Clever Apes: Chicago's nuclear legacy

March 15, 2012

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Artist's rendering of the first nuclear reactor. (Argonne National Laboratory)

As we mark the one-year anniversary this week of the natural and nuclear disasters in Japan, it seems like a good time to reflect on Chicago’s deep and complicated nuclear history. Chicago is the cradle of nuclear energy, but it’s also the place where some of the first doubts about the wisdom of nuclear technology emerged.

During World War II, the so-called “Metallurgical Laboratory” at the University of Chicago became the center of the United States’ efforts to develop a working nuclear reactor. The project was led by physicist Enrico Fermi, an Italian Nobel Prize winner with an ever-present slide rule. In 1942, beneath the stands of a defunct football stadium, he began building a structure so crude that it was literally called a “pile.” Chicago Pile 1 was a stack of graphite and uranium, with control rods inserted at key points. On December 2, Fermi ordered the rods lifted, creating the first manmade self-sustaining nuclear chain reaction.

This history has been well-told in many places, including John Schmidt’s anniversary post here on WBEZ.org. You can also hear an arresting description of the breakthrough moment in this old audio documentary (and we excerpt it in our conversation with Steve Edwards on The Afternoon Shift, which you can stream or download via the buttons above).

Meanwhile, Fermi and the technology quickly moved to Los Alamos, New Mexico, where work began in earnest on building a bomb. It became clear that Fermi felt conflicted about it, aware of the terrible power of his own research. Manhattan Project scientists in Chicago and elsewhere were growing alarmed at the dangers of nuclear war. In June of 1945, they drafted the Franck Report, one of the first notes of caution in the nuclear age. They urged the federal government not to use the bomb in battle, and argued that nuclear weapons and energy technology should be controlled by the international community, rather than one nation alone.

Out of this movement of scientists emerged the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, which has published continuously since 1945. Their mission was to “warn the public” about the dangers of nuclear weapons (they have since added many other causes). They were a crucial voice, especially in the early days, in the debates over nuclear technology, and played a big role in making sure nuclear weapons and energy fell not under military control, but under a civilian agency. They also helped to spur the Pugwash Conferences, which brought together scientists from the U.S., the Soviet Union and elsewhere for dialogs about the arms race. The conferences helped lay the groundwork for future international treaties, and in 1995 the conference organizers won the Nobel Peace Prize.

So Chicago is both the home of the first nuclear reactor, and home of the first glimmers of nuclear conscience. Even now the region has active antinuclear movements, and yet depends on nuclear power for half its electricity. From Enrico Fermi’s mixed feelings to today, Chicago’s atomic history has always been ambivalent.

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