75 Years Ago, Chicago Scientists Helped Spark Nuclear Age | WBEZ
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The 75th Anniversary of Chicago’s Nuclear Contribution To The World

Seventy-five years ago, famed scientist Enrico Fermi and a group of his colleagues at the University of Chicago launched an experiment that forever changed the course of humanity — the first controlled nuclear chain reaction.

And the anniversary couldn’t be anymore timely, as concerns about North Korea’s nuclear arsenal grow and U.S. relations with Russia remain tense.

“The risk of a nuclear weapon being used somewhere in the world in these next years is probably higher than it’s been since the Cuban missile crisis,” said Ernest Moniz, the former U.S. secretary of energy, on WBEZ’s Worldview.

In this special episode of Worldview, host Jerome McDonnell talks to Moniz, a nuclear physicist and founder of the Energy Futures Initiative; Arnie Gundersen, a former nuclear industry executive, engineer, and whistleblower who now runs Fairewinds Energy Education; and Norma Field, professor of Japanese Studies at the University of Chicago, about this landmark scientific discovery that continues to impact the world.

Here are some interview highlights.

On the future of nuclear energy

Arnie Gundersen: In the last 75 years, we’ve gotten to the point where there’s roughly 500 nuclear plants in the world. America has about 100 of those still operating. And it doesn’t look like we’re going to get more.

The average of an American nuclear plant is about 36 years old, and then things wear out. So they’re closing much faster than they’re being built. We only have two being built in America, and there’s seven or eight in the hopper to be closed. So they’re too expensive to build new, and the trend is to shut them down.

Ernest Moniz: I believe there’s little doubt that we will be heading towards a very low carbon future. Most especially, we will see the energy sector largely de-carbonizing. Nuclear has to be viewed in that context as one of the options along with wind and solar, other renewables, possibly even using coal with carbon capture and sequester.

In the United States, nuclear up to now has been responsible for over 60 percent of the carbon-free electricity that we produce. So nuclear certainly has a track record as advancing a low carbon economy. Internationally, we see it growing.

But there are big challenges. The challenges have come — especially in Europe and the United States — in building the next generation of reactors. We have had some pretty significant cost overruns that price extremely challenging for that future.

On public perceptions of nuclear energy

Jerome McDonnell: Are you surprised people don’t get as worked up about nuclear these days?

Gundersen: Yes, it certainly amazes me. I thought that after the disaster of Fukushima Daiichi, people would say “enough is enough.” And I sort of looked at them as bookends — we have Hiroshima on one side and Fukushima on the other, and that should bracket the nuclear age.

To a degree in the United States, it’s done that. But worldwide, it has not. Even in Japan, it has not. I don’t understand — having witnessed the devastation of a disaster — that people would want to double down on nuclear.

Dr. Enrico Fermi, left, Dr. Walter H. Zinn, center, and Maj. Gen. Leslie R. Groves, head of the Manhattan Engineering Project, look over a nuclear instrument during a reunion in Chicago, Ill., Dec. 2, 1946, the fourth anniversary of the first demonstration that atomic energy could be released and controlled. (AP Photo/Charles Knoblock)

On the threat of a nuclear war

Moniz: The risk of a nuclear weapon being used somewhere in the world in these next years is probably higher than it’s been since the Cuban missile crisis, as we see concerns in North Korea, India, and Pakistan. Russia, of course, remains with a large arsenal. We do not have a very constructive relationship right now with Russia. So these concerns are there.

On the human toll

Norma Field: What comes to me over and over again is that nuclear power was introduced to bring prosperity to people, and here [in Fukushima], we have a disaster and the most vulnerable people living there have to be alienated from their own victimization because the government is bent on recovery.

And recognizing that has made me reflect on the kinds of ways in which the nuclear age is discussed. The whole nuclear era: Nuclear weapons are necessary to defend one’s own country. And nuclear energy is necessary to bring prosperity to all kinds of people. And thirdly, something more subtle, which is that scientists cannot be stopped — should not be stopped — in their pursuit of the truth, which really goes back to the beginning of the experiment that’s being commemorated today.

But all three aspects entail continuous injure to the people who are meant to be protected.

These interviews have been edited for brevity and clarity. Click the “play” button to listen to the entire conversation, which was produced by Julian Hayda and adapted online by Hunter Clauss. 

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