General Articles

Uncle Sam’s Iron Curtain

Atom research is crippled while the U.S. holds its secrets like grim death. But it might mean grim death to let go

BLAIR FRASER September 1 1947
General Articles

Uncle Sam’s Iron Curtain

Atom research is crippled while the U.S. holds its secrets like grim death. But it might mean grim death to let go

BLAIR FRASER September 1 1947

Uncle Sam’s Iron Curtain

Atom research is crippled while the U.S. holds its secrets like grim death. But it might mean grim death to let go


Maclean's Ottawa Editor

LAST YEAR McMaster University hired a young American to head their physics department. He accepted the job but hasn’t taken over, and it’s not yet certain he ever will. He’s afraid working on nuclear physics in Canada might make him liable to 10 years in jail or a $10,000 fine under the U. S. Atomic Energy Act. That’s the top penalty for giving unauthorized information about atomic fuel if he has “reason to believe” such data might “secure an advantage to any foreign nation.”

Of course the act wasn’t meant to keep the U. S. scientist out of Canada. He could come to Hamilton and work as he would in Chicago, and nothing would happen. But up to last month no one in Washington would tell him that officially. Despite representations on his behalf by the Canadian Government, nobody would give him a formal clearance to come here as a teaching physicist . Several Canadian medical schools are conducting

research with radioactive materials. One such project is on treatment of thyroid cancer with radioactive iodine, and it’s yielding rather encouraging results.

Radio-iodine made in cyclotrons is extremely costly and there’s little of it at any price. It can be made in quantity for a"twentieth of the cost at the great atomic plants of Oak Ridge, Tenn. But the Canadian university is still getting its radioiodine from cyclotrons. Only American laboratories are able to get radioactive material from the Oak Ridge plant.

One doctor, interested in the cancer project, happens to have a personal pipe line to the Canadian Government. Not long ago he was able to have a request for radio-iodine put forward with the

most powerful official sponsorship. So far, results have been nil.

In Washington, Atomic Energy Commission spokesmen say this is just temporary, that radioactive material for medical work will be made available to all nations as soon as they can set up the machinery for distributing it. Outsiders are a little sceptical. They have not been able to observe very much effort to set up this machinery (which needn’t be complex) and, meanwhile, t hey’re getting no material.

If restriction is tight on such peaceful items as medical research tools, restriction on the really important information is absolute. It’s customary in this country to say that “we” have the atomic bomb and “we” must

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keep the Russians from getting it. This is no longer correct. We helped to evolve the bomb, and the British did a great deal more. Neither Britain nor Canada are getting, today, any material on atomic research classified as secret from the United States.

To Canada this doesn’t matter as much as it does to Britain. Our little pilot plant at Chalk River, Ont., is an experimental station different from the great American projects at Oak Ridge and at Hanford, Wash. It’s not yet in full operation but already—in the opinion of men who work there— it’s far enough advanced to be outside the scope of previous American experience and the solution to its problems has yet to be worked out.

Britain, on the other hand, is now building a plutonium plant of the same type as the American. Every month, every day they’re running into technological problems that take time and men and money to solve. The Americans have solved these already—they could save the British millions of pounds and man-years of work by simply telling them which course to follow. That word has not been spoken for the past year and a half.

Is the Coal Age Doomed?

THE BRITISH are very bitterly aggrieved at this treatment. When their scientists came to the United States in 1940 they held nothing back. All their ideas and plans, all their discoveries were made common property. In nuclear research they were probably ahead of the Americans—certainly they had a distinguished group of men engaged in it. Above all, they had faith in the idea. True, the Americans took the gamble, spent the $2^ billions to make The Bomb. But there’s some reason to believe that without the Britons’ positive conviction that the thing could be done the project would never have been started.

Now the British find themselves on the outside, not even allowed to look in. It gets them down. For instance, why should they go to great trouble to restore their coal mines when atomic power might make coal obsolete?

Strong representations have been made against f ifis western Iron Curtain, but without effect. The Americans trust no outsiders.

Not long ago the head of a small American university, appearing before a congressional committee, said the U. S. no longer had “the bomb secret” because the Canadians had given it away to the Russians. This remarkable misstatement certainly did not represent the American Government’s opinion; they know better. But in an exaggerated way, it did bespeak the fear that seems to be at the root of American atomic policy.

No News for France

AS FOR Britain, the Americans fear not so t much the leakage as the capture of atomic secrets there. A British plant making nuclear fuel would, in the view of many Americans, be far too vulnerable for comfort—it might be captured in a sudden coup, and provide the armament for atomic war between the continents.

Anyway, if Britain were to be admitted to the Atomic Club, why not France? And France has a Chamber of Deputies in which the largest single group is the Communist Party. Any year, even any month, a Communist Government might take power. No atomic secrets will go to France if the United States can help it.

For that matter, they’re almost equally secretive at home with their own people.

In Washington, to get into the Atomic Energy Commission building even to talk to the commission’s publicity man you have to sign in and declare whom you wish to see. You’re conducted to his office by an armed guard and after the interview is over you’re conducted out again.

Even the commission itself is under surveillance. The Senate has an atomic energy committee, of which Senator Hickenlooper of Iowa is chairman. That committee has a staff of its own which holds a kind of watching brief Continued on page 62

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over the commission and its chairman David Lilienthal. Also, the commission is obliged by the Atomic Energy Act to maintain contact with a military liaison committee headed by General Leslie Groves. General Groves also has a staff inside the commission’s offices, exercising its own supervision over Lilienthal and his men.

According to one man who should know, the U. S. Federal Bureau of Investigation has undercover agents working as members of the staff at Oak Ridge and Hanford. Men have lost their jobs there, he said, because of indiscreet talk on buses, or because their wives were too knowingly voluble at the bridge table.

What’s the result, and the cost, of this dead secrecy?

No one can tell with any precision, but you can form an idea by looking at the record. The fundamental research which, after 50 years, finally produced the atomic bomb was the work of at least seven countries—Britain, France, Germany, Denmark, Italy, Russia, the United States. There may have been more, but that list will do. i Over half a century, scientists in j each of those countries pegged away at . their study of the nature of matter, j What they learned, they published; one j man could take up where another had left off.

That is not happening today, nor will it happen until we contrive to set up an effective agency for international control of atomic energy.

True, a good deal of scientific material Is being published by U. S. nuclear scientists. It goes through a process of “declassification”—scrutiny by a committee of censors to make sure it contains no dangerous information. The major advances if there have been any, remain a military secret.

“Of course we’ve always had some

of that,” a research chemist said. “There was secrecy on work with explosives, work with poison gases, that kind of thing. But it didn’t matter much, because these things weren’t very relevant to ordinary research.

“It’s different now. Today the secret area is the very one that’s the spear point of scientific advance. I can see a situation where a man wouldn’t want to go into nuclear physics at all for fear of spending his whole lifetime at the dictation of some commission or other.”

What Canadians Want

The man I’ve just quoted felt more strongly about it than most—he alone, of all the scientific workers with whom I talked, advocated removing all restrictions beyond “norm«! industrial secrecy.” The rest agrt cd with him that the cost of secrecy in terms of progress was probably very great. But they felt even more positively that the dangers of the opposite course were even greater—so great as to leave us no alternative.

Canadian scientists, and the External Affairs people who have made a study of atomic energy, are nearly unanimous on what should be done about secrecy. They’d release a fairly wide area of information on which restrictions are now maintained by the Americans— but they certainly wouldn’t advocate complete freedom.

Number One on their list for immediate release would be the radioactive materials that are used as research tools — radio-iodine, radiocarbon and the rest. This would give a green light to “99% of the research jobs of immediate benefit to humanity.”

Medicine is only one of the fields that would gain by it. Still more important, perhaps, is the biochemical research in which radio-active “tracers” might hasten revolutionary discoveries.

David Lilienthal, chairman of the

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U. S. Atomic Energy Commission, said recently that if we could understand and duplicate the - process of photosynthesis, it would be worth in cold cash far more than the $3 x/> billions now invested in atomic plants on this continent.

Photosynthesis is the process by which plants use the sun’s energy to make food and fuel out of inert mineral elements. Coal and petroleum, the basic fuels of modern civilization, are simply storehouses of the sun’s energy, packed up by the plant life of millions of years ago.

Today we are already within sight of the end of our known reserves of petroleum. Coal of a sort is still plentiful, but cheap easy-to-mine coal is pretty well exhausted. If we could comprehend, and then duplicate, the plants’ methods of storing solar energy we might be able to avert a fuel famine a few decades hence.

That discovery is a long way off, but if biochemists could get all the radiocarbon they want they could move toward it a lot faster. On the record of scientific advance up to now, the discovery is more likely to be made in Britain or Europe than in the United States—provided, of course, that these nations can share the new tools.

On the world-wide distribution of these radioactive “tools,” Canadian scientists appear to be unanimous. Some, though not all, would go a little farther and distribute even “fissionable material” — the actual stuff of The Bomb—in small quantities. An atomic bomb, to explode at all, must be above “critical size,” a secret amount somewhere between 10 and 30 kilograms (22 and 66 pounds). A lot of lab work is done with amounts measured in millionths of a gram.

Some people say, “Why be secretive about bits so small? It would take a hundred years to collect enough to make a bomb.”

Others answer, “You can learn a lot from those bits. If his sample of U-235 is big enough for him to measure its cross section, a physicist could calculate the critical size of a bomb. With a gram of plutonium, the size of a pill, a good chemist might solve the chemical problems that are holding up the British right now.”

You can see from this argument that there’s no division of opinion on the fundamental point: All information

useful in making an atomic bomb should remain a military secret until we have an effective international control.

Hiroshima Bomb Obsolete

Our scientists admit that secrecy is costly in terms of progress. Even now atomic power could be used in place of coal to generate electricity. Last year, in a report to the United Nations commission, scientific advisers predicted that atomic energy could compete economically if the price of industrial soft coal were to rise by $3 a ton. Lately, the opinion has been growing that this estimate was a bit too optimistic but no one doubts that atomic power stations will eventually be feasible if people have a chance to work on them.

But research on atomic power means research on large amounts of atomic fuel—it’s the same, up to a very advanced point, as research on The Bomb. An atomic power plant, “burning” uranium for peaceful use, would also be making plutonium, stuff of which bombs can be made. If any nation set up a network of atomic power stations, no matter how innocent its intent, it would thereby build the framework of the greatest armament industry ever known.

Just how lethal that armament might be we can only guess. Hiroshima and Nagasaki were only pioneer experiments in horror and sudden death. Those two bombs used only a fraction of one per cent of the energy in their material. Already, bomb designers can do much better than that.

Also, the bombs over Japan exploded high in the air. The fatal effects of radiation were diminished; rescuers were able to go into the stricken area almost at once. That, too, is oldfashioned now. At Bikini, the underwater bomb threw up 10 million tons of water in a column a mile high. That water was poisonously radioactive and turned the target area into a deathtrap. Four days later it was still impossible to board the surviving ships in Bikini lagoon.

Finally, there are better bomb materials in store. A bomb using hydrogen, the sun’s own fuel, would have about 1,000 times the power of the bombs we know now. Use of hydrogen-helium atomic fuel is still somewhere in the future—basic discoveries will have to be made before it can be done. James J. McCloy, a former U. S. assistant secretary of war, has said it could be done in two years “given the same intensity of effort that was employed to produce the first atomic bomb.” That guess may be overhcpeful, but sooner or later the hydrogen-helium bomb will come.

What Control Means

It’s hard to conceive an effective defense against such weapons, even in their present primitive form. In World War II no defense was 100% efficient— the best record was that of London against the German V-l where, at the end, 90% of the missiles were intercepted. But only one atomic bomb is needed to destroy a city, so anything less than 100%, defense is no defense at all.

Contemplating these facts, and doubtless others we don’t yet suspect, the atomic scientists vote for secrecy on “dangerous” activities. Keep the restrictions on for any length of time, they say, until we get international control.

How likely are we to achieve this control?

The answer seems to be, “Not very.”

The United Nations Atomic Energy Commission, of which Canada is a member, has been trying for over a year to devise a workable plan. Its first report was not unanimous—Russia and Poland abstained from voting for it. They have fought most of the detailed proposals that have grown out of it since, and it would be no surprise if they abstained from endorsing the commission’s second report, due this month.

But a great deal of useful work has been done. In the control system, which the commission’s second report will recommend, we can expect the following salient features:

The international agency would hold in trust all “source materials”— uranium and thorium ores—from the moment they leave the ground. For nations or individuals the mere possession of source material, without license from the agency which would stipulate its use, would be a violation of the agreement.

Mining of uranium and thorium ore would be carried out according to production quotas, set either by the agency or by treaty.

Stores of ore and of nuclear fuel within any nation’s territory would be limited by treaty and kept as low as possible to minimize the danger that would be created by seizures of the stockpiles by any agressor.

Nuclear fuel—that is, uranium-235

and plutonium—would be the property I of the agency. Nondangerous quantities of it, well below “critical size,” could be leased for research purposes to nations or private groups but “dangerous” quantities would be handled by the agency alone.

All plants and processes involving dangerous amounts of nuclear fuel would be owned and operated by the agency. Mines and ore mills could be owned by nations, provided the agency had full rights of inspection, but plants like Oak Ridge, Hanford and Chalk River would have to be turned over to the agency outright .

The agency would require its own facilities and personnel for research. Research on atomic weapons would be forbidden to nations and so would all w’ork on “dangerous” quantities of nuclear fuel—which would include research on the use of atomic power. There would, however, be an end to secrecy—the agency would be explicitly obliged to promote the fullest exchange of scientific and technical information.

Even more startling to those accustomed to the usual concepts of national sovereignty are the police powers that the agency would need.

The agency inspectors would need power to inspect and check all national plants operated under agency license, as well as all uranium mines and ore mills.

Nations would be obliged to reveal their ore reserves and agency inspectors would need full rights to check these reports, explore and survey national ,territory to seek out clandestine operations.

To do such exploring, agency inspectors would require absolute freedom to travel within nations. They would have to be able to make both aerial and ground surveys without hindrance.

Those, in the judgment of most delegates to the commission, are absolutely minimum requirements. With anything less we could not be sure but that some potential enemy was secretly amassing an atomic arsenal against us. With anything less the United States would certainly not feel safe in releasing any of its “dangerous” information to another power.

Would Congress Agree?

But if you take a careful look at those minimum requirements you’ll see that the Soviet Union is not being j merely pigheaded in opposing them. They cut across fundamental principles of Soviet policy.

Free travel is not permitted in the Soviet Union, even to Russians. No foreign plane may fly over Soviet soil for any purpose. The proposal of “aerial and ground surveys” by agency inspectors must sound preposterous to a Soviet diplomat.

For that matter, we have as yet no real assurance that even the western governments will accept them. Their delegations may vote in favor of the report, but that is not a final commitment of their respective states.

Would our own Parliament accept them? It has had no chance to debate them, so far; few if any M.P.’s are j thoroughly acquainted with them. Do j they realize that agency inspectors, J some of whom might happen to he j Russian, would have full rights of access to our mines at El Dorado. To our refineries at Port Hope? Do they understand that Chalk River would be turned over holus-bolus to agency ownership and control?

And if there is doubt about the attitude of Parliament, there is far more doubt about the United States Congreas. The U. S. Atomic Energy

Act, commonly known as the McMahon Act, provides that nc information on atomic energy shall be exchanged with other nations “until Congress declares by joint resolution that effective and enforceable safeguards against the use of atomic energy for destructive purposes have been established.”

Jn United Nations talks at Lake Success the American delegates have been foremost in pressing for a complete, unrestricted control system, with no ifs, ands or huts. Yet even the American delegates admit they don’t know whether their own Congress would accept such a scheme.

There is reason to fear it might not. indeed, the very fact of Russia’s agreement to a policy might be enough to damn the policy in Congress.

Not long ago the Russian delegate moved a minor amendment at a meeting of the UN Atomic Energy Commission. No one had any objection; the amendment was adopted. Next morning’s headline ran something like this:


In Washington a southern senator arose in the chamber, brandishing the morning paper.

“See?” he cried. “I told you what would happen as soon as we confirmed that Communist, Lilienthal, to the Atomic Energy Commission.”

A colleague explained that Mr. Lilienthal, who heads the United States’ own Atomic Energy Commission, had nothing at all to do With the United Nations body.

“Oh,” said the Southerner. “You mean thç United Nations has an atomic commission, too?”

It may be doubted if this statesman had grasped the full meaning of the American proposals for international control. If he did grasp them, he would not like them. Neither would many of his colleagues, if one can judge by the tone of the debate on Mr. Lilienthal’s confirmation. The proposals, however necessary and desirable they may be, are certainly an affront to traditional notions of national sovereignty.

Canadian Policy

Indeed, the more you look at them, the more you realize that they mean lit tle less than world government. The obstacles that separate us from effective control of atomic energy are the same obstacles, each and all of them, that prevent us from eliminating war itself.

People who are working toward control are keenly aware of this fact, and many are discouraged by it. They keep on working anyway because the alternative is so appalling—there seems to be no alternative except, sooner or later, atomic war.

In this situation Canadian policy, so far as it can be discerned at the moment, is roughly as follows:

First, try to break down unnecessary secrecy and restriction. Canadians regard the McMahon Act as needlessly extreme and the interpretation of it by the Lilienthal Commission as needlessly cautious. They would like to see immediate removal of restrictions on radioactive byproducts like radiocarbon, radio-iodine and the rest.

Secondly, to work patiently and firmly for international control, no matter how startling its implications may seem. General Andrew MeNaughton, the head of our delegation at Lake Success, is one of the few optimists about the chances for achieving control. He thinks that if the western nations plug doggedly ahead, work out a

sound control scheme and persuade their own governments and people to accept it, eventually the Soviet bloc will come in too.

Thirdly, Canadian policy is to maintain secrecy on “dangerous” activities —everything involving large amounts of nuclear fuel, and the means of making it—until we have some assurance of safety through control.

They know such secrecy won’t work forever. Sooner or later the Russians will be able to make a bomb of their own. Guesses on how long it will take them vary from three to twenty years. Without help, they’ll probably have plenty of trouble—even the British, who were part of the atomic bomb project from its inception until after VJ-Day, are having plenty of difficulty in building their plutonium plant without American advice. But if the Russians could achieve the political capture of Germany in the meantime and use German technical and scientific resources they’d get there a lot faster than they could do alone.

Our secrecy won’t prevent this, won’t avert atomic war in the long run. But Canadian scientists feel the only thing to do, failing international control, is keep the other fellow back as far and as long as possible.

In that case, what about scientific progress? What about the use of atomic power for the benefit of mankind?

I put that question to a physicist who’d been in atomic research for years, had worked on the bomb project and also had a good deal of contact with the political side.

“Let it go,” he answered. “If I thought it were practical politics, which it isn’t, I’d favor stopping all work everywhere on atomic power. We can get along without atomic power, but we can’t survive atomic war.”

Of course he doesn’t think atomic war can he put off forever by anything but international control. All we can j hope for, if control does fail, is to make i the twilight last a little longer, ic