On August 6 every year, the world observes the anniversary of the first use of the atomic bomb against Mankind at Hiroshima in Japan in 1945. It was on that day that the new source of energy discovered by two German scientists, Otto Hahn and Fritz Strassmann was first put to use. Release of the immense and hitherto unsuspected power in the atom was undoubtedly an epoch-making discovery, but the first use man had found: or it was to unleash the fires of hell on this earth.
The tragic first demonstration of the destructive power of atomic energy shocked the conscience of mankind. But as soon as the shock wore off, questions arose in the minds of men everywhere whether the new source of power to which man had gained access was just a destructive force which had revealed itself to write the last chapter in the annals of man, or whether the nuclear coin had a beneficial side also.
The development of civilization has all along been accompanied by a constantly accelerated increase in the use of energy. In this new role, the atom was surely an important addition to sources of energy already known, e.g., fuels like coal, oil, gas, lignite etc. And the addition had not come a day too soon. It was well known that while the population of the earth had been fast increasing, the known resources of power had been dwindling.
Experts had predicted that by 2,000 A.D., the population on our planet may go up to five times today’s total, and the energy requirements of mankind will go up at least tenfold.
At the same time, it was obvious that unless man learnt to improve the ways in which he produces food, uses water and raw materials, handles waste and builds cities, the future of the race was very uncertain. The earth was not growing with the population it was supporting and obviously it could not go on supporting additional thousands of millions unless man learnt to use and reuse his resources with much greater efficiency.
But how? How was he going to replenish the energy he had been using up and produce more of it for his growing needs? Perhaps the new a discovery held the answer. Therefore, investigation of the peaceful uses of atomic energy assumed added importance and urgency.
But it took nearly ten years to bring into being international organization needed to initiate steps to harness nuclear energy to serving the needs rather than accentuating the fears of mankind. The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), which has been leading the search for means of using atomic energy to promote human welfare, came into being on July 29, 1957.
Meanwhile, nuclear scientists in developed countries had not only evolved methods of harnessing nuclear energy, but also made some progress towards developing the technology to make use of that energy. The first nuclear reactor to produce useful electric power had been built in 1951, and by the early sixties; nearly one hundred nuclear reactors were operating in the world producing from a few watts of power to hundreds of microwatts.
Technicians had also studied the various radioactive materials produced by these reactors as by-products, e.g., neutrons, gamma rays, fission products etc. As a source for neutrons, the reactors have become important tools to help research in physics and new developments in engineering, and production of plutonium and radio isotopes etc.
The gamma radiation produced by reactors has been put to use for sterilization of food and for various other purposes. Efforts are being made to harness the high temperatures (of millions of degrees) produced in reactors for fixation of atmospheric nitrogen to form nitrate fertilizer, conversion of coal to form petroleum products and gaseous fuels, distillation of sweater, heating of buildings etc.
The coming into existence of the International Atomic Energy Agency helped to centralize and channelise research, and the scientists working in the sphere were able to widen the scope of their activities considerably Their combined efforts have introduced revolutionary changes in a large number of spheres of human activity e.g., agriculture, medicine, hydrology, radiography, industry, archaeology, engineering etc.
The introduction of irradiated seeds in agriculture has brought about tremendous improvements in the quality and yield of crops like rice, wheat, maize, sugarcane, cotton etc. More effective means have been evolved for the control and eradication of insect pests, for the preservation of stored food etc. To relieve human suffering, nuclear medicine is playing an important role in the treatment of diseases like cancer, goiter, malnutrition etc.
Nearly 80 per cent of the radio isotopes produced by nuclear reactors are being used in the fields of medicine and public health. Research work is going on to determine the water turnover on earth, to trace the movements of subsoil streams, to discover underground reservoirs of water for pump irrigation, and to determine the movement of silt in harbours.
Radio isotope techniques have been also developed and brought into use for improving the quality of production of manufactured goods, and sterilization of medical products. Gamma rays have been used to detect faults in casting of steel. Beta particles or electrons are used to ensure uniform thickness of paper.
The use of radiocarbon or carbon 14 has greatly improved historians’ and archaeologists’ ability to determine the exact age of historical monuments. The terrible force of nuclear explosions has been harnessed to renovate and widen the Panama Canal. There are plans to build a second canal also.
Nuclear energy is also being pressed into service for vehicle propulsion. This will obviate pollution of the air with poisonous exhaust fumes and also result in substantial savings in fuel. A few pounds of uranium or plutonium can suffice to drive the largest ship around the world. The day is not far when we shall see spaceships, aircraft, railways, tractors, cars, all propelled by nuclear energy.
These are only a few of the ways in which nuclear energy is being used to promote human welfare and happiness. The wealth of new scientific and technological knowledge man has acquired since the atom was split for the first time holds the promise of much greater benefits for mankind, provided it is used constructively to ward off the danger of a nuclear holocaust.
Mankind can never forget the manner in which nuclear energy was introduced to the world, nor ignore the ever-present threat of a nuclear catastrophe. According to an estimate given by Dr. S. Bhagavantham, an eminent Indian scientist some time ago, the world’s nuclear armaments stockpile was at that time about 3,20,000 megatons—enough to annihilate mankind several times over. We have to be thankful that this tremendous destructive force has never been unleashed.
“Nuclear” powers have consistently tried to avoid direct clashes and have also abstained from using nuclear small arms in the conflicts in which they have become involved. The very power of the weapons they possess has made them realize that an atomic war is out of the question. It has also induced them to reassure mankind that nuclear technology can be applied for the benefit of mankind also.
The atomic age is in fact the “consummation of the industrial age”. The coming of atomic energy was a big event. In the annals of history, seldom has a scientific discovery so profoundly affected the course of human destiny Like the advent of steam and electric power, this too is going to change the whole basis of human living.
But it confronts the human race with some basic questions. Does man have the sagacity and courage to discard the hydrogen bomb and the atom bomb in favour of constructive symbols of the new age which should spell progress rather than disaster? How is he going to use this mighty power in conflict or in co-operation?
The only sensible answer is that unless humanity comes forward to meet the challenge as one, it is doomed. Construction is definitely a more laborious and time-consuming process than destruction. It may take years for the human race to reap the full benefits of the new discovery, but harnessing atomic energy to peaceful uses is the only course dictated by sanity, and the only way in which we can turn its enormous potential for destruction into an unlimited chance for economic development.
Properly used, it is the most powerful force on man’s side to help him solve the growing problems of overpopulation, lack of food and limited traditional resources. He has secured possession of a great physical force, and he has to rise above pettiness to match it with an equally great moral force.