March 2000

Talking about the atom

1960s radio series gave a Year-2000 prognosis of peaceful uses of nuclear energy

A public relations relic surfaced on a Y-12 shelf recently. It’s a set of a dozen roughly 10-minute radio programs recorded and packaged in three long-playing record albums.

Titled Let’s Talk About the Atom, the radio interviews, produced by Argonne National Laboratory’s public information office for the Atomic Energy Commission, reveal some insights on ideas for peaceful uses of atomic energy in the late 1960s. Although undated (materials such as these should always carry a date), the subjects and some comments appear to place the material at about 1967–68. (For instance, one segment describes the upcoming “National Accelerator Facility” in Batavia, Ill., which ultimately became Fermilab. Ground was broken for Fermilab in December 1968.) Programs such as these were once distributed on vinyl. The format, however, isn’t the only feature that renders them a bit dated. Each segment begins with a corny fanfare. And the announcer’s bold statement that “…men of science are searching for and finding new ways of applying the tiny atom…” reveals that attitudes about more than atomic energy have changed over the years.

But the science is for the most part solid. ORNL is represented in two segments. In one, Norman Anderson describes one of the Lab’s most famous and widely used inventions, the Zonal Centrifuge, used to purify flu vaccines. Anderson, then director of the Molecular Anatomy program, developed the device as an outgrowth of atomic research. It’s cited here as a shining example of atoms for peace.
ORNL Director Emeritus Alvin Weinberg (left) and the late Glen Seaborg talked about the atom and the future on a 1960s radio series.
The Lab’s then-director, now emeritus, Alvin Weinberg, stars in another segment as he describes the vision of an agro-industrial complex that would “make the deserts bloom” with seawater purified using nuclear energy, a project pioneered by ORNL. Desert energy centers, he says, could purify seawater, provide energy to industrial centers and make fertilizers for wastelands. In the course of the interview, Weinberg qualifies his idea by noting the expense of the nuclear projects. In fact, in a few years cost would help quash the idea. Weinberg, however, would soon spur research into an abundant desert energy resource by conceiving the Solar Energy Research Center, which became the National Renewable Energy Laboratory. Anderson and Weinberg’s visions are actually two of several practical ideas described in the interviews. Other segments describe evaluating artworks with neutron analysis and the use of radiation in cancer treatment.

But other segments describe less feasible ideas such as Plowshares, a project to create underground oil and gas reservoirs, excavate harbors and create mountain passes with the “peaceful use of nuclear explosives.” And yet another, “The Atomic Powered Heart,” envisions an artificial heart powered by plutonium-238. That device never reached the shelves. During the next decade the hopes and dreams of the atomic energy community would be dashed by the public’s growing uneasiness over safety. From the late 1940s to the early 1970s, however, the sky was the limit on what the scientists and the public thought nuclear energy could do for humankind.

Most telling is the final segment—an interview with then-AEC chairman, the late Glenn Seaborg, titled “The Atom and the Year 2000.”
"The Atomic Powered Heart" envisions an artificial heart powered by plutonium-238.
How did he do as a prognosticator? In the program, Seaborg refers, in a cultural sense, to the “binding force of the atom.”

“The need for an exchange of information and scientists’ visits between nations have brought the scientific community closer together,” he says.

But events would dampen Atomic-Age optimism. Seaborg predicted that by 2000 most new power generation plants would be nuclear. One benefit, he noted, would be a “quite dramatic” reduction of air pollution, particularly if electric vehicles came along by then.

Events at Three-Mile Island and Chornobyl helped dash those dreams. We find ourselves still dealing with the problems of air pollution and dependence on foreign oil. Seaborg conceded even then that the transportation sector would remain tied to oil.

Seaborg was optimistic over the possibilities of desert agriculture using desalinated seawater. Such technologies would help developing nations enter the economic mainstream “without the agony of the Industrial Revolution” that Western nations experienced, he thought. In a few years, however, the rising cost of nuclear power plants and less water-hungry strains of grain took the shine off of atomic-aided agriculture.

Seaborg had by then written off the nuclear airplane owing to “safety and weight factors” but envisioned nuclear-powered ships and satellites and other innovations “which we conservative scientists are probably too unimaginative to foresee today.”

Seaborg was exactly, if indirectly, right about that: No one in the late 1960s could have imagined the impact that innovations such as microprocessors, or the Internet, would have on science and the world. The Internet, developed initially over communications concerns in a nuclear war scenario, has indeed “bound” the world together, and no sector more than scientists. Sure enough, in the year 2000 the channels of collaboration between nations are as open as they have ever been. Whether through threat or promise, that has been a legacy of the Atomic Age.

It almost makes one wish Seaborg’s predictions were more accurate in general. He may have been simply ahead of his time, even more than he thought.—B.C.