important to back our announced foreign policy with a vigorous and fast-moving program of reactor development and construction. If money can be saved by persuading private industry to finance some power plants, well and good, but the Government must determine the program and finance any parts of it that private industry is unwilling or unable to carry.

Clearly the decisions as to what to build, where and how fast must be made by the United States Government. Only the Government can balance the importance of progress versus cost in terms of national prestige, foreign policy and long-range needs. The principal responsibility rests with the five members of the Atomic Energy Commission. They must share it with Congress, which provides the money, and with other Executive departments such as State, Defense and Bureau of the Budget.

Similarly, the Atomic Energy Commission must determine our declassification policy. Information acquired is useless if it cannot be communicated. Secrecy is like a drug habit. Breaking away from it induces nervousness and hallucinations. Sticking to it maintains a false glow of security. We need a clear decision that information of direct and immediate military value should remain classified and that all other information should be declassified. Such a decision would release our work on the controlled thermonuclear reaction from the bonds of secrecy in which it is now entangled and would release other more prosaic data which our rivals can eventually get for themselves if they haven't already.


The "atoms for peace" policy advocated by President Eisenhower is feasible and desirable regardless of some technical uncertainties. To make this policy effective demands a more ambitious approach to nuclear power than is required by our domestic needs. For this reason, the United States Government must play a leading rôle and must make expenditures that will be substantial although small compared to military budgets. The technical program must be kept flexible and must be accelerated in order to maintain the leadership implied by the policy.

The history of atomic energy in this country is an example of partnership between government and private industry. We cannot afford to weaken this partnership by a quarrel over public versus private power. The Government should continue research on both fission and fusion, and the construction of experimental reactors. It should not hesitate to build full-scale power-producing reactors of various types when they are technically justified. These full-scale power plants can supplement rather than duplicate those built by private companies, thus filling any gaps that might otherwise appear in the over-all program. While continuing as construction and operating contractors for the Government, private industry should be encouraged to invest its own money, both in research and development and in the construction of power reactors.

Every effort should be made to reduce secrecy and to simplify the transmittal of materials and knowledge to other countries through government and business channels. We must continually add to our knowledge and make this knowledge available to others.

Our objectives are technical progress and the use of such progress to strengthen our international position and to promote peace. Only by such a program can we fulfill the commitments of our foreign policy. We have an opportunity and an obligation to use the greatest discovery of our time for the benefit of all men of all nations.

[i]Editor's Note: See "Britain's Drive for Power" by Sir George Thomson on p. 95.

You are reading a free article.

Subscribe to Foreign Affairs to get unlimited access.

  • Paywall-free reading of new articles and a century of archives
  • Unlock access to iOS/Android apps to save editions for offline reading
  • Six issues a year in print, online, and audio editions
Subscribe Now
  • HENRY DeWOLF SMYTH, Chairman, Board of Scientific and Engineering Research, Princeton University; member of the Atomic Energy Commission, 1949-54; Consultant to the National Research Council and the Office of Scientific Research and Development, 1940-45; author of "Atomic Energy for Military Purposes," 1945
  • More By Henry DeWolf Smyth