Dr. Fermi's Fantastic Voyage

PETER D. ZIMMERMAN

December 04, 1992|By PETER D. ZIMMERMAN

WASHINGTON — Washington. -- Fifty years ago Wednesday, Enrico Fermi set )) sail on a voyage to a new world. His flotilla consisted of a cobbled-together control panel and a pile of bricks of the purest carbon inset with uranium eggs of extraordinary refinement -- the first nuclear reactor. His voyage was made entirely within the confines of an abandoned squash court beneath the stands of a Chicago football field owned by a university with no football team. According to a coded telephone report between American Nobel laureate Arthur Compton in Chicago and James Conant, chief of American war research, Fermi found ''the natives very friendly.''

On December 2, 1942, Fermi and his crew achieved the first self-sustaining nuclear chain reaction, an experiment that eventually led to the Bomb, mutually assured deterrence (or destruction), Three Mile Island and Chernobyl. Along the way, the Italian scientist's discovery also gave Europe more than 40 years of superpower hegemony and enforced one of the longest eras of peace the Continent has known.

From our viewpoint, half a century distant, we can recognize both the scientific adventure of Fermi's experiment and the fact that not all the natives found on this side of the atomic ocean were exactly friendly.

All the scientists and engineers present in the improvised lab in Chicago understood the importance of their experiment, but none expected surprises. Before the chain reaction began, Fermi proceeded according to habit. ''Let's go to lunch,'' he said.

At 3:48 that afternoon, George Weil set the last remaining control rod at a point determined by Fermi, the pile went critical, and the chain reaction was allowed to run for 4 1/2 minutes at a power

level about that of a small flashlight.

Leona Woods, one of the few women physicists of the day, asked, as the reaction proceeded, ''When do we become scared?'' Not that day. At the end of the experiment, when the control rods were safely locked in place and the reactor was cold, Eugene Wigner pulled out a bottle of Chianti and a brace of paper cups. Fermi's team then autographed the straw wrapper of the bottle.

The scientists would not know fear for almost three years, until the first nuclear explosion, trillions of times more powerful than the output of the Chicago reactor, was detonated above the New Mexico desert.

Despite their skill at science, when the reactor went critical, none of those present had any understanding of the social phenomena they had unleashed. It was only in the aftermath of the New Mexico test and the bombing of Hiroshima that they glimpsed the nuclear mainland that lay beyond the small island Fermi had reached.

To their credit, the same group of physicists who developed the first nuclear weapons became the men and women who led the fight for civilian control of their handiwork, and later for arms control and an end to nuclear testing. They provided the intellectual foundation for today's breakthroughs in nuclear-arms reductions and formed organizations that built bridges between the United States and the Soviet Union during the Cold War.

Scientists' foreboding about the destructive potential of the bomb was not confined to U.S. nuclear physicists; it spread quickly to scientists working on the Soviet Union's nuclear weapons. One of the leaders of that program, Andrei Sakharov, devoted most of the rest of his career to seeking peace, driven by the knowledge that his own accomplishments had made great wars a threat to the survival of the planet.

The chain reaction that was started in Fermi's reactor led to the bombs that laid waste to two Japanese cities. It also opened the door to civilian nuclear reactors and to radioisotopes and accelerators for use in cancer treatment. It initiated the era during which we lived in an amalgam of our terror that nuclear weapons would be used and our growing, mature understanding that their sole purpose was to prevent great conflicts, a role in which nuclear weapons have been successful since 1945.

Some of the dreams of December 2, 1942, have been abandoned. Electricity generated by nuclear reactions was once expected to be ''too cheap to meter'' -- an impossibility; but, in any case, public fear of radiation and reactor accidents was not unreasonable. After Three Mile Island and Chernobyl, the nuclear-power industry withered. It may revive in the 1990s, as the more certain risk to the global environment from burning fossil fuels is recognized.

vTC The 50 years since the Chicago reactor first operated have taught mankind a great deal about living with the constant possibility of total destruction, how to resolve disputes between great powers, and even how to restrain the aggressiveness of regional powers.

Left unsolved is the problem of nuclear proliferation to states such as Iraq, potentially the gravest security problem of the 1990s. That problem must be solved quickly or the age of humanity will last for a shorter time than that of the atom -- shorter by the few thousand years needed for the lingering radiation to fade away.

Peter D. Zimmerman, a nuclear physicist, is senior fellow in arms control and verification at the Center for Strategic and International Studies

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