Oppenheimer on Nuclear Power
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Oppenheimer on Nuclear Power

Foreign Affairs has published a review of a 1948 essay by Robert Oppenheimer, which concludes with hope about the productive use of nuclear power. It says:

Each Sunday this summer, we’re sharing an essay from the archives that provides a rare first-person account of history as it unfolded. This week, we’re bringing you J. Robert Oppenheimer’s 1948 essay on his work developing the atomic bomb—and what this scientific contribution would mean for human civilization. It was clear, he wrote, “that with nations committed to atomic armament, weapons even more terrifying, and perhaps vastly more terrifying, than those already delivered would be developed.” 

Credited as the father of the atomic bomb, Oppenheimer was deeply involved in the Manhattan Project as the director of the Los Alamos Laboratory during World War II. In July 1945, he oversaw the first successful detonation of an atomic weapon: the Trinity test, conducted by the U.S. Army in the New Mexico desert. Less than a month later, the United States dropped atomic bombs on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, killing at least 110,000 people, according to the U.S. military. Radiation from the bombs would eventually kill thousands more. In October 1945, Oppenheimer visited President Harry Truman at the White House and famously told him, “Mr. President, I feel I have blood on my hands.” From then on, Oppenheimer turned his efforts toward nuclear arms control and nonproliferation, and spent years working to contain the fallout of his invention. 

By 1948, Oppenheimer was a household name and an adviser to the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission, the agency responsible for the country’s nuclear research. He recognized that the key to avoiding nuclear Armageddon was good-faith cooperation on atomic energy between great powers. But with the United States and the Soviet Union increasingly at odds, the picture looked grim. In his 1948 essay, he lamented the world’s failure to seize the moment of opportunity to turn nuclear energy into a tool for peace and stability rather than engaging in an arms race for weapons of mass destruction. “We must ask ourselves why in a matter so overwhelmingly important to our interest we have not been successful,” he wrote. 

In 1949, one year after Foreign Affairs published his essay, the Soviet Union conducted its first successful nuclear weapons test. In 1952, Oppenheimer left the Atomic Energy Commission after lobbying against the development of the hydrogen bomb. The following year, Oppenheimer wrote for Foreign Affairs again, warning of the dangers of a nuclear arms race, which was well underway, and the secrecy that surrounded it. “Knowledge of the characteristics and probable effects of our atomic weapons, of—in rough terms—the numbers available, and of the changes that are likely to occur within the next years, this is not among the things to be kept secret.”

Oppenheimer’s opposition to the H-bomb—and his alleged sympathy for communism—led to his being investigated by the U.S. government in 1954 and having his security clearance taken away, a decision that was eventually overturned in 2022. 

Despite the failures of nuclear arms control efforts, Oppenheimer retained some hope that his invention could be used for the good of the world. “We may discern the essential harmony, in a world where science has extended and deepened our understanding of the common sources of power for evil and power for good, of restraining the one and of fostering the other,” he wrote in 1948. “This is seed we take with us, traveling to a land we cannot see, to plant in new soil.”

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