Attempted Prophecies: ‘Atom for peace’: atoning for sins


Semantic Satiation

It was not enough that she was denied recognition for her immense contribution to science—to the discovery of nuclear fission, she had to also helplessly watch on as her revolutionary discovery was put to a use unintended—the wreaking of mass havoc. Lise Meitner was in 1945 famously (infamously) denied recognition by the Nobel Prize Committee. The Nobel Prize in Chemistry for the discovery of nuclear fission went to her collaborator, Otto Hahn. She, a woman, and to add to that, a Jew, was deemed unworthy of recognition by delusional men of the era for her discovery.

This was a betrayal Lise, a woman born in the era of rampant misogyny, could perhaps deal with. What she could not deal with was her own conscience—to watch on as her revolutionary discovery was utilised in the creation of the atomic bomb, a weapon of mass destruction, the most destructive of weapons ever made, the cancer of weapons. Honour came to her eventually, but late—nuclear power had been introduced to the public first as a weapon, and there was no changing that. It wasn’t long before she was, to her dismay, dubbed ‘the Mother of the A-bomb’.

Bomb. Bomb. You know how sometimes words tend to lose all meaning when they are said over and over again? Well, that seems to be a fate the word ‘bomb’ may never have to suffer. Being perhaps of onomatopoeic origins, it very much embodies the very concept it is meant to convey.

Moving on…

I bet you remember the chain of events we talked about last week—how a series of bombardments of neutrons with uranium atoms causes a chain reaction of potentially endless further bombardments, one that results in the generation of immense heat. You remember how we noted that the science of nuclear energy entails the controlling of this chain event, with the use of mechanisms such as control rods and moderators (such as water). Well, take out these control mechanisms, and what do you have? An endless chain reaction, an endless, cancerous release of immense energy, one capable of annihilating everything that comes its way—humans, animals, tress, the entire ecosystem really. This science of perpetuity is what the atomic bomb rides on.

As scientists like Lise, the two Ottos (Otto Hahn and Otto Frisch) were patting themselves on the backs for their revolutionary contribution to science—furthering human’s knowledge of the atom, governments, at the dawn of a global war, WWII, were patting themselves on their backs for the harm they could potentially cause upon one another with this new discovery. Being historically a very self-destructive race, humankind had slowly come to the point where MAD was very realistically a possibility—mutually assured destruction. The atomic bomb, stealing its science from nuclear power, was an assured way of achieving this.

Semantic Change

When news of the Apeatse disaster hit, I heard a gentleman tell his lady friend, “From now on, whenever I see those tankers bearing the nuclear sign, I will make sure to run as far as I can from them.” This lady, hoping to replicate this cautionary move herself, she needed clarification. “What is the nuclear sign?” “Oh, you see those signages with the fire symbol on them…?” He explained—incorrectly. He had just described the ‘highly flammable’ sign. But ‘nuclear’, in his mind, being synonymous with the atomic bomb, synonymous with everything explosive, ‘nuclear’ it was.

But whose fault is it, really? For an invention that revolutionised the physics, chemistry world, and the entire scientific world such as the discovery of nuclear power was; for such an invention to move from its intended trajectory of human advancement towards the very belly of war, capable of wiping out entire peoples in the blink of an eye—this narrative of destruction, whose fault is it?

In 1939, when word reached the then US President Franklin D. Roosevelt, from none other but the pacifist, the unintentional founding member of the A-bomb age, Albert Einstein, that Germany already had in the works, the development of nuclear weapons, USA set to work immediately on their own nuclear weapon. Just like that, the notorious Manhattan Project was founded. At a time when nationalism, when globalism meant causing upon one another, unprecedented harm, nations convincingly (and sometimes forcefully) committed science and scientists to put to use, their brains and knowledge for warfare. Science-for-war was painted as a patriotic act. Scientists were treasures for war.

Mid-1945, USA won the ‘A-bomb race’; and in August of that year, dropped the first atomic bomb on the city of Hiroshima, Japan. About 140,000 lives were instantly lost, an entire city wiped out in the blink of an eye. Failing at securing a surrender from Japan, the US dropped a second bomb, this time around, on the city of Nagasaki. Unsurprisingly tens of thousands of lives were again lost—about 80,000 in all. In the face of this novel, formidable enemy, Japan had no other recourse but to surrender. And just like that a war spanning years was ended.

The ‘Imprepragro’ of Global Politics

Nuclear weapons have been tried and tested, and have proven deadly—unparalleled by any weapon invented. Governments had learnt a crucial lesson with Hiroshima and Nagasaki—that this weapon was not to be trifled with. Yet, with this cautionary tale, came a lesson to governments, one regarding the enormous power they could wield should they be in possession of this weapon. So, it can safely be said post-WWII, what the Truman government had offered the rest of the world was not only an end to the war, but they had ushered us also into the MAD era—or at least, endless threats of MAD-ness. Global politics following the war has featured prominently, governments, the world powers, threatening one another with mass destruction—with the atomic bomb. It’s a whole childish affair, true. Childish but characteristically deadly—the ‘imprepragro’ of world politics, if you will.

Atoning for Sins

“I hope that the construction of the atom bomb not only will help to finish this awful war, but that we will be able to also use this great energy that has been released for peaceful work.” This was Lise Meitner speaking on radio, days after the bombing of Hiroshima. After the mass destruction wreaked on those two cities of Japan, ‘aniwuo’ had ensued. Something that had taken several years and a series of genius inventions to invent, nuclear power, a potential force of good, had, due to human impetuousness, taken a sharp detour and had been utilised rather towards the development of the atomic bomb. I tell you, diplomatic ‘aniwuo’, after the war, ensued.

Humankind, after causing upon one another, mass destructions, had to, after the war, go on with the act of living—and of living well. Nations had to recoup and rebuild—citizens had to eat, be sheltered, cater for their families, be gainfully employed, pursue all on Maslow’s pyramid of needs—and darn, even ‘self-actualisation’. The initial objects of nuclear power had to be revisited. Nuclear power, being the emission of enormous energy; and energy, being crucially needed to drive industrialisation, innovation, and development; nuclear power, having regrettably faced a vicious detour, was to now be utilised to cause a virtuous cycle of industrialisation, innovation, and developments.

Atom for Peace

And therein came the era of ‘Atom for Peace.’ Having inherited an office smeared with war—the after-math of war, being of a nation which had laid the very tangible foundation for the public fear and distrust of nuclear power, President Eisenhower in his ‘Atoms for Peace Speech’ before the United Nations General Assembly in December, 1953, took the world through a roller-coaster of what one can safely describe as, ‘nationalistic bragging’, laced with a pinch of ‘diplomatic snitching’, then some more covert national bragging, then some covert threats to potential aggressors; the signature Caucasian-selective-amnesia showed its head a little in the speech too, and then there was the famous and apt call for the peaceful use of nuclear energy.

“On 16 July 1945, the United States set off the world’s biggest atomic explosion. Since that date in 1945, the United States of America has conducted forty-two test explosions. Atomic bombs are more than twenty-five times as powerful as the weapons with which the atomic age dawned… Today, the United States stockpile of atomic weapons, which, of course, increases daily, exceeds by many times the total equivalent of the total of all bombs and all shells that came from every plane and every gun in every theatre of war in all the years of the Second World War. A single air group whether afloat or land based, can now deliver to any reachable target a destructive cargo exceeding in power all the bombs that fell on Britain in all the Second World War.

In size and variety, the development of atomic weapons has been no less remarkable. The development has been such that atomic weapons have virtually achieved conventional status within our armed services. In the United States, the Army, the Navy, the Air Force and the Marine Corps are all capable of putting this weapon to military use…” This part of his speech is what we’ll call the ‘nationalistic bragging’.

“But the dread secret and the fearful engines of atomic might are not ours alone. In the first place, the secret is possessed by our friends and allies, the United Kingdom and Canada, whose scientific genius made a tremendous contribution to our original discoveries and the designs of atomic bombs. The secret is also known by the Soviet Union. The Soviet Union has informed us that, over recent years, it has devoted extensive resources to atomic weapons…” And here, ladies and gentlemen, is the ‘diplomatic snitching.’ Wherein one informs their accuser, ‘I am not the only one.’

“If at one time the United States possessed what might have been called a monopoly of atomic power, that monopoly ceased to exist several years ago. Therefore, although our earlier start has permitted us to accumulate what is today a great quantitative advantage, the atomic realities of today comprehend two facts of even greater significance. First, the knowledge now possessed by several nations will eventually be shared by others, possibly all others…” Herein continues the diplomatic snitching, paired still with a dose of nationalistic bragging. Wherein one informs people, ‘Although others may be in possession of what I have, I still have a very comfortable lead.’

“Should such an atomic attack be launched against the United States, our reactions would be swift and resolute. But for me to say that the defence capabilities of the United States are such that they could inflict terrible losses upon an aggressor, for me to say that the retaliation capabilities of the United States are so great that such an aggressor’s land would be laid waste, all this, while fact, is not the true expression of the purpose and the hopes of the United States…” And there you have it, the covert threats levelled against potential opposers. Peace, it seems, is a double-edged sword, threatening too, war, should peace be disturbed.

“Surely no sane member of the human race could discover victory in such desolation. Could anyone wish his name to be coupled by history with such human degradation and destruction? Occasional pages of history do record the faces of the “great destroyers”, but the whole book of history reveals mankind’s never-ending quest for peace and mankind’s God-given capacity to build…” My ‘favourite’ part of the speech—the characteristic Caucasian-selective-amnesia on vivid display. This issue of selective amnesia of the Caucasian, being not the topic of today, I am going to desist from citing examples, believing you will do us both a favour of citing these examples in your own head even as you read on.

And “heeding the suggestion of the General Assembly of the United nations to meet privately with such other countries as may be “principally involved”, to seek “an acceptable solution” to the atomic armaments race…”, Eisenhower indicated, “The United States would seek more than the mere reduction or elimination of atomic materials for military purposes. It is not enough to take this weapon out of the hands of the soldiers. It must be put into the hands of those who will know how to strip its military casing and adapt it to the arts of peace.” One can safely argue that ‘peaceful hands’ had, from the very beginning, been the originally intended hands for nuclear power by pioneering scientists, and that nuclear power’s origin story could have, if left free from the claws of war, been one of peace, not of destruction.

“To hasten the day when fear of the atom will begin to disappear from the minds of the people and the governments of the East and West, there are certain steps that can be taken now.” He went on to cite the establishment of an international body responsible for the regulation of the use of uranium and other fissionable materials, and the peaceful use of nuclear power as one of the effective means of ensuring this. “We would expect that such an agency would be set up under the aegis of the United Nations.” Four years later, in the year of Ghana’s independence—1957, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) was established “to accelerate and enlarge the contribution of atomic energy to peace, health and prosperity throughout the world…”

Having traversed this very eventful history, nuclear power, invented with not an ill in mind, and finding itself kidnapped, made to be employed to the most devastating of uses, had finally found its way back home, as a source of good—for humankind’s development.

The Pharisee’s Adulterer

But you see, ideas, on their own, are cancers. When they take root, they are mighty hard to uproot. Perceptions are, too, cancers. When they take seed, they are mighty hard to prevent from growing. So, when an invention is presented before the public eye in a packaging as gory as the ultimate height wars can reach, it becomes very hard to convince the people that it is anything apart from that which they know it to be.

And it is a challenge these world powers, having agreed to retrace their steps on military use of nuclear energy, and put to use instead, peaceful purposes, recognised. Campaigns aimed at changing public perception were full-fledged, unyielding, and I must say, overreaching—especially in countries like USA, being the mother (only mother) of the military deployment of atomic bombs. It is like the repented sinner who decides that the act of eating in itself is overindulgence, hence sinful—one tends to overreach when seeking to offload their pasts.

USA’s Atom for Peace campaigns—arguably laced with certain geopolitical and diplomatic chess moves—famously overreached. Words like: ‘Tomorrow Land’, ‘promise of things to come’, ‘endless possibilities of the future’, etc., were used in these series of face-lift campaigns. In one campaign, a cartoon featuring a leviathan of a man brags, “…in my right hand, I give you the fire of the atom…” “A dream as old as man itself, a giant of limitless power…,” another campaign featuring a giant of a man boasted in description of nuclear power. “Nuclear energy isn’t waiting to help people everywhere in some brave new world of the future, the peaceful atom is here and now.” The voice-over to the campaign bragged. “Yes, this is atomic energy at work, not as a force for evil but as a force for good.” A voice over boasted over homely visuals of peace—visuals of babies themselves.

Campaigns featured preachers clad in their conspicuous clergy shirts, preaching words of assurance like, “Just think about all the things that can be done…” over scientific prophecies and imageries. There were promises of flying cars powered by nuclear energy, airplanes powered by nuclear power, promises of energy made free (you heard right, in this era of yet another fuel price increase—‘free!’).

There were promises of virtually uninhabitable lands—deserts, the Arctic, etc. being converted for living with the help of nuclear energy. The Atom for Peace era went wild with scientific idealism—nuclear power for construction (serving as explosives for excavation); the world was suffering from hunger, and nuclear power was proposed as solution—‘atomic gardening’, it was called; nuclear energy aimed at solving the global food crises. Some recommended sending nuclear power all the way to space—nuking the surface of the moon in the bid to learn how craters are formed.

The peaceful energy surrounding the new-age nuclear power was explosive—excessive in its hopes and dreams, and consequently, its promises. The new-age nuclear power could do no wrong, these campaigns suggested.

Hubris: The Higher the Throne, The Lower the Fall

I, for one, am of the strong view that one key cause of post-war mistrust of nuclear power largely stems from this perception of infallibility. In an attempt to undo the harm done by this energy source in its not so distant past, governments, most especially the USA (being a pioneering-A-bomber), overshot their shot—their stab at nuclear nobility was overdone. Nuclear energy, hailed as a converted saint (or a saint from the get-go) and saviour in these campaigns, being an energy source, much like all other energy sources, has its own fair share of periodic failures.

This perception of sainthood and messianic-ness made it the target of close and intense scrutiny.

With many of the other energy sources, the fullest of their destructive sides are delayed (e.g., global warming of fossil fuels). But when it comes to nuclear energy, its bad side is quickly honed and shown. Proponents of fossil fuels can afford to blatantly dismiss the effect of fossil fuels on climate change, but nuclear disasters, although very rare (comparatively, very rare) cannot easily escape the glaring harms caused. Nuclear power is not God that it may never fail, but we would be lying if we said that it hasn’t shown itself dependable—not a saint, as the Atoms for Peace campaigns may have painted it to be, but good still.

Like the repented son, the world is scrutinising nuclear energy. Every mistake made by this energy source—conspicuous as they characteristically are—is pointed to by opponents as reasons why.

You and I set this week aside to ponder on the history of nuclear energy. Next week we will pick up from last week, our conversation with Dr. Seth Kofi Debrah. We will look closely at the Ghanaian nuclear journey; the vast potential left untapped here even as they are being tapped to their fullest elsewhere. Have a blast of a week. Blast. Blast. There we go again, yet another word semantic satiation cannot touch.


Leave a Reply