Atomic Energy

The long road to Atomic Power probably started with a German named Geisseler. He made a Victorian scientific toy, the tube named after him, which lit up in various colours when excited with a high voltage. This particular effect was found to be due to a beam of light weight, negative particles later named Cathode Rays or Electrons. One Club Member at least has a collection of such tubes. Later it was found that these rays were rather similar to one of the three emissions from the heavy metal Uranium found at that time in the ore Pitchblende in Cornwall, The rays investigated by a Frenchman. Bequerel were named by him, Alpha, Beta and Gamma. The first ones turned out to be Helium nuclei, the second fast electrons, and the last short wavelength X-Rays. This work was done at the end of the 19th century when there were many things just waiting to be discovered.

Quite a number of Scientists found that their stores of photographic material were getting fogged including Sir Oliver Lodge. In the end it was found to be due to X-Rays from Cathode Ray Tube experiments. Given a high enough voltage all metals emit X-rays. Soon the property of X-rays to pass through flesh and to be unable to penetrate bone,  became a godsend to the Medical profession. However some rather odd uses soon appeared. When I first went to School in Hendon Middlesex, it was a semi-rural area where the children from the local farms also attended, bringing with them the parasite of Ringworm, which is mainly transferred from calves to people, in this case themselves and fellow pupils. These unfortunates were given a massive dose of X-rays which caused their hair to fall out, and in some cases it never grew again .The hairless ones used to wear little calico skull caps to cover up their baldness. I cannot recall that any of the children were damaged overdoses but a lot of scientists and doctors were. Unknown to them they had been playing with fire.

Meanwhile Madame Curie and her husband had been working on the “Radioactivity” of Pitchblende. It appears that in Uranium (and also Thorium) there are a chain of reactions accompanied by the emissions of particles and X-rays, whereby the element successively changes into a series of other new elements or even a gas. Each element has its own length of life and the end product of each of the two chains is lead. Thus at any one time Pitchblende will contain a constant mixture of small fixed amounts of each of the decay products. Madame Curie started on a certain one that was relatively abundant, which she named Polonium, after her native Poland. Later she transferred her attention to a much more active one which was only present in very small amounts which she named Radium. This element was used in early treatment of cancer and was greatly sort after. A small quantity fell into the hands of some not very honest Americans who sold bottles of water in which a minute amount of Radium salt was dissolved, as a panacea for all ills. It was a very dangerous tipple and many died of it. Recently in the States when demolishing an old Chemist’s shop a cache of the stuff turned up. It was still as active as ever. Curiously a number of people who consumed lots of this “medicine” did live to a ripe old age, at the expense of weird happenings to some of their organs. You never can tell what will happen.

To digress, at that time, Sir Oliver Lodge, when not concerned with his radio researches showed interest in Spiritualism. When very young I used to be looked after by an old lady when both my parents were working. She had been a domestic servant in Sir Oliver’s household. She told me once that she had been present at one of the Seances and saw the medium float out of one window, (three stories up) and come back into the room by the next one! When I was returned home I lay on the sofa and willed it to float. However it didn’t. At that time there was no Broadcasting. There was a sort of pay TV of concerts from the Albert Hall supplied over the telephone at a high level, with the separate earpiece of those days sitting in a big bowl. Few had telephones. “Musical Evenings” were often arranged sometimes augmented with electronics. Often those dreadful electric shocking coils would be brought out and the inevitable circle of linked hands ordained. I hated electric shocks. I still shudder if I see heroic types grab the live end of the 240 volt mains.

When I reached the age of thirteen I was presented with a very good book on inorganic chemistry. This book (Newth) had an appendix setting out most of what I have written on Radioactivity. There had been little research done during or immediately alter the 1914-1918 War. As for what the Atoms themselves were like, you had a number of choices. The tiny hard billiard balls of Dalton, the Vertices of the mid-Victorians, the queer packets of energy of Plank; soon to be joined by the galaxies of Bohr. New layouts continue to be offered. The Secondary School which I attended from the age of fourteen taught much the same as Newth. It was far better equipped for teaching Chemistry. Our teachers were prematurely aged men returned from the trenches, but they were good. At seventeen I picked up a place at the Royal College of Science. I managed to switch from Chemistry to Physics and from then on things were very different. We did a lot of Spectography and the Physics of the Sun and of the stars. Already ideas were around that the lighter atoms were “burning up”, producing energy for bodies such as our Sun. Einstein was working on the interchange of mass and energy. The foundation for the Hydrogen Bomb was already taking shape. One experiment all thirty of us in second year carried out, involved making measurements of the behaviour of electrons under certain conditions.

To do this required electrons. These we obtained by taking a spoonful of Uranium Oxide from a large jar of it kept handy on a shelf. After finishing and recording the results, the Uranium was just washed down the sink and from thence found a resting place in the sewers of the Royal Borough of Kensington. Some thirty students a year for at least twenty years must have deposited several Kilos. I wonder if they know. In my third year I worked on a technique of estimating the amount of lead in the oil of engines using lead ethide in doped fuel by X-rays. During these years Rutherford the brilliant New Zealander and his boss Thomson, were bombarding various targets with alpha rays, ( Helium nuclei), better known by then when single as Protons. They managed to knock atoms of Hydrogen out of the gas Nitrogen. At last the atom had been smashed. They failed however to smash any heavier atoms. In general atoms resist other charged particles very well. Real atom smashing had to wait for some years. When in 1936 Chadwick discovered the Neutron it became easier. The lack of the protons charge did the trick.

To sum up the position then, we felt that the atomic mysteries had been solved. We could add neutrons to atoms and build up new ones. Some atoms could be divided with odds and ends of particles over (fission) upon receiving an appropriate speed neutron. Just before the 39/45 war it looked likely that one of the forms of Uranium might be able to svstain a “chain” reaction by fission as a surplus of the right speed of neutron was also produced. Also in this reaction some mass disappears and is transformed into heat. This information was published in a book, our Government tried to call in all copies, the idiots. Just before the war of 39/45, there was much talk of the feasibility of getting up massive blocks of the necessary Uranium variety with suitable controls, which would provide the heat for power stations which would in turn produce the goods at a cost of a tenth of a penny (old style) a unit. Utopia had arrived, peace and plenty were knocking at the door. I do not propose to write a treatise on the many types of Power Stations which have been built. The Canadian ones are highly thought of. Any Pile of active material at critical adjustment gives out heat. Make steam to turn turbines and you are in business. To be efficient you need very hot steam and that at very high pressure. On conducted tours the guide will claim that they run at the pressures and temperatures of the latest fossil fuel stations, This may be a slight exaggeration.

Soon the talk turned to the subject of bombs of enormous power and the nations destroying each other. As the grouping for the inevitable war began to happen, it looked as if all sides were starting from the same baseline, and the victor would be the first one who got the bomb. There were on the cards, several alternatives. The first from a particular sort of Uranium present at low level in the ores, and which would be difficult to concentrate, and make pure enough. A chain reaction was certain with this but nobody knew whether it would be possible to hold the thing together long enough. Some thought that it might go off like a damp squib. No such luck. The main problem would be separating the desired fraction as it cannot be done chemically. It was calculated that the “critical mass” would be about 331bs.

The second choice was Plutonium. This was a new heavier than uranium element which probably appears in very small quantities in the early stages of the operation of an atomic pile. Very little has been published on this. lf Uranium is 92 in the Periodic table, Plutonium is number 94. Fission is readily obtainable. The critical mass is about one third of that of uranium 235. The third choice was a Fusion device. Take any of the light elements Lithium. Deuterium, Tritium. or certain mixtures of them, and start things by heating them with a small Uranium charge such that they burn and the mass turns into energy. For this of course you need the Uranium starter. The Americans actually had a go at all three but the Uranium bomb was ready flrst. The Fusion device is pure Einstein. It is what goes on in our sun.

When the war started it was expected that it would be a race between the Americans and the Nazis. The first were spending money like water. However the latter claimed that Hitler stopped serious work on the bomb. A few signs of atomic investigations did show up and more have been found recently. Our people took it seriously, and twice the heavy water plant in Norway was raided, the second time very successfully. However the Germans are masters of hiding things. The Germans used heavy Water for slowing down neutrons in experiments  The heavy water would be more predictable than the grap’5hi~e used by the Americans.

I was in Egypt at the time and the Professor of Physics at the Hebrew University used to discuss the bomb with me. He was well informed in these matters. “Vast” he would say, we Israelis will never make a bomb, but will produce peaceful electric power”. How wrong he was! He also hoped that it would not be possible to contain the original explosion long enough for the full 20,000 ton f TNT equivalent to be produced. He was wrong on that one too. As the war continued I was at a RAF going home party I was told the scope of the American effort by a slightly tipsy man who had been in Oak Ridge. I was so surprised by the enormous effort he described that I did not believe him. This egged him on to even greater revelations. At that time I did not realise that a hundred ton pile might only yield a piece of the desired metal about the size of a ten-pence piece. Later we were to find German measuring equipment in the western desert. This must have caused a stir when it was rushed home. As we now know, the bomb did work. The morality of its use is still discussed, at the time most of us agreed with that use.

The present danger is that every tin-pot dictator seems able to acquire some sort of device. Sooner or later somebody is going to have a go. The odium over the bomb seems to spread to Atomic Power (Remember Chernobyl ?) It is of course, dangerous. It is also more expensive to produce than power from other sources. People don’t like it, and some countries have even given it up. I remember visits to such power stations, and they struck me as over-manned and never running on full power. Perhaps under private ownership they may do better. Having made the bomb we have to live with it. Of late our beloved protons neutrons and electrons are suspected of being made up of such things as quarks. The other day somebody was even suggesting that the quark is not the ultimate particle.

Men hurl protons at each other at nearly the speed of light, and a whole menagerie of new particles are formed. I trust that they may do us some good. One group have even claimed that they have made anti-matter. Now that would make a real bomb! In my youth I admired the simplicity of Bohr’s atom. A tiny nucleus and electrons jumping from one orbit to another, as they gave out their photons. Now we have “shells” for them and they have other jobs to do as well such as controlling valency. As an Engineer they are stretching my credulity a bit too far.

Eric Vast – September 1996.

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