The history of atomic energy has not been a very pleasant one for the human race. In scientific terms, this tremendous adventure began in 4th century B.C. Greece with Leucippus and Democritus’s theory of the atom as the first indivisible particle of matter. Other intellectuals would then follow, like Boyle, Lavoisier, Dalton, Avogrado, Canizzaro and even Mendeleev with his periodic table of elements, facilitating the study of radiation and the movement of these so-called atomic particles, an effort made over the centuries.
The focus of interest lies in the radiation within the atom, which reveals the existence of internal negative and positive electric charges. Let us delve into the world of the electron and the theory according to which the atomic nucleus is formed by protons and neutrons — a fascinating journey into the microcosm of energy and particles. Radioactivity was to be the next step in the 20th century. French scientists Henri Becquerel (1852-1955) and Pierre Curie (1859-1906) preceded German-American physicist Albert Einstein (1879-1955) and his extraordinary theory on mass and energy as being two aspects of the same reality, one of which can turn into the other and is the theoretical basis for what is called “nuclear energy” today. With his mass spectrograph, British physicist Francis Aston would then provide the instrument that could “weigh” atoms and unveil the two processes in which the release of energy through the fusion of various atomic nuclei and atomic fission, according to Einstein’s theory, would truly be extraordinary.
On Aug. 2, 1939, it was Einstein himself who told the president of the United States, Franklin D. Roosevelt, that the work of American scientists E. Fermi and L. Szilard, “which ha[d] been communicated to [him] in manuscript, [led him] to expect that the element uranium [could] be turned into a new and important source of energy in the immediate future;" this would be the result of a nuclear chain reaction by which a large amount of energy would be released and could be used to construct “extremely powerful bombs of a new type.”
At the height of World War II, with Germany and Japan advancing, such a possibility turned into a project and later, into reality. On Aug. 6, 1945, by order of President Truman, the first atomic bomb struck the city of Hiroshima. This terrible event marked the beginning of the “nuclear age,” transforming the powerful clean energy source into a threat and a curse.
On Aug. 9, another bomb was dropped on Nagasaki. It is estimated that around 246,000 people died in the two bombings. On Aug. 15, 1945, Japan surrendered in the face of such an unusual act of not only force but one that also exhibited the unscrupulousness of a leadership that opened a deep wound in mankind’s heart, leaving science subject to the economic and geopolitical interests of the great North American power. Was the bomb dropped to vanquish Japan for good? Or rather, was it a warning to the Soviet Union, the other victorious power? Let’s leave that to the reader to answer.
But it didn’t end there. Using nuclear energy for peaceful purposes became a possibility, while using it for military purposes was limited to the club of the so-called nuclear powers: the United States, the Soviet Union, Great Britain, France, China and later on, India, Pakistan and North Korea. However, the peaceful use of this energy has had its ups and downs. The main issue lies in the high level of security called for in running a nuclear power plant, which is affected by both the location and regulation of uranium as a raw material. Yet, the great paradox that we see in commemorating the 70th anniversary of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki atomic bombings is the fact that they had taken place on Japanese soil where all of mankind was able to see the effects of atomic energy when used for both warfare and peace.
This applies to the fatal accident that occurred at the Fukushima nuclear plant on March 11, 2011, as a result of a 9.0 magnitude earthquake that shook Japan. A tsunami was produced that flooded the nuclear power plant, releasing radioactive gases into its surroundings, polluting the air, water and land beyond the island itself. The environmental impact of the accident is still being assessed, coupled with the fears expressed through public opinion resulting from the use of atomic energy. We have thus not succeeded in truly making the most of this natural force. Will this be possible in the future? Certainly, on the condition of knowing that mankind cannot take control of nature as it pleases while ignoring the consequences.