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Mainstream, VOL L, No 15, March 31, 2012

Nuclear Energy and Rutherford-Szilard Episode

Monday 2 April 2012



As soon as Mainstream’s March 17, 2012 issue reached Kolkata, I received two phone calls from my two esteemed friends enquiring about the source of my information about the Rutherford-Szilard episode. (‘UN Must Outlaw Nuclear Power Plants’ by Sailendra Nath Ghosh, Mainstream, March 17, 2012)

My source is the book by Edward Teller, the maker of Hydrogen Bomb. In this book, Energy from Heaven and Earth, in chapter 8, under the heading “The Beginnings of Atomic Energy”, he wrote:

“I never met Lord Rutherford, but I heard him speak a few years before World War II, in the mid-1930s. He seemed indignant and he sounded incensed. He mentioned the suggestion that great amounts of energy stored in the nucleus might be put to practical use, denouncing as visionaries all who would believe it. He asserted that these energies are safely contained in the innermost part of the atom, protected by the strong electric repulsion between positively charged nuclei.
“I did not know then the reason for his indignation, but I happened to find out a few weeks later. Shortly before Rutherford spoke at that meeting, Leo Szilard, another man of Hungarian origin and one of my good friends, had gone to him and had tried to tell him how the energy of nuclei might be used. He did not get past a few sentences—Rutherford threw him out of his office.”

As Edward Teller’s story says, Lord Rutherford resented the very suggestion of using the energies stored in the atoms’ nuclei to meet human needs. He read in the electric repulsion operating there as Nature’s red signal. Plainly, this means that every nuclear reactor whose avowed purpose is to split the atoms’ nuclei, carries the risk of facing the force of repulsion, and thereby meeting accidents. Who, then, has the legal or moral authority to install nuclear reactors and imperil the lives of hundreds of thousands of men and animals?

Our objection to nuclear power stems from yet another consideration. It pre-empts the resources which could be much more productively deployed for harnessing renewable forms of energy. Thus, it is a sure way to perpetuating energy shortage.
Vested interests in nuclear, petroleum and chemical industries are purposely underrating the state of art of the renewable energy technologies. They also want our minds’ door shut to the huge energy-saving potential of solar architecture. “Close your minds to everything. Only big-budget science will deliver.” This seems to be the mantra of narrow-grooved technical scientists and their half-blind political chelas.

Sailendra Nath Ghosh

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