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The New International, September 1945


Willem De Voorter

Atomic Energy and Socialism

First Notes on the Discovery


From New International, Vol. XI No. 6, September 1945, pp. 175–180.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.

Now if someone could succeed in isolating a few pounds of U-235 and the whole were to be immersed in water, very interesting developments would almost certain follow. The isolation of uranium isotopes in quantity lots is now being attempted in several places. If the reader wakes up some morning to read in his newspaper that half the United States was blown into the sea overnight, he can rest assured that someone, somewhere, succeeded.
Applied Nuclear Physics, by Pollard and Davidson, New York, John Wiley and Sons

The above quotation was published in 1942. Someone, somewhere, succeeded; the reader woke up and read in his newspaper that Hiroshima had been “blown into the sea.” And a few days later Nagasaki. And some day – which city?

The above quotation was not written by H.G. Wells, in one of his many fantastic novels: it was written as sober fact by two scientists who knew of what they were speaking. Their Nuclear Physics is a sober text, for the most part readable even by the layman who is willing to apply himself to grasp new concepts. And if the layman does so apply himself, he is bound to discover the sham of “military secrets.” There is no secret – except one: the secret that capitalism and its cohorts willingly appropriate money for destructive purposes.

Of course, this statement must be qualified: it was not their “private” money that was appropriated. Who would be so foolish if you can take the taxpayers’ money and avoid the “risk” of loss of capital? After all, two billion dollars is money. And how do you know what a bunch of scientists, “starry-eyed idealists” and “impractical dreamers,” will do when you let them go ahead on a subject so complicated that an honest capitalist would hesitate to give up even half an hour of his precious golfing time to listen to them in normal times.

But now we have the stuff – and they can advertise it at public expense, and tell the public about “their” patriotic services, “their” devotion to the welfare of the nation, “their” unsparing efforts to accomplish the national purpose.

What has been accomplished?

Luckily, we are in a position to give a definite answer to this question: What has been accomplished is simply the following: With the aid of two billion dollars we have done. on a large scale, what had been done in 1938 in a laboratory, on a microscopic scale; what by the middle of 1939 was a certainty in the laboratory of a few scientists, checked and rechecked, photographed and rephotographed, has been done industrially.

We, as Marxists, must understand what went on in laboratories all over the world; we must evaluate what has been done with the two billion dollars; we must evaluate its military and social consequences; we must convince the nation of the truth inherent in our findings; we must, more than ever, work for the realization of a workers’ state and a workers’ government, lest disaster overtake not only the worker, but mankind. We must, as a first step on this road, debunk the nonsense being spouted about the celebrated “private initiative,” which will increase in intensity as time goes by in order to cover up the steal and before the transfer to private hands of this destructive power can be slipped over without exciting too great public interest.

Our questions start then with the paramount one: What has been accomplished? From the following it will become clear that the answer is the one given above: “We” got hold of unlimited funds of the taxpayers’ money, and proceeded to do on a large scale what was fully known as atomic fission in 1939.

Atomic fission brings us at once to the heart of the entire subject: the atom. We will try to give here facts, in an order leading to an understanding or rather grasp of the subject. For precise, detailed information we refer to the volume quoted at the head of this article; another excellent compilation of atomic information is: The “Particles” in Modern Physics, by Stranathan, Blakiston.

When dealing with atoms we deal with the ultimate particles into which elements can be divided while remaining as elements. This might be stated as follows: An atom is the smallest possible subdivision of matter as we know it. Matter then is composed of atoms, which may combine with one another to form molecules.

Fifty years ago the atom was a chemical concept: it was, as already stated, the smallest particle of an element. There were known to be about 92 elements, each with definite chemical behavior. Some of the elements have, as yet, not been found. But as the elements apparently fall into quite an orderly array it is possible to predict the existence, and even the chemical behavior, of such unknown elements; even to look for them deliberately, trace them by characteristics they ought to possess.

Into this realm of pure chemistry the physicist was, in a certain sense, catapulted by the logic of events. The results of physical research compelled the investigation of the physical characteristics of elements, and today the chemist of necessity must study atomic physics.

It has been found that gases could be made to conduct electric currents (Crookes) and this phenomenon was investigated by J.J. Thomson of Cambridge, who discovered the electron: apparently a concrete particle with a mass approximately 1,800 times smaller than that of a hydrogen atom, up to that time the smallest particle known, and with a “negative” charge of electricity. Thus it dawned on the world of science that the atom could be subdivided. Here might be the clue to such things as X-rays, which had just been discovered by Roentgen.

Meanwhile Becquerel had found that certain uranium ores gave off X-rays: This discovery of the Becquerel Rays was the impetus for the work of Pierre and Marie Curie, who emerged after the most arduous and heartbreaking work with an infinitely small quantity of stuff they called radium, because it was such a potent radiator of energy.

It was soon found that here was the strangest stuff man had ever heard of: It completely upset the placid world of the chemist, because here was stuff that defied an “natural” laws.

Here was, indubitably, an element: No matter by what standard one analyzed its behavior. Yet, this element behaved in a thoroughly undisciplined manner: it radiated heat, X-rays and electricity, which latter was similar in its manifestations to the electrons of Thomson. But another, far more disturbing fact was apparent: it emitted actual particles, of high mass: and these particles in a short time turned into helium. Here then was an element that defied the laws of all elements: it divided itself and became something else. It was soon found that all kinds of other new elements put in an appearance. For instance, a gas called radium emanation (radon). This emanation did the impossible: it behaved as, and was, an element,which also gave birth to radiated particles and X-rays. But, if you kept this new element nicely bottled up – you had to, because it was a gas – it did a disappearing act – and another element took its place. And this element too radiated energy. None of the new elements was like anything ever seen before: elements that destroyed themselves and gave up energy, and became something else, gave up energy, and became something else, and gave birth to new elements.

The Conversion of Mass Into Energy

The hunt was on: Radio activity became the most intensely studied subject in physics. Here was the deepest secret of matter going on before our eyes. Soon the fact became known that other elements behaved in the same irrational manner: Uranium, thorium, actinium. They all sent out particles that later became helium; electric charges, electrons; and X-rays. And they all gave birth, in the long run, to – of all things – prosaic lead.

Thus there was born the science of what went on within the atom: atomic “model” followed atomic model. Always for the purpose of explaining these things, which were against all the accepted laws of nature of but a few years ago. The concept of conservation of mass was gone. Mass was being converted into energy in these irregular elements. And elements changed. Were the old philosophers and alchemists right, after all? Could we really change elements into other ones? Gold-making by 1918 had become an honest profession. By 1919 it became a cinch: Rutherford transmuted nitrogen into oxygen, by irradiating nitrogen with the particles emitted by radium. Soon gold was made from mercury. True, the gold may have come from gold tips of cigarettes, but maybe some gold was made. At enormous expense, it is true; but with improvements in the process maybe unlimited gold could be made. In bankrupt Germany gold-making was heavily financed, by Ludendorff among many others.

Soon it was found that the oxygen produced by transmutation was somehow “different” from the normal, well-known oxygen. It had a different “atomic weight,” one of the things that had always been considered by the chemist as one of the unchangeable characteristics of elements. Yet here was oxygen, chemically pure: yet its weight differed from that of the natural stuff. This was a riddle. Aston surmised shrewdly that maybe such oxygen existed, unknown, in nature. He started a line of investigation for elements with atomic weights that differed from the chemically established weights: And the more he looked, the more he found. The concept of isotopes was born: it was found that every element is present in various weights, yet chemically alike. True, the different weights lie very close together for every element, but every element has isotopes, which means, that there exist, of every element, two or more forms, only distinguished from one another by their atomic weights. At this time hundreds of isotopes have been found, which number no doubt will still increase.

Slowly the understanding of “matter” and its actual constituents became clearer and clearer: the facts related to the radiating elements, and those relating to the new science of the transmutation of elements were analyzed with greater and even greater clarity: the nature of the atom began unfolding itself. The “building stones” of matter were being recognized. The concept of the atomic model, as it stands today, is about as follows:

An atom of any given element consists of a core, called a nucleus, which has a positive charge. This positive electric charge is determined by the number of positive particles in the nucleus. These particles are called protons. Although exceedingly small these protons are of enormous density, so that it would be a tremendous task to lift a cubic inch of closely packed protons. For each proton in the nucleus there is present, in the confines of the atom, an electron, which travels planetwise in a circle or ellipse around the nucleus. The number of protons, respectively of electrons, determines the chemical behavior of the atom; that is, this number determines what element is represented by the atom. Besides the protons the nucleus contains, in all elements except hydrogen, neutral particles, called neutrons. These may be considered as being composed of a proton and an electron closely united, the positive charge of the proton and the negative one of the electron neutralizing one another. The electron is the unit of negative electric charge, and has a mass only 1/840th of that of the proton; the neutral particles, containing a proton and an electron, have approximately the same mass as a proton.

The nuclei of all atoms are built of these three kinds of particles, except the simplest one, the nucleus of a hydrogen atom: this consists only of a proton. However, there are even in this element nuclei which contain, besides a proton, a neutron. The “mass” of such a freak atom is then twice that of the normal hydrogen.

In all elements, while the number of protons and electrons determines the chemical nature of the element, its “atomic number.” the “atomic weight” depends on the number of protons plus the number of neutrons in the nucleus. The number of neutrons may therefore vary, and with it the atomic weight, while the element chemically is still the same: the varying number of neutrons is therefore the reason for the existence of the so-called isotopes.

A great many isotopes occur abundantly in nature, but almost as many have been created in the laboratory. Rutherford transmuted nitrogen, and did so with particles naturally and constantly emitted by radium. Later it was found possible to duplicate such particles, when their nature was determined as that of a helium nucleus: two protons in combination with two neutrons. This particle was given the name of alpha particle long before its true nature was known.

One of the most interesting facts about the neutron is that Rutherford had declared that in order to come to an orderly understanding of the nucleus it was necessary to assume its existence. It took fully twelve years to prove its actual existence as a concrete thing. It was finally unearthed. The reason for this delay was the fact that the neutron is electrically neutral, and carries therefore no charge which would make it detectable. Once the methods had been found to create neutrons in abundance, a particle was obtained, which can penetrate into the highly charged nucleus of the atom, and carry the wallop of a proton, due to its mass.

Neutrons are produced in several ways, and occur in abundance when alpha particles from radium or one of its sub-products impinge on lithium or berillium. This discovery had momentous consequences.

Neutrons, when hitting atomic nuclei, are apt to cause changes in such nuclei and almost invariably upset it to such an. extent that a new element is created: but also almost invariably this element is a very unhappy one: its internal balance is a precarious one, it tries to gain balance, as do all things in nature. Invariably it does so by emitting particles: either a proton or an electron or a neutron, or even alpha particles. But, when it does so, it does the same thing as the radioactive elements. Thus the unstable isotopes created by bombardment are called radio elements.

Each time a radio element (and now we must think of the natural radium, thorium, uranium and actinium and their decay products as well as of the radio elements created in the laboratory) attempts to achieve a natural balance by getting rid of one particle or another, the emission of the particle is accompanied by a loss in weight of the total final products. This loss in weight is accounted for by the fact that energy is imparted to the particle being thrown off, and furthermore by the emission of a so-called gamma ray, a single vibration of the nature of x-rays. Such a single vibration is called a quantum. Here then was a true verification of one of the consequences of Einstein’s theory of relativity, in which matter and energy are interchangeable. Einstein had gone so far as to give a formula for the amount of energy represented by any given mass: the energy equivalent of matter was given as the product of mass and the square of the speed of light per second. The phenomena involved in radio activity completely checked with this formula and constituted one of the most striking proofs of Einstein’s theories.

Atomic energy thus became a reality. If it were only possible to annihilate matter in large amounts (relatively speaking), unheard of amounts of energy would be released, and temperatures beyond the imagination would be reached. No wonder then, that atomic energy attracted the widest attention.

As knowledge advanced in the nuclear field, it slowly became possible to predict reactions. Mankind may congratulate itself that in 1935 and 1936 this exactness of analysis had not been attained, so that Fermi and later Folliot and his wife Curie started off on the wrong track, when Fermi came to the conclusion that in his work he had created new radio active elements with atomic numbers 93, 94, 95, which numbers might still be extended. Had Fermi seen the true facts then, the world, today, would have been considerably more of a shambles than the most ardent applications of TNT have been able to accomplish; all, of course, in the name of a fuhrer, god-emperor and democracy. The authority of Fermi, however, was so great, that most investigators started hotly on the trail of the “transuranic” elements which Fermi thought he had artificially created.

Meanwhile progress was still being made – and there was the eternal urge of the true scientist to know how and why. Predictions of reactions and new combinations which could be made to “go” became more and more accurate. Such predictions were made on paper, and then verified in the laboratory.

A woman mathematician, Lisa Meitner, investigated Fermi’s transuranic elements and found them wanting. The existence of various isotopes of uranium had been abundantly verified: one of them was uranium 235, discovered in 1936. Calculating the probabilities of decay of these rare isotopes she came to the conclusion that, of all the radio elements, this isotope of uranium might be caused to “emit” not only alpha particles when bombarded with neutrons but might decide to decay in a never observed way. It might suddenly fall apart and form two elements somewhere in the middle range of the series of elements. Uranium has atomic number 92. It was conceivable that it could split, say, into two atoms of atomic weight 46, or into one of weight 50 and one 42, or any other combination totalling 92. Careful investigation showed that the greatest probability lay in the formation of barium or lanthanum and krypton.

Being Jewish, she was, of course, unworthy of the blessings conferred by der Führer on Germany. She was kicked out of her job and fled to Denmark. From Copenhagen she communicated with Hahn (almost a suspicious name too – Rankin will have to go into the matter) and told him of her conclusions. Hahn and Strassman verified her calculations in their laboratory: they bombarded U-235 with slow neutrons and barium and krypton became the end products. Hahn and Strassman notified Niels Bohr, then in the U.S.A., who notified the world of science, almost breaking up a meeting of the Philosophical Society in Washington when he did so in 1938.

Fascism Loses the Race

By January 1939, the results had been duplicated time and again, and it was known that here was a source of energy hitherto confined to such characters as Buck Rogers and such as appear in Fantastic Stories. This became even more true, when further investigations and calculations showed that the process was spontaneous, because U-235, when disintegrating, emits neutrons, which will set off adjoining nuclei on the same splitting or fission process: it was proved that here was a true chain reaction.

The munitions fraternity and the military had long been casting loving eyes at radium: they dreamed of a radium bomb. If you could make that, you really would have some-thing worth while to sell to your clients. But radium, and all its relatives, were perfectly useless, except maybe for idiotic things like pure research in biology and medicine. But reputable medical supply houses fought shy of the stuff. Those who had foisted radium products on the public had created too much havoc. The trouble with all these radio materials is that they follow their own sweet course. There is not a thing you could do to make them do their stuff in a hurry. The hope to have something really destructive in their field was too remote for straight-thinking business men to bother about.

But this thing of Hahn and Strassman – that might be something worth looking into. Let’s talk it over anyway with those idiots. If. they have something we’ll put them to work. You can get them for next to nothing and they’ll be flattered like hell if we show them we appreciate them. It was talked over, extensively. Lisa Meitner might even have been permitted to return to Germany, maybe even been offered a diploma of honorary Aryanism. It was talked over internationally. And nationally. You think there really is something to it? These fellows seem to be pretty sure of themselves – I had one to lunch yesterday. Of course, I don’t know what he was talking about, but he seemed damn sure.

The exigencies of dictatorship drove Hitler into his maniac culmination of the Second World War, before he could add atomic energy to his extensive armamentum. Of course everywhere it was realized that someone, somewhere, would succeed. And so everyone, everywhere, who was supposed to know something about the stuff was pressed and cajoled to defend, and help defend, whatever it was that had to be saved by total annihilation of the other guy, as a true service to mankind. And so the race was on.

How perilously close the race was may never be known. It is already becoming clear that it was full on when France was invaded; the invasion of Norway may have been motivated by the search for atomic power.

The race was truly an adventure story. But fascism was outpaced: her factories could be bombed; those in the U.S.A. were safe, if the Germans did not get to the goal first. The knowledge was everywhere. The means to go into mass production were abundant. No more mass spectrographs on a budget; a million was a bagatelle. You have an idea? Fine, try it out; money no object. And so, out of the hellish cauldron came methods for isotope separation that could be worked industrially. What matter if an installation isolates only a gram a year! Build thousands of them, and you get kilograms a year. Anything to get the precious stuff. Money doesn’t mean a thing – the yokels are good for it.

What a dream for scientists – an unlimited budget. You want a new apparatus, a slight improvement? Presto: here are the funds.

Now the dream is over. Gone are those days and nights of feverish work and plans. Will it work, this new and improved super-centrifuge, this new mass spectrograph, this new vaporizer, this new ionizer? It worked: and now we have Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Yes, we never prayed so hard in our lives as when the test, the final test, was made, on July 16, in the desert of New Mexico. We may even surmise that the prayer was for failure; that the thought came up: what have we done to mankind?

Came the explosion: such as never was seen or dreamed of before; a force inconceivable was generated instantaneously: the calculations were all too true, all too accurate. Because what occurred here was truly annihilation of matter.

For the transformation of uranium 235 to barium and krypton is annihilation of matter in the literal sense of the word, and energy formation in the true sense of the Einstein formula given above. This because of the original weight of U-235 fully 13 points must disappear somehow, to form barium and krypton, and be converted into energy: almost 5 per cent of the original mass is so converted. When, therefore, a finite mass of U-235 is available, the figures resulting from Einstein’s conversion formula become truly staggering in their magnitude. One disintegrating atom of U-235 generates approximately 162 mega-electron volts, or 162 million electron volts. Therefore the power generated by the disintegration of one pound of atoms staggers the imagination, if one considers that this power is generated and “consumed” in a small fraction of a second. To imagine a sudden release of power as here discussed, one would have to imagine the power used in a whole year in a fair-sized city, say like Albany, generated and used in one-hundred-thousandth part of a second, and in a space smaller than a child’s fist.

The temperatures generated in this process cannot even be estimated; the quantity of x-ray quanta sent out in a very small fraction of a second is unbelievable.

Truly, there was reason to pray – for forgiveness, if anything. Ask Einstein.

There we have, in a nutshell, what has been accomplished with our two billion dollars. Now what? What are we going to do with it? Of course, we have the bomb – and it is irresistible. Of course, it is a deep military secret; no one who is blind and cannot read can find out how it is done. That we have won the race is indubitable on the surface. But do we know for sure? Have the Russians got it, or the Swedes?

Your truly logical man says: As long as we have it, and have no reason to believe others have the same thing, let’s use it before the other fellow has a chance. The McCormick-Patterson-Hearst press is all for using up all the bombs we have now, quick, preferably on Great Britain and Russia, and so establish “our” brand of “democracy” everywhere. Rankin would like to use it on his friends, but quick. So would Bilbo: it would save letter-writing. And Pegler would love to use a few pounds of it to blast Roosevelt out of his grave for not being of the same brand of reaction Pegler favors. Patterson is a prudent man. He thinks we should build a few more factories so that we will not run out of supplies if, for instance, the Greeks should manage to establish a popular government, or the Spanish or the Italians.

We, however, must seriously ask ourselves: What are we going to do with it? The people, the workers, have one paramount duty today, one that overshadows all others: We, the people, must control this power so that it shall not be turned against us. In the hands of the captains of industry it is bound tel be a weapon of suppression: for the time being only one of violence; eventually an economic one.

* * *

All Must Wait on Profits

We have been assured that the millennium is at hand: unlimited power to relieve mankind of its burdens of labor. We can see the Weirs, the Fords, the Mellons, the du Ponts, Bethlehem Steel directors and the Southern Kunnels getting together at a thanksgiving party, celebrating the fact that now mankind’s burdens are relieved so that the Wops and the Bohunks can now attain the status of members in fashionable golf clubs. We can see the joyful countenances of the Dutch planters, who now can give their coolie labor clean jobs and stimulate their intellects to a true appreciation of the finer things of life. We see the South African gold diggers (black ones, of course) go down in the pits jubilating, and watch the atoms dig gold for the dearly beloved British masters, who allow them to bask in the soft glare of multicolored atomic lights, air-cooled recreation rooms being available if they should get tired of watching the tireless atoms and wish to inhale refinement in the form of atomic music and lectures on archeology and physics.

Of course, a little bit more work has to be done: for a while the hearts of these kind benefactors are bound to go on bleeding when man gets hurt, or is overworked, or is hungry in the midst of plenty, and cold for lack of ordinary fuel. That is, of course, too bad. But business is business: you can’t have bread and coal and clothes without paying a profit. Meanwhile, be patient; presently we will have the atomic age. Once that has come, we can truly enter upon the age we all want: the age of Service; the age for which we prepare every Tuesday when we have our Rotary meetings, and call even the gods of finance by their first names. You would realize our vision of brighter days to come, if you heard us thundering: For He’s a Jolly Good Fellow!

Meanwhile, there is the atomic bomb: the one weapon all lunatics have dreamed of. And the people, the workers, are confronted with that reality.

A few grams in the hands of capitalists, and the need for priorities to make riot clubs is gone. Because a gram of it is as potent a strike weapon as could be desired.

A few pounds of it in the hands of Franco – and be sure someone in the State Department is already figuring out how to slip him some – and Spain is almost certainly saved for fascism. A few pounds in the hands of Stalin – and let the workers march: he will menace them with sudden and swift annihilation.

Those are the things atomic power means now. Already jt has been announced that the government (which is, as we well know, the people, all of the people, by right of the ballot) has only a “fiduciary right,” whatever that may mean, but the intent to turn atomic power over to a few private concerns for exploitation. One asks: what for, if it is such a great responsibility that even a few capitalists shudder when they think of it? What will the stuff mean when in the hands of the du Ponts, and for sale to all comers with the cash to pay for it?

Because, at this moment, atomic power is but destructive.

And is but a weapon against the workers of the world.

The question thus arises: What of the promise of power without limit, once this “atomic” power has been harnessed? We will attempt an answer, both from the economical standpoint and from a purely physical viewpoint.

Of course, we know nothing of the balance sheet of “our” production of U-235 – we probably will never get it, if it can be avoided by the powers that be. One thing is known: the methods developed for so-called isotope isolation developed in the laboratories all over the world were such that even the smallest amount was enormously costly. Hahn and Strassman in all probability did not have pure U-235 when they made their famous 1938 experiment verifying Meitner’s theory. There is, therefore, a great chance that the production of U-235 is almost as costly as it was then, and could be accomplished on a large scale only because cost was no object in a two billion dollar project, which, incidentally, was not burdened with “overhead” and expensive and useless “executives.” For scientists and technicians a $7,000 a year salary is high. Most of the work was done by common labor – and we know how they enriched themselves by exacting their price during this war – on frozen wages. Because the extraction of uranium as a mixture of isotopes is just hard labor, and well known. metallurgical processes are employed.

If the isolation could be accomplished with super-centrifuges, the ultimate cost might not be too prohibitive. If, however, the known methods of isotope separation, and primarily the mass spectrograph, had to be employed, the price should be tremendously high, and might, as a matter of fact, be so high that U-235 is not a competitor of coal and oil. It would be possible only to make a definite statement in this respect if the entire balance sheet were published and the quantity produced were known.

There is, of course, a chance that during the work done since the “Manhattan Project” started a way was found to utilize the rather abundant uranium isotope U-238. There is apparently an abundant supply of uranium, as a mixture of the different isotopes: only .71 per cent of the normal uranium is the desired U-235, while U-238 is the most abundant isotope, more than ninety-nine per cent of the total.

It is, for instance, conceivable a way was found to “transmute” U-238 by means of neutron bombardment, or by means of, for instance, deuterons (a proton and neutron pair) or alpha particles at high speed, into a truly trans-uranic element of unstable character. This might, for instance, be an isotope of element 93, 94 or even 95, which would be necessarily highly unstable. Such a “synthetic” trans-uranic element might decay either naturally, or under a second bombardment, to U-235.

If this was accomplished, the supply of U-235 would be well-nigh unlimited. The fact that uranium exploration has been restricted would lead one almost to suppose that this process or something very nearly like it has been accomplished.

The Possibilities of the Future

We dare say that a good mathematical physicist could work out the necessary steps in the procedure on paper without too much trouble.

It is exactly these facts which form the secret of the project: the balance sheet might prove at once that the promise is but idle talk, to satisfy the yokels who paid the bill and want to see something for their money, if only verbiage; or that U-235 can be produced in unlimited quantities.

Let us assume, however, that U-235 can be made cheaply enough so as to become a serious threat to present power sources. While as yet the stuff cannot have any useful part in our technical processes and is no immediate threat to coal and oil interests, it then might be. Then we would see an immediate change in imperialist policies, directed toward uranium deposits. as well as to oil lands. The entire imperialist game will have to be reshuffled and again the people will have to pay for the game with blood and life.

If we assume that U-235 or another new element or isotope is tamed and becomes the power source we are being promised, the consequences will be, as far as the workers are concerned, disastrous under a capitalist system. A single airplane could serve for fuel transportation over the entire world, delivering an ounce here, an ounce there. One has only to visualize the unemployment resulting from its use in power plants. Truly, the burden of labor would be lifted from the shoulders of mankind, to make place for the burden of unemployment and hunger on an ever increasing scale. Technological unemployment would reach staggering figures; and the capitalist would invent the slogan: a fair day’s work for a fair day’s wage, when dictating conditions to those he will employ. This might be interesting for the membership of the AFL. Capitalism will feel perfectly healthy again: there will be a well supplied pool of unemployed, and a college degree may be necessary to become an atomic spittoon cleaner, as in the good old days such a degree was demanded from gas station attendants.

* * *

We return to the technical aspect again: when, if ever, will atomic power be used for controlled power generation?

In order to give the reader an idea (on a small scale) we will employ a simile which was used some time ago by one of the most popular radio authorities on the air. Atomic power was compared with gunpowder, and it was stated that the first gun was really the first internal combustion engine invented. Refinements gave us the present automotive engine, which works on the same general principles.

Now it so happens that no sane automotive engineer would make such a statement. The internal combustion engine would be a constant danger if run with gunpowder, nitroglycerine or other similar explosive. It is a safe engine only for the fact that gasoline – or oil – must be supplied with oxygen in order to be able to burn. In the absence of oxygen gasoline is a completely harmless fluid: it cannot burn, much less explode, unless sufficient oxygen is supplied.

If anyone should attempt to run a gasoline engine on gunpowder, or diluted nitroglycerine, for instance, he would face almost certain violent death. Explosives are substances which carry within their molecular structure a supply of oxygen which makes them independent of an an supply. Once the stuff is ignited, it goes off on its own. No air or ignition needs be supplied. One molecule burns and generates the heat necessary to ignite the next one. We have here again a “chain process,” a term we met before, when discussing the generation of neutrons by disintegrating U-235 nuclei which set off other nuclei after the first atom had been started off by an external neutron, introduced for instance by the action of radium bombardment on lithium or beryllium.

If, therefore, in a “gunpowder engine,” or “nitroglycerine engine,” there were the slightest leak between storage tank and cylinder, there would be a “fuse” between engine and tank; and very soon, as a matter of fact, incredibly soon, the lucky owner would join his ancestors, honorable or otherwise, and the chances are that not even a dissecting room would know what to do with the remains.

At present the promised atomic engine looks very much like the discussed nitroglycerine engine, only a little more so. In all probability the design would consist of a steam engine, the steam being furnished by water heated by atomic disintegration. All one would have to do is to introduce measured, minutes doses of U-235 into the water and set it off – by means of neutron bombardment: the steam will be there.

However, there is a vast difficulty: the disintegrating atoms would emit neutrons in all directions: the chances are some might reach the main U-235 reservoir and set it off on its own hook, and a minor earthquake would be the result, accompanied by local fireworks of a rather violent nature. Now, neutrons are particles which can be stopped. But only, apparently, effectively by compounds such as paraffin and water, which contain large quantities of hydrogen: a neutron generator is only safe when surrounded by approximately six feet of water, for those who work around the apparatus. And U-235 to start on its disintegration course, needs only low-energy neutrons, so that the isolation of the main supply becomes a major problem.

It is no wonder then that warning signs are already being hoisted: do not expect atomic power to wash your dishes, run your car or nurse the baby within the first ten years. Ten years is a long time, and many exalted promises may be forgotten in that period.

Meantime, science will go on forever: men who are born with the virus of curiosity can’t help themselves. They will evolve atomic power. Our guess is that it will not be based on the present basis of U-235 but on other radio elements which can be controlled, which, in other words, do not disintegrate in a true chain process, but can be disintegrated by means of an independent, controllable and simple bombarder, without which the nuclei will not be able to disintegrate.

This development may come tomorrow, or in a few years. The Marxist can have but one hope: that when it does come it will come in a society where added power truly would mean added leisure and added comfort, even for the expropriated capitalists.

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Last updated on 16 November 2016