- The Washington Times - Sunday, January 13, 2002

Megawatts and Megatons: A Turning Point in the Nuclear Age (Knopf, $30, 384 pages), as the name suggests, deals with both the peaceful and the warlike aspects of nuclear energy, and the authors' qualifications to discuss the subject are matched by few. Richard Garwin is a distinguished physicist who has been intimately involved for many decades in debates at the highest level over national policy on nuclear power and arms control. He is currently Philip D. Reed Senior Fellow for Science and Technology at the Council on Foreign Relations. His French coauthor, Georges Charpak, now at the European Center for Particle Physics, won the 1992 Nobel prize for physics.
Anyone who reads the book, a revised version of a work published in French in 1997, and absorbs its contents, will have a virtually encyclopedic grasp of the science and technology underlying both nuclear power and nuclear weapons, and on the relationship between these two faces of nuclear energy.
The book assumes no prior knowledge of the subject on the part of the reader, but if he has none, he will have to work quite hard to bring himself up to speed to follow the often highly quantitative discussions in which the two physicist authors delight. They discuss nuclear physics in sufficient detail for readers to understand the differences between reactors that induce fission with slow and fast neutrons and the ways nuclear wastes and their storage requirements differ when they are produced by reactors using different fissile elements and isotopes.
The authors go into considerable detail on the health effects of radiation from natural and man-made sources. They discuss the disproportion between the size of the nuclear arsenals possessed by the United States, Russia and the smaller nuclear powers and the number of weapons actually needed for deterrence, or even for warfighting, and they explain the measures needed to prevent the acquisition of nuclear weapons by terrorist individuals or nations and to guarantee that agreements to decommission and disarm nuclear weapons are actually followed.
In their final chapter, the authors summarize their policy recommendations: They want existing nuclear arsenals, already much reduced from Cold War levels, slashed to just 1,000 weapons for the United States and Russia, with 300 each allowed for Britain, France and China. Meanwhile, nuclear power should be encouraged as a safe, non-polluting source of energy, with various technical safeguards to prevent nations from diverting fissile materials to make bombs. They are optimistic that new, even safer and more efficient types of reactors can be developed, citing several examples they find promising.
The book is written extremely clearly and the authors attempt to lighten the tone by including numerous whimsical illustrations and short "fables." Nevertheless, it remains very densely packed with facts and arguments that require close attention. That is particularly true of the authors' underlying assumption that any reasonable person who gives sufficient thought to the subjects they discuss will come up with the same conclusions that they do. That belief, history suggests, represents the triumph of hope over experience.

Glenn T. Seaborg was even more of a nuclear insider than Mr. Charpak or Mr. Garwin. Born in 1912 to first- and second-generation Swedish-Americans in Michigan who moved to California in the early 1920s, he became a pioneer of nuclear chemistry, was a key figure in the Manhattan Project, won a Nobel Prize and became chancellor of the University of California at Berkeley and then chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission under Presidents Kennedy, Johnson and Nixon.
Adventures in the Atomic Age: From Watts to Washington (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, $26, 296 pages) is an exceptionally interesting tale. After graduating from UCLA with a degree in chemistry, Seaborg moved to Berkeley to earn his Ph.D., inspired by the progress in the new field of nuclear chemistry being achieved there. Seaborg's first postdoctoral position was as assistant to Gilbert N. Lewis, the dean of chemistry at Berkeley, whom he describes as "perhaps the greatest scientist ever snubbed by the Nobel Committee."
In one of the many amusing and illustrative anecdotes that enliven the book, Seaborg describes his difficulties in packing the mass of equipment Lewis needed when he had to travel to Philadelphia to deliver a lecture and demonstration. The chain-smoking Lewis had two suitcases, but needed one-and-a-half just for his cigars.
After his stint with Lewis, Seaborg, was able to continue with his work in nuclear chemistry. Still in his 20s, he isolated plutonium, the first artificially created transuranic element, which became the key ingredient of one of the first two atomic bombs, then went on to head the plutonium part of the Manhattan Project. This incredible endeavor began with a state-of-the-art lab procedure in microchemistry that produced a fraction of a gram of the element and in just two or three years managed to scale it up a billion fold to produce the kilograms needed for a weapon, which involved the construction of a major industrial facility.
After the war, he returned to Berkeley, where his group continued the work of producing new elements, for which he was awarded the 1951 Nobel Prize in Chemistry. At the state dinner given by the King of Sweden, Seaborg delivered his response to the king's speech in fluent Swedish. He was surprised by the report in the next day's newspapers, which remarked on his strong provincial accent.
Earlier, he had been appointed to the General Advisory Committee of the Atomic Energy Commission, which included inter alia J. Robert Oppenheimer, the Nobel laureates Isidor Rabi and Enrico Fermi and other specific superstars. Seaborg reports that he was abroad in 1949 when the GAC members back in Washington voted unanimously against a U.S. crash program to develop a hydrogen bomb ("the Super") in response to the Soviet Union's atomic bomb. While this vote played an important role in the hearing that ended in the revocation of Oppenheimer's security clearance, Seaborg believed the most important factor was Oppenheimer's imperious attitude toward those less intellectually gifted than himself, a mistake Seaborg never made.
Seaborg cites numerous instances of his warm personal relationships with people he disagreed with politically, and his care never to give any cause for offense. His folksy manner, however, concealed considerable political astuteness. At the time of the GAC vote he missed, he wrote to Oppenheimer that he felt that there was no choice but to go ahead with the crash program, "intentionally couch[ing] a key sentence in the double negative."
Seaborg was very impressed by John F. Kennedy's intellect and Lyndon Johnson's integrity, particularly in following Seaborg's advice in awarding the prestigious Enrico Fermi award to Oppenheimer, as a compensation for the unjust treatment he had received earlier. In another instance of Seaborg's political nous, he had previously made sure that the same award was given to Oppenheimer's nemesis, Edward Teller, neutralizing any possible opposition from him.
By contrast, relations between Seaborg and Richard Nixon, a fellow Californian he had known since 1946, were strained when Nixon showed himself unwilling even to listen to the AEC chairman's idea on policy, an attitude shared by Nixon's close advisor, Henry Kissinger. In one of his few sharp barbs, Seaborg says that, "Kissinger simply radiated intelligence, but apparently scientific subjects blocked that radiation."
After leaving the AEC, Seaborg went back to Berkeley as a chemistry professor and remained active in public life, most notably as a campaigner for educational reform, fighting against the "dumbing down" of public education, particularly in science. His vigorous engagement continued until he suffered a massive stroke that incapacitated him for the few months before his death in 1999. The book was completed by his son, Eric Seaborg.

Jeffrey Marsh has written widely on scientific topics ranging from nuclear strategy to social policy.

Copyright © 2018 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.

The Washington Times Comment Policy

The Washington Times welcomes your comments on Spot.im, our third-party provider. Please read our Comment Policy before commenting.


Click to Read More and View Comments

Click to Hide