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Blinding flash that signalled the dawn of the Nuclear Age

 

Stephen Cashmore describes how the development of large power-producing nuclear plants followed on from the wartime thrust in atomic research which was geared mainly towards military uses.

THE first of this series of articles on Dounreay's early history, based on the papers of the plant's first permanent employee, the late Donald Carmichael, gave his account of the negotiations he was involved in for the AEA's purchase of the farms of Isauld and Lower Dounreay. However, as some readers have pointed out, it may be opportune to give a brief historical overview of the genesis of the nuclear industry, of which Dounreay remains such an important component.

Like many significant technologies, nuclear power recieved its greatest impetus from the war. This has, in the longer term, had a negative effect on the public's perception of the nuclear industry.

As an illustration of this, I was once present at a lecture on nuclear physics given to a group of eleven employees of the UKAEA. In reply to the lecturer's question, "With what do you associate the expression 'nuclear reaction?' ", everyone answered: "The Bomb."

one hour after the bombing on
6 August 1945
The atomic shadow
The leaves threw a shadow on an electric pole

 

As we approach the millennium much attention will, no doubt, be given to determining the definitive moment of the 20th century. So many world-affecting events have taken place during the last 100 years that the choice of one above the rest is both difficult and largely a matter of personal opinion. There have been two World Wars; men have travelled through space and walked on the moon; high-profile tragedies such as the Titanic sinking and the killing of President Kennedy have shocked and saddened; and, of course, there have been those tremendous developments in technology which have changed the everyday lives of all of us, for better or worse. In the main these things have been widely reported, almost in the instant of their happening - but there was one event that occurred in a remote desert area, shrouded in intense secrecy, unheralded, and witnessed only by a select few.

The pre-dawn air of July 16, 1945, was cold and clear over the New Mexico desert, At Alamogordo air base, 120 miles south of Albaquerque, a small group of scientists and military top brass were gathered in a cluster of concrete bunkers. Around them was nothing but the desert; empty and featureless save for a tall, slender steel tower some nine miles sway. The waiting men shared the bunkers with an array of highly technical-looking dials, instruments and recording equipment, almost all of which would have been utterly alien to the public at large, most of whom had never even heard of the scientific theories that underpinned this assortment of high-tech hardware. it was,a few seconds before 0530hrs. Everyone was breathlessly silent, listening with a mixture of anxiety and stifled excitement as a disembodied voice counted off the seconds from ten to zero. What were they about to witness? Suppose, the whole experiment turned out to be a flop. Then what? But if it was a success, they all knew that they were about to see something human eyes had never before gazed upon. Meanwhile, thousands of miles away across the Pacific Ocean, the B-29s of the United States XX Bomber Command were approaching the climax of a campaign which had levelled in the dust five of Japan's major cities. Invasion seemed the next step.

At precisely 0530, on the call of "zero", a blinding white dash filled the morning sky, illuminating mountains 10 miles away, and a blast:,of heat stronger than the high-noon sun, filled the observation bunkers. Then came,with a deafening roar which echoed through all the surrounding valley, a tremendous shock wave, stunning the spectators with its sense-scrambling power. but these effects were only the regular sensations - albeit much magnified - familiar to anyone who had seen front-line war; the next phenomenon was something totally outwith anyone's previous experience. A ball of fire some 100 metres in diameter rose rapidly and majestically into the sky, followed by a trailing column of cloud and dust, that shimmered with an eerie violet glow. As this column rose it began to expand until, at a height of about 40,000 feet, it ceased rising and began to assume the shape of a giant mushroom. The distant steel tower had completely vanished; the desert sand for 800 yards around it had been turned to glass. Whatever may have passed through the minds of those privileged to witness this grand and terrible event, one thing is certain - nothing else in their lives, before or after, made such a profound impression.

The success of the first atomic bomb explosion, code-named "Trinity" was everything the scientists and military planners had hoped it would be; but now a more fundamental human problem arose, a problem that balanced moral ethics against the iron necessities of war. As always in such situations there could only be one outcome, for ethics are, at the end of the day, only intellectual luxuries that vanish in the face of practical life-or death issues.

In the days immediately following the Trinity test, those few high-ranking government officials who were privy to the secret held a series of discussions on whether or not to drop an atomic bomb on Japan. Some thought that to employ such a weapon would be immoral; others, raising the spectre of the fearful casualties expected when the Americana invaded Japan, judged the atomic bomb to be the lesser of the two evils; another group saw in the bomb a speedy means of terminating an expensive war. Some of the scientists suggested, somewhat naively, that the Japanese should be invited to attend another test so they could see for themselves the bomb's awesome power. But the warhawks won the day -President Truman ordered that the new weapon be employed as soon as possible. It may be cynical to suggest it, but how many of these men, especially among the US military, were seized by a grim fascination to see what the atomic bomb could achieve against a real target, under the immunity of of a war situation? The Trinity bomb had vaporised a steel tower and turned sand to glass - what would it do to buildings and human beings?

The rest is common knowledge. At 0815 local time, on August 6, 1945, an atomic bomb was detonated above the Japanese city of Hiroshima. Two-thirds of the city was destroyed; 78,000 people were killed, most of them outright. Three days later, another bomb devastated the seaport of Nagasaki, killing another 40,000. Next day the Japanese offered to surrender. The warhawks had, it seemed, been proved right.

Many of the scientists who had designed and, overseen the atomic bomb project were horrified by its outcome. Robert Oppenheimer, director of the Los Alamos laboratory where the key work had been carried:out, predicted that the time would come when man would curse the names of Los Alamos and Hiroshima. Many of his fellow scientists shared this sentiment. What had started out as a fascinating physics experiment had ended with the blackened corpses of almost 120,000 human beings.

The atomic bomb turned the civilised world on its head. In the field of politics, war could no longer be looked upon as a tool of diplomacy; military planners were faced with the fact that weapons no longer implemented strategy - they determined it (and so serious was the bomb's military impact that the US Army promptly disbanded its cavalry division); and moral philosophers everywhere were confronted with a dilemma unparalleled in the whole history of modern thought. But it was, perhaps, the scientists who were most affected. Some of the finest minds of the 20th century had worked out the physics of the atomic bomb, acting in good faith that they were helping to save a free world from the tyranny of Fascism. When, immediately after the Japanese surrender, the United States announced plans for a programme of further atomic weapon tests, these brilliant minds realised that they had been upstaged by a farm boy called Harry Truman. But this Harry Truman was the President of the United States, a man who dealt in facts, not physics theories. So disillusioned were some of the top scientists who had worked on the bomb project that, as we now know, they betrayed its secrets to the other great world power, the Soviet Union. That these men acted from high moral motives cannot be denied - they hardly compare with the miserable nonentities we normally associate with treachery. Perhaps the high-minded scientists foresaw the dangers that could arise from a one-country monopoly of this awesome new weapon, and sought to lessen the menace by creating a kind of balance of terror.

In the late summer of 1949 it, was announced that the Russians had successfully tested an atomic bomb, cancelling the US monopoly of the secret. The whole world trembled. To many, a global conflict involving nuclear weapons seemed inevitable; it was a question of "when?", not "if". Thinkers and strategists expended huge amounts of intellectual energy on formulating ways in which such a war could be either prevented, forestalled, or fought to a successfull conclusion with minimal casualties. The concept of deterrent by the threat of "massive retaliation" to any use of atomic weapons was an early favourite. This gave way to the doctrine of "controlled and flexible response", a kind of "suck it and see", designed to allow a limited nuclear conflict in the event of a Russian invasion of Western Europe. In the final analysis the problem remains as unsolvable now as it was 50 years ago; the only thing that has changed has been the level of public fear of nuclear war.

THROUGHOUT the 1950s the political tensions of the so-called Cold War coloured every aspect of social and cultural development. People thought largely in terms of their own lifetimes, the prospects for future generations being very much clouded by the seemingly imminent threat of massive nuclear conflict. Readers who remember this period will, perhaps, endorse these remarks. The writer of this article has vivid memories of a day in October 1962, at the height of the Cuban missile crisis, when it really did appear that the world was about to step into the terrifying abyss of nuclear war.

In a climate such as this, the thought of what might happen in a hundred years' time rarely crossed people's minds. And herein, perhaps, lies the answer to that apparent indifference to the well-being of future generations of which the nuclear industry has been accused. That nuclear waste dumped in an unlined shaft, or radioactive effluent discharged into the sea, might prove hazardous to people yet unborn was a thing of lesser importance to a world living in constant anticipation of nuclear annihilation.

But science had also revealed the possibility of less warlike uses for nuclear reactions. Since the discovery of radioactivity by Becquerel in 1896, physicists had been aware of the great quantities of energy locked up in all materials, and had speculated on what it would mean if this energy could be released, for practical purposes. The realisation of this remained a dream until 1938, when Otto Hahn discovered that when uranium atoms split under neutron bombardment, they released enough neutrons of their own to make a self-sustaining chain reaction.possible. This chain reaction, it was predicted, would be accompanied by a tremendous release of energy. On December 2, 1942, the first man-made nuclear chain reaction was accomplished at the University of Chicago, confirming the physicists' predictions. The Nuclear Age was under way.

We have seen how, understandably, the wartime thrust in atomic research was channelled mainly towards military uses. Reactors were designed to produce weapons-grade plutonium for the atomic bomb project. But it was also realised that controlled nuclear reactions could be used as heat sources to raise steam for driving electricity-generating turbines. By 1950 the Americans were building a variety of nuclear reactors designed to operate at the high temperatures necessary for steam-raising purposes. One of these was based on the theory that a reactor burning a mixture of plutonium and uranium fuel would produce more plutonium than it consumed. This type of reactor was known as a "breeder".

As one of the leading centres of pre-war atomic research, and as the United States' chief wartime ally, Britain was at the forefront of nuclear development. During the war a team of British scientists had been sent to Canada to collaborate in an atomic bomb-related project at Chalk River, Ontario. Amongst the leading minds engaged in the Chalk River project were John Cockcroft and Hugh Carmichael, a brilliant young physicist.

When the war ended Cockcroft returned to Britain to help set up the nuclear research projects based at Harwell in Oxfordshire and Windscale in Cumbria, site of the giant plutonium-producing piles. Harwell, with its close proximity both to London and the famous university city of Oxford, was ideally placed for a research centre. Here were built small test reactors for investigating the properties of materials that might be suitable for use in large power-producing nuclear plants..

These larger plants it was deemed wiser to site in more remote areas with sparse populations. Thus the choice of Windscale, both for the plutonium production piles and the first electricity-producing station, Calderhall.

In this policy the British clearly followed the American lead. Fundamental small-scale research at academic centres such as Chicago; serious production facilities at remote locations like Hanford in the far-north west, and Arco, Idaho, where the Americans were building a 62-megawatt breeder reactor. No surprise then that the British began, possibly as early as 1950, to think of locating some form of experimental establishment for large-scale reactors in that remotest part of mainland Britain, the Far North of Scotland.

Hugh Carmichael had a brother, Donald, whom John Cockcroft had met before the war, at Cambridge University, where Donald had been a research scholar. Although not himself a scientist, Donald Carmichael was an experienced administrator, a skilled organiser who had an intimate working knowledge of that most complex of human institutions, the British civil service, and, most importantly, he had been born.and bred in the Far North of Scotland. If an atomic plant was indeed to be sited in that area, who better to smooth the potentially hazardous public relations path than Donald Carmichael?

In late 1952, when Donald Carmichael was living in Edinburgh, where he worked for the Ministry of Works as a principal administration officer, he recieved a visit from two men: Donald Perrott and D.A. Shirlaw. These men were on their way to the North of Scotland on a fact-finding mission, the nature of which was a well guarded secret, and they wished to avail themselves of any specialist knowledge Carmichael might have on that area.

Six months or so later, in June 1953, Carmichael found himself in Edinburgh's Royal Infirmary recovering from a minor operation. at home, wife Margaret was organising a flitting. Not the best time to receive visitors especially Government officials. Nevertheless, two very insistent gentlemen came calling on urgent business. They worked for the security services, and had a few questions to ask Donald Carmichael.

When his vetting interview ended, Carmichael knew that an atomic research establishment of some kind was to be built somewhere in the Far North. He would soon be returning home.

The above article was based largely on documents from the personal archive of Donald Carmichael, Dounreay's first permanent employee. I am grateful to Margaret Carmichael for giving me the opportunity of consulting her late husband's papers.

 

Highland Archives Index

 

Steven Cashmore 1998


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