Thursday, July 30, 2015

The Bomb (Lone Wolf Documentary Group/PBS, 2015) & Uranium: Twisting the Dragon’s Tail (Gene Pool Productions/Australian TV, 2015)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2015 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

For the last two days PBS has been showing an interesting group of movies about nuclear weapons and the atomic age in general. On Tuesday they showed a two-hour special called The Bomb, which begins in 1938 with the famous letter physicist Leo Szilard drafted urging the U.S. in general and President Franklin Roosevelt in particular to get cracking on creating an atomic bomb before Germany got it first and the Nazis were able to win World War II and do far more damage than the formidable amount they actually did with what they had. Szilard realized that he didn’t have enough clout to get the U.S. president to read a letter from him, so he enlisted a physicist who did: Albert Einstein, then living on the East Coast and teaching and doing research at Princeton University and just as scared about the Nazis getting the atomic bomb as Szilard was. Roosevelt ordered the U.S. Army to start a research project on the feasibility of nuclear weapons, and he assigned it to the Manhattan Engineering District of the Army Corps of Engineers. Then, when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, the U.S. declared war on Japan a day later and Hitler declared war on the U.S. two days after that, Roosevelt ordered the “Manhattan Engineering District Project” to set up a full-scale effort to design and build a workable atomic weapon as soon as possible, and to do so in out-of-the-way secret locations: Oak Ridge, Tennessee to produce enough fissile uranium to fuel the bomb; Hanford, Washington to make plutonium in case the effort to enrich enough uranium for a bomb didn’t work; and, most importantly, Los Alamos, New Mexico, where the top scientists in the field were recruited to work under military direction on what was essentially an engineering problem.

The basic physics behind the bomb were known at the start and had been ever since 1938, when a German physicist named Lise Meitner published a paper in Nature establishing that by bombarding it with neutrons, she and her boss, Otto Hahn, had actually split a uranium atom into smaller fragments, thereby releasing great quantities of energy. If enough fissile uranium could be concentrated in what came to be called a “critical mass,” the fission would release more neutrons, which would strike more nuclei of fissile uranium, which would release more neutrons, start more fission, and so on and so on until the resulting energy created a nuclear explosion through which an entire city could be destroyed by a single bomb. (Interestingly, a number of the early atomic scientists had read a novel by H. G. Wells published in 1914 called The World Set Free, apparently the first work of fiction featuring atomic weapons, which he dedicated to Frederick Soddy — a little-known British physicist who worked as an assistant to Ernest Rutherford; the two were also instrumental in documenting the incredible energy of radioactive substances like uranium and the possible military uses of it — and at least some of the early scientists involved in building the bomb had first thought it might be practical because of Wells’ book.) The fact that the early work establishing the possibility of nuclear fission had been done in Germany scared the shit out of Szilard, Einstein and the many other physicists, quite a few of them Jewish, who had fled the Nazis and settled in the U.S. The story of the Manhattan Project has been told quite often — in books, in documentaries (including a 1970’s PBS production called The Day After Trinity which I remember as even better than The Bomb) and even a dramatic fiction film, Fat Man and Little Boy (named after the two sorts of bomb the Manhattan Project produced — the uranium-fueled “gun” bomb used on Hiroshima and the plutonium implosion bomb used on Nagasaki — and also evoking the relationship between the two people in charge of the project, Army general Leslie Groves, played by Paul Newman, and scientist J. Robert Oppenheimer) — and it’s often treated as a sort of real-life Götterdämmerung in which an old world dies and a new one waits to be born. (The famous lines from the Bhagavad-Gita Oppenheimer quoted after the Trinity test in July 1945 — “Now I am become death, the destroyer of worlds” — do tend to reinforce that impression.)

But these programs — both The Bomb and a two-part program PBS aired after it called Uranium: Twisting the Dragon’s Tail — suggest that atomic energy in general and atomic weaponry in particular just fit neatly into humanity’s long and all too fruitful quest for newer, more efficient and more lethal ways to destroy large chunks of itself. Both of them suggested that the atomic bomb became a cultural icon relatively quickly in its history — Uranium even includes some of the 1950’s songs about or referencing the Bomb that were included in the marvelous 1983 documentary The Atomic Café, though they appeared to be re-recordings by modern artists rather than the originals used in The Atomic Café (and I’d still like a chance to hear again the beautiful country ballad “The Cold War Over You” by Floyd Tillman, which anticipates Elvis Costello’s early songs equating disputes between lovers in a relationship with tensions between entire countries, used by the makers of The Atomic Café over the closing credits of their film). PBS showed the first part of Uranium on Tuesday and the second part last night, Wednesday, after yet another nuclear-themed show — one about the horrendous disaster that destroyed two nuclear reactors in Japan during the earthquake and tsunami at Fukushima, and the increasingly desperate jury-rigging the reactor crew had to do to try to stop the reactor cores from melting down and/or the containment vessels from exploding under pressure from the hydrogen released as part of a meltdown (a problem nuclear engineers weren’t even aware of until it happened at Three Mile Island in 1979). The shows covered much of the same material but the presentations were dramatically different: The Bomb, written and directed by Rushmore DeNooyer, used an off-screen omniscient narrator, Jonathan Adams, who sounded to me too annoyingly chipper (PBS’s resident narrator, Will Lyman, would have been a better choice), while Uranium was written and directed by Wain Fimeri for Australian TV and hosted on-screen by a quite attractive young man — Charles called him a “physitwink” — named Derek Muller, who in the second half did the Michael Moore number and got into the so-called “exclusion zones” around Chernobyl and Fukushima (places where people were given emergency evacuations after the nuclear accidents and have not been allowed to return since, though the Fukushima survivors are at least allowed to return to their homes for occasional short visits to savor what they had to leave behind, which is probably an emotional wrench for some because all too many of the former Fukushimans are still living in the “temporary” emergency trailers they were put into while the accident was still happening).

Uranium tells a somewhat broader story than The Bomb, beginning with the discovery of uranium in a played-out gold mine in what is now the Czech Republic (the name for uranium ore, “pitchblende,” is apparently a play on the Czech word for “played out,” and conveyed the sentiment among the miners that when they started finding that stuff instead of gold, it was bad news because it meant there was no longer any recoverable gold in that mine and their jobs would soon end). Uranium was considered a useless metal until French professor Henri Becquerel made his famous experiments, exposing uranium to sunlight (though, contrary to Fimeri’s film, he actually did his experiments with compounds — so-called “uranium salts” — rather than pure metallic uranium because uranium salts could acquire fluorescent properties if exposed to sunlight) and seeing that there was an energy inside it that could “fog” a piece of photographic plate put under the uranium and wrapped in lightproof paper. One day Becquerel accidentally brought the uranium and his paper-wrapped plate into contact and found that, even without the intervention of sunlight, the uranium fogged the plate — indicating that whatever was exposing the film was an energy source from the uranium itself. Today we call this “radioactivity” and don’t think it’s that big a deal. Muller explained on-screen how uranium atoms transform themselves by shedding what are called alpha particles from their nuclei — these are combinations of two protons and two neutrons, and since the number of protons in an atomic nucleus is what determines what element it is, each time a uranium nucleus sheds an alpha particle it becomes a different element, which is itself radioactive until, after five transitions, it reaches down from atomic number 92, uranium, to 82, lead, which is not radioactive. (At least most lead isn’t; it wouldn’t surprise me if an atomic physicist somewhere hasn’t either discovered or created a radioactive isotope of lead.) Muller argued (as a lot of writers about this history have before him) that uranium fulfilled the dream of the ancient alchemists of “transmutation” of one element into another, and he even told a story of an argument between Rutherford and Soddy in which Soddy suggested using the term “transmutation” for this property of uranium and Rutherford saying, “Don’t dare call it that! We’ll be hanged if we do!”

This also leads to the often misunderstood concept of “half-life” to mean just how radioactive a substance is; a half-life is simply the length of time it takes for half your original sample to decay from radioactive to non-radioactive. The Bomb, after a pretty in-depth depiction of the Manhattan Project and what they were up against in trying to create a bomb — which makes the interesting contention that the reason Joseph Stalin was so disinterested in the news when Harry Truman told him at Potsdam, Germany that the U.S. had invented an atomic weapon was he already knew about it. Though the alleged “atom spy ring” involving Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, her brother David Greenglass, Harry Gold and Morton Sobell was a joke, the Russians did have a real atom spy at Los Alamos, expatriate German physicist and Communist Dr. Klaus Fuchs, and The Bomb named another Russian spy among the scientists at Los Alamos of whom I’d never heard before; Fuchs was eventually caught but, since he was a British national — he’d fled there from Germany and naturalized as a British citizen before coming to the U.S. to work on the bomb — he was punished by the British court system and was thereby spared the McCarthyite hysteria that engulfed the Rosenbergs and got them executed. Still, it was a surprising (though not unbelievable) contention that the information the Russians were getting from Los Alamos had reached all the way to the top. The Bomb rather races through the aftermath of the story — the development of the hydrogen bomb, the firing of J. Robert Oppenheimer from any further role in U.S. atomic research for refusing to work on it (masterminded, according to these films, not by Dr. Edward Teller but by Lewis Strauss, Eisenhower’s appointee as the head of the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission) and the high hopes for “atoms for peace” — for nuclear power as a cheap, inexhaustible source of electricity and other forms of energy — which a number of the scientists who had worked on the bomb hoped would absolve them from their responsibility for creating a weapon with the potential to destroy all humanity.

 Uranium ends with some bizarre scenes attempting to argue that nuclear energy isn’t all that dangerous — the show makes the claim that no one died from long-term exposure to the radiation at Chernobyl or Fukushima (though it does concede that the Russian firefighters sent into Chernobyl immediately after the disaster to put the fires out — and dressed, the archive footage shows, in ridiculously unprotective clothes that look like the sorts of things worn by the extras in Monty Python and the Holy Grail — died from short-term radiation sickness, and as Muller strolls through the room at Chernobyl where those clothes are still stored, his Geiger counter readings literally go off the chart) and even repeats the Big Lie from the modern-day nuclear industry that nuclear power is “clean” because it doesn’t emit carbon. This ignores not only the vivid dangers of nuclear power in the real world (I can’t imagine anyone could watch the NOVA episode on Fukushima sandwiched between these two shows and argue that nuclear power is a good thing; if nothing else, the margin of error for this unforgiving technology and the myriad ways in which both accidents and human mistakes can cascade into events threatening the lives of hundreds of thousands of people argues for the abolition of nuclear power forever) but also the huge contributions to global warming, climate change and carbon production by the other elements in the nuclear fuel cycle, from the huge amounts of energy expended in mining pitchblende, extracting the uranium from it, running it through gas-diffusion centrifuges (which involves turning the uranium into a highly caustic gas, uranium hexafluoride, and spinning it so the uranium hexafluoride molecules containing the fissile U-235 isotope from the non-fissile and far more common U-238 separate and can be turned back into uranium metal with a high enough U-235 concentration: 3 to 5 percent for a power reactor, 20 percent for a research reactor or to produce nuclear medicines, 80 to 95 percent for a bomb) and forming it into fuel rods; also the enormous amount of heat nuclear power plants release into the ocean because that’s where the hot water is pumped after it has, in the form of steam, turned the turbines that power the generators that actually create electricity. To me, there is fundamentally no moral, ethical or practical difference between nuclear weapons and nuclear power: both are evil technologies and should be abolished (though I might make an exception and allow a few small reactors to remain for health purposes only — Uranium contains a heart-rending story about a radioactive medicine used in Australia to help diagnose cancers — which, of course, radiation can also cause). I argued in the pages of Zenger’s Newsmagazine that there were at least two technologies whose basic premises were so fundamentally evil in terms of the dangers they pose to life on earth that they should be banned: one was nuclear energy and the other was genetic engineering of living organisms, which seems to me to be “twisting the dragon’s tail” of evolution and potentially laying waste to the biosphere in ways that make even the greatest potential nuclear disasters look like nothing by comparison.