America Needs to Lock Down Again
The Only Way to Slow the Coronavirus Until the Arrival of a Vaccine
A PRELUDE TO H. G. WELLS' DREAM
In 1914 H. G. Wells predicted that peaceful nuclear energy might profoundly affect the relations between nations. In his remarkable The World Set Free: A Story of Mankind Wells foretold the invention of the nuclear bomb and its use in war. After this, said Wells, would come a new age of plenty, based on the availability of cheap and unlimited energy. In this energy-abundant world, adventitious maldistributions of natural resources would no longer be a cause of international strife. The world would become a much more stable place if energy, ubiquitous and cheap, could replace other raw materials: if, say, natural hydrocarbons were replaced by hydrocarbons derived from limestone, water and energy; or if unfertile deserts were rendered fertile by huge desalting complexes driven with the new energy source. Nuclear energy was, to use the current phrase, the ultimate "technological fix": by its exploitation, man could satisfy all of his material wants. And if man's material wants were satisfied, then it seemed to Wells that the world would become a more stable place, especially if the big bomb were there to enforce the peace.
To present-day "realists" all this is merely the dream of a mystic. Yet it is my contention that in the long run H. G. Wells-not the cynical realists- will be proved the better prophet. Despite skepticism with which one now views nuclear energy as an instrument of international understanding, or as a promoter of world stability, the final returns are far from in. The promise is there, and it will eventually be turned into reality.
The Wellsian vision of nuclear utopia was certainly an undercurrent in the original Eisenhower Atoms-for-Peace Plan. President Eisenhower, strongly influenced in this matter by Lewis Strauss, then Chairman of the United States Atomic Energy Commission, presented to the United Nations in 1953 a proposal to share the benefits of nuclear energy with the rest of the world, particularly its underdeveloped areas. In his Atoms-for-Peace speech he proposed the establishment of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) as an instrument through which the world could coöperate in the development of peaceful uses of nuclear energy.
The International Atomic Energy Agency has been in existence now for more than 13 years, and during this time has performed many useful functions. Thus, it has established fellowships that enable younger scientists from underdeveloped countries to learn nuclear techniques in the large national centers. It conducts surveys of the role of nuclear energy and nuclear techniques, particularly in underdeveloped countries. It stimulates, through topical meetings and publications, exchange of technical information bearing on nuclear energy. And, perhaps most important, it has established an organization that periodically inspects nuclear plants to ensure that no fissile materials are being clandestinely sequestered or diverted.
The IAEA did not begin operation until 1957, four years after President Eisenhower's original speech. In the meantime the United States inaugurated in 1954 a program of bilateral coöperation between the United States and other countries; and in 1955 the Soviet Union announced a rather similar program of bilateral agreements. By now some 35 countries have availed themselves of the bilateral U.S. assistance; of these, about a dozen would be classified as less developed. From the short-range viewpoint, these bilateral agreements are easy to fault. Aren't there many things, even in science and technology, that Thailand needs much more than a reactor; or, more generally, didn't the availability of U.S. support in nuclear energy encourage a one-sided emphasis on a special technology that not only bore little relation to the real needs of the less developed countries, but possibly helped some few of them along the road to nuclear weaponry?
I shall argue that this is a stylishly facile but poor assessment of the actual potential: that Eisenhower was fundamentally right when he tried to put flesh on H. G, Wells' visionary skeleton, but that he underestimated the time that would be required to actualize the vision. Though it has taken much longer than was expected to bring the technology of peaceful nuclear energy to a point where it, per se, can have a significant effect upon international relations, scientific exchanges in nuclear science have had considerable world impact. I shall therefore interject an account of these programs involving scientific coöperation before returning to the main thread of my contention-that cheap, inexhaustible nuclear energy can free nations of their historic dependence on scarce raw materials.
One of the first tangible outgrowths of Eisenhower's Atoms-for-Peace proposal was the series of Geneva Conferences on Peaceful Uses of Atomic Energy-1955, 1958, 1964, and now 1971. Before 1955, there was no exchange between East and West on matters nuclear. Even the relatively arcane behavior of protons at 600 million volts, which had nothing to do with bombs or reactors, was hardly a common subject of discussion between physicists in East and West (though in this case it was a language barrier as much as it was the Soviet penchant for secrecy that prevented the exchange). Imagine the enormous impression that was made at Geneva in 1955 when for the first time East and West came together and compared notes on nuclear physics, nuclear reactors, isotopes, radiation biology. The actual exchange of information was perhaps less significant than was the establishment of technical friendships. Walter Zinn, the foremost U.S. reactor expert, met Dmitrii Blokhintsev? his counterpart in the Soviet Union; Lewis Strauss, Chairman of the USAEC, met Vasily S. Emelyanov, his Soviet counterpart. None who attended that first Geneva Conference 15 years ago will forget the first technical session, held in the main hall of the Palais des Nations, Zinn opened the West's presentation with an account of the first experiments on boiling water reactors, and Blokhintsev responded with an account of the five megawatt power reactor at Obninsk (the first atomic powered station in the world, according to the Soviet view). It was much like a knights' tournament, with each side putting up its champion, neither side quite knowing whether the idea was simply to exchange information or to conduct a scientific Olympics.
The great hit of the first Geneva Conference was the swimming pool reactor set up adjoining the Palais des Nations by the United States. It was the first working reactor ever demonstrated to the public: it attracted more than 60,000 visitors during the two weeks it was on display-and it was eventually bought as a permanent research reactor by the Swiss.
Geneva in 1955 was the pinnacle of international scientific congresses. It followed immediately upon the disarmament negotiations in Geneva between Eisenhower and Bulganin and Khrushchev, the same conference at which the American President proposed his open skies policy of mutual inspection. And it was at Geneva that the first informal discussion about non-proliferation took place between the United States and the Soviet Union, This juxtaposition of the scientific and diplomatic conferences added much to the sense of excitement that year at Geneva.
The other two Geneva Conferences, in 1958 and 1964, were more elaborate and larger than the first; but by this time scientific exchange on nuclear matters had become somewhat old-hat, and the political suspense that marked the earlier conference could hardly be sustained. The 1958 Conference focused very heavily on progress in controlled thermonuclear fusion, and the United States put on an extraordinary display of operating fusion experiments that cost several millions of dollars. But now the nuclear business has just become too big for a single, all-encompassing conference: by 1971, all have agreed that the Fourth Geneva Conference on Peaceful Uses of Atomic Energy should be centered only around applications of nuclear energy, with almost no attention being devoted to basic nuclear science.
Coöperation between East and West on nonmilitary nuclear matters has flourished since the Geneva meeting in 1955. In three scientific areas-high energy physics, controlled fusion and power reactors-this coöperation has been particularly notable. In the first two fields a true international community of experts has developed-people who know each other by their first names, who correspond freely, who share technical advances and setbacks openly and immediately. The exchange in power reactors, though also extensive, is rather less open-partly because some of the technology is close to the manufacture of nuclear bombs, partly because the business is beset by commercial rivalry.
High energy physics is one of the most expensive parts of modern science. To probe its boundaries requires huge accelerators. The 200 billion electron volt (BeV) accelerator now being built at Batavia, Illinois, will cost $240 million; the world's largest operating proton synchrotron, capable of achieving 70 BeV is the one at Serpukhov, not far from Moscow. Here is a scientific field where coöperation is clearly advantageous to all. Coöperation is typically regional, as exemplified by the very successful all-European Center for high energy research at CERN and its Soviet bloc counterpart at Dubna. But there is much exchange between the centers, with people from Dubna working at CERN or at Berkeley, and Americans and Europeans working on the big machine at Serpukhov. The high energy community even has the equivalent of its Geneva Conference: the "Rochester" Conference on high energy physics, so-called after its origin at the University of Rochester. The conference now is held every other year, alternating between the United States, Europe and the Soviet Union, but always reinforcing the sense of identity felt by all workers in this difficult and expensive field.
The jackpot question in high energy physics now is: what shall come after the 200 BeV Batavia accelerator or the actively discussed 300 BeV European accelerator? What about a 1,000 BeV or even larger machine? Such a device would cost perhaps one billion dollars. Could it be an intercontinental accelerator-jointly supported by the United States, the Soviet Union and Western Europe? And, as was suggested at a Pugwash meeting in 1962, could an intercontinental accelerator be located in Berlin and thus give that city a raison d'être as an international center of science? Sporadic conversations between East and West about coöperation on a 1,000 BeV machine have been held, but to date little has happened.
International coöperation in controlled fusion has followed a parallel course. Here the field is so difficult, and success has been so far from being achieved, that there is no question of commercial or military rivalry: coöperation between East and West has been essentially complete. Many teams from the United States and other Western countries have visited the Soviet Union, and vice versa. During 1969 a British team from the fusion laboratory in Culham conducted full-scale tests on the Russian TOKAMAK. This is an experimental fusion device that has come closer to achieving the extreme conditions necessary for a controlled fusion reaction than has any other device. The Russians' claims for TOKAMAK at first seemed to be so optimistic as to elicit skepticism from the rest of the fusion community. But the British team, using elaborate laser techniques not available in the Soviet Union, confirmed the Russian findings. TOKAMAK is now considered as the nearest thing to a major breakthrough in this difficult search for a way to burn the waters of the sea, and thus give mankind an infinite source of energy.
International coöperation in reactor development has been rather less open, not only between East and West, but also among the various partners in the West Nevertheless, numerous coöperative agreements have been in force for many years. Within the Western bloc the United States has bilateral agreements which involve exchange of information and nuclear material. The most far-reaching is the technical exchange agreement between the United States and the United Kingdom, which goes back to the wartime coöperation. Under terms of this agreement, the United States and the United Kingdom coöperate, largely by visits or by exchanges of scientists, in several fields related to nuclear reactors and controlled fusion.
On a different plane are the sister-laboratory arrangements between the United States and several less developed countries, whereby the nuclear center in the less developed country is taken under the wing of a much larger U.S. national laboratory: Taiwan and Mexico are the responsibility of Argonne; Pakistan, of Oak Ridge; and so on. The national nuclear laboratories in less developed countries usually are the largest and most powerful scientific institutions in those countries-yet they are addressed to problems that in the short run may not be crucial to the countries' development. True, every country must sense a need to become sufficiently knowledgeable in nuclear matters to be able to follow the debate on nuclear proliferation, or even to have available some competence to handle an ultimate nuclear catastrophe. But these needs can hardly command the continuing interest of good scientists, and the elaborate installations set up in the less developed countries can hold their scientists only if the scientists can do something worthwhile. In imparting this sense of participation among scientists in the small countries the sister-laboratory arrangements are quite useful.
Perhaps the most intense international coöperation in peaceful nuclear matters has developed among the countries of Western Europe. EURATOM, the nuclear arm of the Common Market, was established 13 years ago. The European Nuclear Energy Agency, the nuclear arm of the OECD, has been in existence for a comparable time. And there have been several very successful bilateral and multilateral nuclear projects in Europe: for example, the CERN high energy laboratory; the Franco-German research reactor now being built at Grenoble; the OECD Dragon project, a very successful high temperature, gas-cooled reactor built in Winfrith, England; the radiochemical processing plant at Mol, Belgium, built and operated under the same auspices; joint development of methods of waste disposal; and the coöperative European programs to develop the centrifuge method for separation of the isotopes of uranium. Extensive discussions have been held about an all-European diffusion plant for separating 235U, but so far there have been few tangible results.[i]
Technical coöperation in nuclear energy among partners of comparable standing must be limited to projects that satisfy certain obvious conditions. Each partner must perceive benefits from participation, yet no partner can derive large commercial or military advantage at the expense of the other participants. The successful intra-European projects satisfy these conditions: thus all coöperate completely on fusion which is still relatively far away, and to a lesser degree on the fast breeder reactor which is somewhat closer at hand. On the other hand, reactors that are by now articles of commerce, such as the U.K. gas-cooled graphite or the U.S. light water reactors, are no longer proper subjects for close international coöperative development.
EURATOM sponsors Europe's most extensive coöperative development of nuclear energy. The EURATOM idea received great impetus after the first closing of the Suez Canal. Shortly thereafter EURATOM projected the installation of 15 million kilowatts of nuclear power in its member countries. At the time this seemed like a most optimistic projection and indeed, until this past year or so, it was regarded as an optimistic estimate. However, by now 15 million kilowatts of nuclear power in the EURATOM countries does not seem at all excessive. Presently, the EURATOM countries are committed to 31 million kilowatts of nuclear power.
EURATOM has been active in many fields of nuclear research. Its most ambitious undertaking has been the operation of the Ispra laboratory in Italy. This is a large, excellently staffed laboratory that has focused its major effort on the heavy water moderated, organic cooled reactor ORGEL. Unfortunately, ORGEL has been squeezed out by the success of both the gas- cooled and the light water reactors; at the moment Ispra is in process of redeploying around longer range projects, some of which will probably be non-nuclear. Whether or not this presages a broadening of the interest of EURATOM itself to include, for example, environmental questions, remains to be seen.
What I have described thus far has been, to my mind, the lesser, derivative promise of international nuclear energy. It is fine that a coöperative, worldwide attack on common scientific and technological problems associated with nuclear energy has gone forward, on the whole with rather good success. And it is even better that bona fide international production projects, such as the radiochemical plant at Mol, are operating. These efforts promote international exchange and presumably a feeling of friendship among the coöperating parties.
But all this is a small thing compared with Wells' original vision of a world set free by nuclear energy. If the international implications of peaceful nuclear energy amount only to scientific and technological coöperation among different nations, the world will have fallen far short of realizing the full potential of the peaceful atom.
What can we say, 28 years after the Stagg Field chain reaction, about the peaceful atom providing those new options that could indeed change historic politico-economic problems into non-problems? If there are such possibilities, are they so distant that prudent politicians cannot consider them in their present-day planning? To what extent are the Wellsians among the nuclear community, who insist that the promise of the atom is not being overestimated, guilty of trying to solve today's social problems with tomorrow's or even the day-after-tomorrow's technology? To what extent should one take their optimism seriously?
It seems obvious that a new prime source of energy, one that is in principle available to everyone, must have great potential geopolitical implications. How this works is suggested by the Suez crisis of 1956. Here a new technology of transporting energy-namely the big tanker-greatly reduced the political impact of the closing of the Suez Canal.
There is little doubt, despite the cries of some extreme environmentalists, that even by 1980 nuclear power in its present embodiments will provide a sizable part of the world's central station power. The United States is now committed to more than 87,000,000 kilowatts of nuclear power from reactors of current design; Western Europe and England to 30,000,000 kilowatts; the Soviet Union to 8,800,000 kilowatts; and so on. The strong likelihood is that, by the turn of the century, the nucleus will be the primary source of central station power.
Stationary central power represents considerably less than half of the world's total energy budget. To what extent can nuclear power provide mobile as opposed to stationary power? Here we move from demonstrated technology to a much more speculative possibility. The key chemical is hydrogen. If hydrogen can be obtained economically from water and nuclear energy by electrolysis or by thermal cracking, then the route to liquid fuel is straightforward. Hydrogen and limestone yield methane and, if one wishes, heavier hydrocarbons. Whether such a circuitous path to an energy economy independent of petroleum sources can ever be taken fully seriously- say in competition with liquid fuel from coal-remains to be seen. Yet it is significant that the Ispra laboratory thinks enough of this approach to put a good-sized team to work on the production of hydrogen from water, using nuclear energy as the primary energy source. The long-range aim here, as stated by the Ispra people, is to provide Europe with an independent source of mobile energy within 50 years.
The route to liquid fuel and, indeed, to many of man's essential commodities such as ammonia fertilizer or basic metals, through nuclear- produced hydrogen must not be taken seriously in the short run-that is, within the next 10 to 15 years-though there are specific spots in the world where electrolytic hydrogen is competitive with hydrogen from coal or oil even now. On the other hand, it hardly stretches one's credulity to imagine that processes for obtaining hydrogen from water and nuclear energy at generally competitive prices will be developed within 50 years. Nor is 50 years an impossibly long time as far as modern heavy technology is concerned. More than 30 years have passed since fission was discovered, and it may be another 10 or 15 years before the ultimate fission energy source, the breeder reactor, is fully developed.
The key to all these long-range possibilities is a nuclear energy source that uses an inexhaustible fuel. Here there are two possibilities : fusion reactors and fission breeders. Though much optimism now reigns within the fusion project, no one can reliably estimate the time needed to achieve success. Fusion, therefore, cannot be regarded as a technology upon whose availability public policy can be based. The breeder, on the other hand, poses no crucial scientific questions; its success depends on working out expensive engineering details, and therefore it is possible to give some estimate of when it will be available.
The fission breeder, in contrast to the present generation of reactors, in effect burns the very abundant 238U or 232Th isotopes rather than the very rare 235U or its man-made counterparts, 230Pu or 233U. (In the breeder, the latter materials are simply catalysts that are regenerated as the more abundant isotopes are burned.) Now 238U and 232Th are ubiquitous; and, because they represent such an enormously concentrated source of energy, it would not be out of the question to burn in breeder reactors even the residual uranium and thorium found in the granitic rocks. The amount of energy thereby made available is truly enormous: enough to last mankind on any reasonable energy budget for many millions of years! Thus the development of the breeder (which "burns the rocks"), no less than of the controlled fusion reactor (which "burns the seas"), would provide man with the basis for Wells' dream of ubiquitous, reasonably cheap energy, essentially forever. It is on this account that the entire nuclear community has turned its collective attention to the development of breeder reactors: and there is coöperation, though it is not fully open, between all the participants-the United States, the United Kingdom, France, the Soviet Union, Japan, Germany, Italy. With any luck, we should have large commercial breeders operating by the mid-1980s, 45 years after the discovery of fission.
What emerges is the outline of an autarkic world-one in which the primary energy source, based on breeder reactors (or, if we are lucky, on fusion reactors), is available to all countries, not only to countries that possess indigenous fossil fuel, or are rich enough to import such fuel from others. And from the prime energy source can flow, ultimately, secondary energy, fertilizers, metals, water from the sea. Fossilized hydrocarbons would be reserved for use as chemical raw materials.
This, say the "realists," is a figment of Wells' imagination. Yet even in the short run, nuclear energy is now making a difference-for example, in the development of India. Two boiling water reactors at Tarapur have been supplying 400 megawatts of power to the Western grid of about 2,500 Mw for more than a year. And in the middle run, say within 15 years, there are at least two projects based on rather well-developed technology that could have important world impact.
The first is the Indo-Gangetic Plain tube well project. The Indo-Gangetic Plain is underlaid with huge rivers of ground-water that are replenished each year by the monsoon rains. Were it possible to pump this ground-water for irrigation, much of the area could be triple-cropped: it could become a vast San Joaquin Valley. If the new high-yielding wheats were planted, and if sufficient ammonia fertilizer were made available, then, according to Professor Perry Stout of the University of California at Davis, this area alone might produce 72 million tons of wheat each year. Professor Stout visualizes 94,000 tube wells covering an area of eight million acres, along with a network of ammonia plants, based on production of electrolytic hydrogen.
The prime missing element in all this is energy: to drive the tube wells, to energize the ammonia plants, to provide the incidental power that ancillary industry in such a complex would need. The full project would ultimately require six million kilowatts; since most of the area possesses no fossil fuel, nuclear reactors of current types would be used.
The Indo-Gangetic tube well project is not a far-off dream; it is an option to be reckoned with seriously. The first element of the scheme, involving 25,000 tube wells, and one million kilowatts produced by two nuclear reactors, has been presented to the Indian government by the Department of Atomic Energy. This part of the project is estimated to cost $1,560,000,000, to produce 8,000,000 additional tons of wheat per year, and to yield a 70 percent return on the initial investment.
The second middle range possibility is nuclear desalting in the Middle East. Here the initial idea again was put forward by President Eisenhower. The scheme envisaged a string of large dual-purpose nuclear power plants that would supply water and power for coastal areas of the Sinai Desert, Israel and the lower Negev. The Eisenhower idea was taken up in 1967 by Senator Howard H. Baker, Jr., of Tennessee, and was embodied in Senate Resolution 155. This resolution urged that nuclear desalting be promoted as a means of providing additional arable land in the Middle East.
Not much has been heard about the Eisenhower-Baker plan since Senate Resolution 155 was passed. But, for the past two years, technical examination of the general idea has been going on at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory with the coöperation of IAEA and representatives from several of the nations that might profit from the scheme. It would serve no purpose for me at this time to summarize in detail our technical findings. Nevertheless certain realities should be understood before the idea is facilely rejected, as has been the tendency among hard-headed economists:
(1) The incremental cost of water for agriculture in Israel is now 35 cents per 1,000 gallons. This is close to the predicted cost of water from large dual-purpose nuclear plants. (2) The water table in the Gaza Strip is falling. There will almost surely be a water crisis there within a decade. (3) New land, which desalting in effect supplies, opens new political options.
I do not contend that the Eisenhower-Baker plan, exactly as the late President put it forward, is itself a realistic option; I do insist, however, that some variants of the basic idea, in which nuclear energy plays a role in supplying new water, deserve serious attention.
The Indo-Gangetic and the Eisenhower-Baker plans fall short of Wells' World Set Free. On the other hand, they are tangible examples of how the new source of energy might make a political difference. That within the first 30 years of the nuclear age we find possible applications of nuclear energy that may help us provide food for India and water and land for the Middle East is to my mind miraculous, especially since these seem to me to be real possibilities, not mere visions. Is it too much to believe that within the next 50 years the other promises of nuclear energy will be realized-cheap and ubiquitous power, mobile fuel via hydrogen, large-scale desalting, and others? The answer is yes, these things can happen, but only if the statesmen of the world continue to give vigorous support to the development of nuclear energy and its associated technologies.
[i] The symbol 235U denotes the uranium isotope with atomic weight 235. Corresponding symbols are used for isotopes of plutonium (Pu) and thorium (Th). Of these isotopes, the ones with odd atomic weights, namely 233U, 235U, 239Pu are fissile.