ENERGY is one of the fundamental concepts of the physicist--perhaps the fundamental concept. Power, which is the rate at which energy is supplied, is almost equally important to the statesman. In the modern world, power is a need hardly less vital than food and water.

A nation's per capita consumption of energy is a very good indication of its economic standing. Strictly speaking, consumption is the wrong word, for energy cannot be consumed, it can only be transformed. But it is often changed from a readily available form to one which is useless, as when the power supplied to the engines of an airplane is transformed, as it all ultimately is, into heating the air through which the plane flies. This illustrates an important feature of the use of energy. In most cases (though there are exceptions), what men want is not actually energy but some change which occurs as a kind of by-product of its transformation; in the case of an airplane this is the rapid carriage of people or goods from one place to another. For this reason it is difficult to say categorically just how much power a nation must have at its disposal to achieve a particular standard of living. One can use power wisely or wastefully. While the amount of food necessary to live in health is measurable, one can hardly say the same for power.

However, the history of the last century shows a steady increase in per capita power for the leading nations and there is good reason to suppose that this increase will continue at a rate close to 3 percent per annum.[i] Any country which cannot achieve this increase must expect to be severely pinched, to have its development retarded, and probably to face a declining standard of living.

In the United States the required increase in power is easily come by, at least for a time. Coal is plentiful and easy to extract. There are still substantial reserves of oil. But Britain has negligible oil and, though the actual amount of coal is substantial, it is in thin seams far below the surface. It is not that the coal is near exhaustion--there is enough at present rates to last for a couple of centuries; but it is difficult to increase the rate of production. This is partly a matter of sociology, of the dislike of men for working below ground and of their willingness to accept a certain standard of living, so that increased wages are apt merely to mean fewer hours of work. Whatever the causes, the nationalized coal industry in Britain seems unable, in spite of great efforts, to produce more than about 200,000,000 tons per annum, and has stuck near this figure now for several years.

What, then, is Britain to do? The use of oil is increasing and some comes from British companies in the Middle East and elsewhere; but this is limited and not always sure. To import more oil requires hard currency, mostly dollars. Anyhow, oil is a useful export and Britain is short of exports. The discovery of nuclear energy and its application to power on a large scale has come like the answer to prayer. It is an answer for which Britain has indeed worked very hard through her Atomic Energy Authority.

II

At the International Conference on the Peaceful Uses of Atomic Energy last year in Geneva, the representatives of the United States presented elaborate calculations of the cost per unit of the electricity produced by various kinds of projected reactors, making clear that the success or failure of these reactors could depend on their ability to compete economically with coal-burning plants. They might be competitive only in areas where coal was dear, and not in others, but they had to be competitive at a given time and place. To the British representatives (and I think to those of quite a few of the underdeveloped nations) this was not the main consideration. Though much of our power is cheaply produced, our marginal power is expensive and in effect represents the cost of importing coal from the United States. What is even worse, large imports would gravely upset our balance of payments. Britain needs power that can be produced by our own effort. Hence our eagerness for nuclear power.

In February 1955 an official White Paper set out a plan according to which the development of nuclear power will save the equivalent of 40,000,000 tons of coal per annum by 1975. At that time it is expected that 40 percent of the total electric power of the country will be produced atomically.

The plan is flexible in that in its later stages great latitude has been left in the design of the reactors. The earlier ones will be modified from those that have been working in Britain to make plutonium for military purposes. This is not merely a matter of convenience. Besides providing power, these early models will produce additional quantities of plutonium needed for later, more ambitious types of reactor. The early ones will use natural uranium containing only about one part in 140 of the active U-235. By increasing the proportion of U-235, or adding plutonium, which for this purpose is roughly equivalent, an "enriched" fuel is obtained. This considerably simplifies the work of the designer of reactors and gives him more flexibility. Likewise, thorium can be used as an alternative fuel to produce U-233, whose properties are similar to U-235. Although this process also requires enriched material to start with, it has considerable merit as a "breeder," that is, a reactor in which the total amount of actively fissile material is increased during operation while heat for power is produced at the same time. For fast reactors, which may ultimately turn out to be the best, enriched fuel is essential. An experimental fast reactor is being built in the north of Scotland, at Dounreay.

The production of U-235 requires a very expensive separation plant consuming vast amounts of power. The one at Oak Ridge is said to use enough power to run the activities of an important nation. Our own plant at Capenhurst is on a much smaller scale, and the use of plutonium as an enriched fuel is therefore very attractive. But the manufacture of plutonium is necessarily a slow process. The first reactors will have to make the plutonium that may be needed for later ones of more advanced design, and there is of course a danger that this may slow the program down. I doubt that this will be allowed to happen even if we have to go on building reactors of the present type longer than we should otherwise wish.

The first pair of reactors is expected to deliver power in October of this year. The station is situated at Calder Hall near the coast of Cumberland in the northwest of England, and will have a net electricity output of "over 55 megawatts" or 55,000 kilowatts. This station belongs to the United Kingdom Atomic Energy Authority, and some of the plutonium will be used for military purposes. Later stations will be owned by the Central Electricity Authority and are expected to produce close to 200 megawatts from a pair of reactors.

A nuclear reactor, of course, produces heat; it is in fact a furnace, and to get electricity this heat must be used as the heat from coal is used in a conventional power station.[ii] The conversion of nuclear heat into mechanical power is actually less efficient than in a coal-burning station, because at present a reactor cannot be run at as high a temperature as a conventional furnace. The heat from a reactor cannot be used directly on any large scale for the heating of houses or factories because the reactor would have to be near them, and for the present at any rate this is too risky. Of course this would not prevent waste heat being used locally as has been done for some years in the research establishment at Harwell.

The White Paper gave an estimated cost of .6 penny per kilowatt hour, or 7 mills, after allowing for the value of the plutonium produced. This was roughly level with the cost from the newer coal-burning stations, but since the price of pit-head coal went up by 18 percent a few months after the Paper was published, there ought actually to be a slight advantage for the nuclear plant. In any case, it is reasonable to suppose that a new art like that of the nuclear reactor will advance faster than the old-established one of the conventional station, so the advantage should grow.

Five and a half years must elapse between the start of a design of a reactor and the time when it becomes operative. If one hopes to make rapid progress, one cannot wait for experience with an early design before starting on a new one. This makes nuclear engineering a tense and exciting job requiring high qualities of scientific imagination and willingness to take certain risks. Serious mistakes have fortunately been few.

A little more can be added about probable future developments. After the initial prototype at Calder Hall, the first set of reactors should come into operation in 1960-61. They are being designed by four groups of industrial firms for the nationally-owned Central Electricity Authority, with help from the Atomic Energy Authority. Like Calder Hall they will be carbon-dioxide cooled and graphite moderated. Stage two should come into operation about 1965. It is possible that in these reactors ordinary water under pressure will be used as coolant and moderator, with the water itself possibly forming steam for the turbine or more probably remaining in a closed cycle under pressure and handing on its heat through a "heat exchanger." It is more likely, however, that they will be of the sodium-graphite type in which molten metallic sodium is used as coolant and graphite as moderator. This system allows the temperature to be higher, thereby increasing efficiency at the turbine end. Both these systems require enriched fuel, and the enrichment will come initially from the plutonium produced in stage one; later they will provide their own. True breeding will come in stage three, which will be reached in the late 1960s or early 1970s. Four systems, all operating on enriched fuel, are being investigated for this stage.

I have mentioned these rather detailed technical matters chiefly to show how seriously the whole matter is being taken in Britain and what efforts we are making to ensure that nuclear energy is available as soon as possible and on as large a scale as possible. Whatever we do, there is likely to be for some years a growing gap that will have to be filled by imported oil or possibly coal. How large this gap will be is difficult to estimate, for it represents the difference between the two much larger quantities of demand and supply, each of which is difficult to assess accurately. But one would have to be very optimistic to assume that a gap will not exist, and even if by some series of miracles we had a small surplus of coal we could easily sell it abroad.

The British view of atomic energy, then, is governed by our need for supplies of power in the near future. This, more than military requirements, is what counts, especially as we seem likely soon to have a hydrogen bomb to test. Once that is achieved we shall, as it were, have made the team and can relax a bit.

III

The international aspect of nuclear energy is twofold. There are, first, the negotiations based on the rather pathetic hope that somehow or other a disarmament agreement can be reached which will remove the fear of a bombing war; and second, the projects designed to assist nations in obtaining the benefits of peaceful atomic energy, or to help them to help themselves. These two matters are to some extent interlocking.

On the face of it, the existence of important nuclear power stations in many countries makes the international control of atomic weapons even harder than it otherwise would be. Inevitably there will be substantial amounts of fissile (bomb) material in each country, some in storage, some in use in reactors and some in separation plants which extract the plutonium from uranium that has been used in reactors. It would require very careful inspection to make sure that small amounts were not kept back for military use. But is this really the point? The three principal nations--the United States, Soviet Russia and Britain--have had unrestricted and uninspected use of fissile material for so long that even if an inspection were accepted now no one would ever be able to prove that they were not holding back undisclosed stores. What was feasible enough in 1946, when the Baruch plan for atomic control was discussed in the United Nations, is feasible no longer.

The situation is made worse by the invention of the hydrogen bomb, which (in principle) escapes the need for fissile material, and so the controls of the Baruch plan. True, the hydrogen bomb probably needs something like an ordinary uranium-plutonium bomb to start it, and apparently natural uranium is used around it. But natural uranium is impossible to control in the relatively small amounts needed; at most it is an amount that could be carried by an airplane. As for the atomic bomb which serves as the fuse, what hopes has one of accounting accurately for small quantities of fissile material? Yet even two or three unsuspected hydrogen bombs could make an enormous difference in a war. The mere threat might well be enough to enable an aggressor to get his way, for though the threat might be a pure bluff, no one could prove that it was not. The only safeguard against such action is the fear of reprisal, which means that the other side not only has hydrogen bombs but is known to have them.

Since it would be impossible, even after inspection, to prove that any of the three Powers was not in secret possession of the wherewithal to make a few hydrogen bombs, is it worth attempting a paper disarmament and subsequent inspection with the irritation and waste of efficiency which such an inspection would inevitably produce? No control or inspection can prevent bombs of either kind being made after the war has started, since there will be plenty of plutonium in the reactors. By apparent disarmament one would lessen the important deterrent effect which hydrogen bombs now offer, there would be a very strong temptation to cheat, and the nation which did so would gain an enormous advantage.

Since, as I believe, it is impossible to have effective interdiction of atomic bombs, it seems to me better to have none at all. From the standpoint of the Big Three Powers, I think this is true whether nuclear power spreads to the rest of the world or not. In fact it will spread and the danger of its misuse will thereby increase. This is not to assume that the rest of the world is less trustworthy than Britain, Russia and the United States, but simply that the number of chances for suicidal recklessness is multiplied. Here inspection might do some good because there could be inspection from the start. But again, nothing can prevent bombs being made after war has started, if the method of making them is known. For some time, perhaps, the technology can be kept secret, but not, one would think, for decades. This is the least satisfactory aspect of the spread of nuclear power among the peoples of the world, but it seems to be a risk which cannot be avoided. It is not, perhaps, a very large one.

IV

There are three main proposals for assisting nations to acquire atomic power. They are based respectively on the United Nations, on O.E.E.C. (Organization for European Economic Coöperation) and on the group of six nations in Western Europe which form the European Iron and Steel Community (France, Belgium, The Netherlands, Luxembourg, Germany and Italy).

The United Nations scheme is due to President Eisenhower, who nearly three years ago offered the loan of a considerable amount of fissile material to promote the use of atomic energy by nations that are without it. Britain and the Soviet Union have since offered to contribute smaller amounts. All these contributions were offered subject to restrictions to prevent their misuse. Last April the U.N. published a draft statute for an International Atomic Energy Agency designed to further the peaceful uses of atomic energy. As approved by a 12-nation committee, including Britain, the United States and Russia, the Agency would encourage research and development; act as an intermediary for the supply of materials, equipment and services by one member to another; make provision for such materials and services, and acquire plant and facilities where necessary; arrange for the exchange of scientists and information; formulate standards of health and safety; and establish safeguards to ensure that materials, equipment, services and information made available shall not be used for military purposes. An international inspectorate is to be established with the right to enter the territories of any member state. The inspectors will have "access at all times to all places, persons and data necessary to account for source and special fissionable materials supplied, and fissionable products" to determine whether there is compliance with the measures against military use and hazards to health. The inspection does not cover all atomic energy stations but only those which use material supplied by the Agency. Provision is made for preventing unilateral seizure of material from which a bomb could be made, but it is hard to see how this can be effective in the case of an all-out war between major Powers. It might conceivably act as some kind of check if two small Powers quarreled; at least it would provide a justification for external interference.

This proposal will shortly be discussed in the General Assembly of the United Nations. It is very interesting that Russia is apparently prepared to accept this amount of inspection, even though it is probably less than the United States would have liked. From the British point of view, these proposals are welcome, since they would leave us free to develop our own scheme from our own resources. The Agency might well be very helpful to smaller nations who wish, as many do, to set up reactors, either to overcome an all-round shortage of power, or to obtain power in inaccessible places where the cost of transporting conventional fuels is prohibitive. The Agency is a genuine attempt to help the smaller or less developed countries, and is certainly to be encouraged.

Next in extent of international coverage come the proposals of O.E.E.C. These would establish jointly an isotope separation plant to produce U-235, a chemical separation plant for irradiated fuels, a heavy-water plant and prototype and testing reactors. That is to say, the O.E.E.C. countries propose to establish those facilities which would be of value to a nation planning its own atomic energy industry; apparently the project does not include the actual working reactors intended for the largescale production of power. Some of these facilities, notably the isotope separation plant, are very costly and therefore suitable objects of joint effort. However, the details of the construction of an isotope separating plant are still secret, and it is not clear whether either the United States or Britain is prepared to make the necessary disclosure.

There may also be some doubt as to whether a large-scale separation plant is economic even for a group of nations. In the long run, the necessary enrichment of natural uranium will be accomplished by adding plutonium, made by breeding from uranium, or uranium-233, made by breeding from thorium. Reactors containing enriched fuel can undoubtedly "breed," but if only a small amount of enriched fuel is available to start with the process will be slow in producing results. It is a delicate exercise in nuclear engineering and in economic prediction to decide whether such a plant is worthwhile as an interim measure. While it is too early to say whether the O.E.E.C. plan will in fact be helpful to the progress of nuclear energy in Europe, its members will apparently be allowed plenty of freedom. The worst it is likely to do is to spend some money rather unwisely.

The third proposal, though it covers fewer nations, is much more drastic. "Euratom," as it is called, involves setting up a commission with considerable executive power. It would have first claim on nuclear fuels produced by the six member countries and their possessions (e.g. the Belgian Congo) and these materials would remain under its ownership and control. Euratom would have the duty of ensuring equal access to these materials and, in case of scarcity, of distributing them in proportion to needs. In fine, it would have monopolistic control over nuclear materials and so over the production of nuclear energy in the six nations, and in any others which chose to join the organization.

Associated with this plan is a proposal for the removal of all customs barriers between the six countries and the creation of a common tariff, with related provisions to prevent the fixing of prices, arrangements to divide the market or similar practices. It is significant that these two proposals are being considered together. The degree of control which Euratom would exert represents an infringement of sovereignty comparable to that implied by a common customs union. Both are indeed substantial steps toward political federation. From the British point of view, Euratom has few attractions, except perhaps as a unit within the O.E.E.C. group. We are likely to be more dependent on nuclear power during the next generation than the six Powers, both because our needs are greater and because by our own efforts we are much more advanced in technical knowledge and in actual construction. We are reasonably well off for raw materials, although the sources--Canada, South Africa and Australia--are not under British control. There would be no advantage for us in buying through Euratom. On the other hand, the control which Euratom might exert could easily be disastrous to the advance of British industry, as, for example, if the Continental countries wished to expand rapidly at a time when supplies were scarce.

We have adequate technical, engineering and economic strength to develop our own industry, and indeed even to export to other nations. The only possible advantage to us in Euratom would be to share in a large isotope separation plant. Even this is extremely doubtful, both because it is uncertain whether such a plant will ever really pay for itself, and because, if it does, we might better enlarge our existing installation at Capenhurst.

The Conference on the Peaceful Uses of Atomic Energy at Geneva a year ago shed a flood of light on the technical problems of nuclear power development; the need for associations of nations is markedly less than it was before. As knowledge increases, it will be found that the construction of reactors is not quite such a formidable proposition as it had appeared. A chemical separation plant may be harder, but even here the difference between originating and copying is enormous.

We come back to where this article began. An adequate supply of power is the life blood of a nation and, unless one is prepared for a true federation with a complete merging of sovereignty, it is one of those few vital things which cannot be dealt with internationally.

[i] Palmer C. Putnam, "Energy in the Future." New York: Van Nostrand, 1953.

[ii] It may be of passing interest to note that the supply of electric power in Britain is nationalized and is transported largely by means of a "grid," a network of high tension cables covering most of the country and allowing supply to be fitted to demand by shunting power from one place to another. The grid is especially suitable for nuclear power, since it will allow the new stations to be run to capacity nearly all the time irrespective of fluctuations in the demand, thus saving the maximum amount of coal.

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
  • SIR GEORGE THOMSON, Master of Corpus Christi College, Cambridge; Chairman, Scientific Advisory Council, Ministry of Fuel and Power; Chairman of the first British Committee on Atomic Energy, 1940-41; Professor of Physics, Imperial College of Science, 1930-52; winner of Nobel Prize for Physics, 1937; author of many scientific works
  • More By George Thomson