Engines of Our Ingenuity

No. 673:
NUCLEAR POWER

by John H. Lienhard

Click here for audio of Episode 673.

Today, a new technology struggles to find its place. The University of Houston's College of Engineering presents this series about the machines that make our civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.

Before I was born, my father worked on the Fargo Forum in North Dakota. In 1925 he wrote a piece about a new unlimited source of energy. It was nuclear fission. But, he said, all that energy won't do us much good if we don't use it wisely.

By then the press had speculated about atomic energy since before WW-I. By 1940, Popular Mechanics and Collier's talked about atomic autos and airplanes. Then Pearl Harbor brought the lid of secrecy down on all that.

I heard only one thing about atomic power during the war. A drunk called my father one night. "You guys at the paper wanna know what they're really doing out in the Hanford plant?" he slurred. "Sure," said my father. "Well, they're making front ends of horses for final assembly in Washington, DC."

The idea of atomic power returned on that dark day we incinerated Hiroshima. When we saw what we'd done, we frantically tried to turn the conversation back to civilian atomic power.

Overnight, great scientists became lousy predictors. But they gave us some wonderful hyperbole. Glenn Seaborg promised atomic airplanes. William Laurence promised sightseeing rockets to the Moon and Mars. Alvin Weinberg, first head of the AEC, agreed. Laurence also said,

[Splitting] the atom can lead to such priceless boons as the conquering of disease, the postponement of old age and the prolongation of life.

It was a moment of childlike hope in the wake of war.

Then J. Robert Oppenheimer, that knight of the woeful countenance who'd given us the bomb, pointed out terrible technical problems. Luis Alvarez warned that using atomic energy to fly a plane was "to do an easy thing the hard way."

And I went off to do my Ph.D. at Berkeley. I worked on the problem of safe heat removal in a reactor core. It was soon plain to me that we wouldn't put nuclear reactors in cars or planes for a long, long time.

During the '70s, the pendulum swung back. We saw that atomic power was a delicate technology. Optimism turned to fear. By the 1980s we quit installing reactors. It seemed better to accept thousands of deaths by fossil-fuel emissions than to face the lesser, but new, dangers of nuclear power.

I'm sure we'll yet fly to Mars in a nuclear rocket. But my father was right in 1925. No technology serves us fully before we learn to use it wisely. And no concept serves us at all before we've invested ourselves fully in building the actual machinery -- that makes it part of our lives.

I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston, where we're interested in the way inventive minds work.

(Theme music)


Del Sesto, S.L., Wasn't the Future of Nuclear Energy Wonderful? Imagining Tomorrow: History, Technology, and the American Future (Joseph Corn, ed.). Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1986, Chapter 3.


  Click on the thumbnail for a full-sized image.

Editorial by John Lienhard, III, in the Fargo Forum, ca. Nov. 15, 1925.


The Engines of Our Ingenuity is Copyright © 1988-1997 by John H. Lienhard.

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