Current pandemic is like a war without bombs

Within a matter of months, the rapid spread of a virus has brought the entire planet to a state of collective angst that has been unheard of for some time. To the direct effects of the action of the virus — disease and death must be added the overwhelm of health services and the measures adopted by the governments of different nations to contain the situation and break the chain of transmission: suspension of all types of activities and lockdown of the population.

Owing to the psychological effects produced by this situation, some media have come to describe the situation as “a war without bombs” (read HERE).

Anniversary. 16 July

In these alarming circumstances, in a few months, we will observe the 75th anniversary of a permanent threat to humanity, the foreseeable consequences of which are far more serious than those at present. On 16 July 1945, the first atomic bomb was detonated in the Alamogordo desert in the United States. Since then, the whole world has been living under a threat, not due to natural causes but by man-made action, as a result of the misuse of scientific advances.

All people and nations have an obligation to act to remove this sword of Damocles that threatens the whole of humanity in the form of a nuclear cataclysm. The first step would be to become aware of the seriousness of the threat. Accordingly, it is good to know and reflect on the possible consequences, as the scientists who developed the first bomb did. We must remember how the project was conceived, and how their own feelings changed.

The scientific bases are discovered

In 1938, Otto Hahn and Fritz Strassmann discovered in their Berlin laboratory that, on bombarding uranium with neutrons, uranium nuclei were split into two approximately equal parts; more importantly, the resulting products weighed less than the original uranium nucleus. This was interpreted to mean that part of the mass had been converted into energy in the form of heat, according to the equation E = mc2.

Shortly thereafter, Lise Meitner, a former colleague of Hahn, and Otto Frisch, refugees in Sweden, predicted the possibility of a chain reaction.

atomic bomb Einstein secretly asks to produce the atomic bomb

In August 1939, before the war began and long before the United States entered it, Einstein wrote a confidential letter (Einstein’s Letter to President Roosevelt – 1939 | Historical Documents) to President Roosevelt, to be positioned in the line of producing atomic weapons. It explained that this new phenomenon would also lead to the construction of bombs, being conceivable, although not certain, that extremely powerful bombs could be built. He went on to say that a single bomb of this type, carried by boat and exploded in a port, might well destroy the whole port together with some of the surrounding territory.

He also urged him to provide funds for research already underway at selected universities and to obtain the cooperation of industrial laboratories.

As soon as the letter was presented to him, Roosevelt (Franklin D. Roosevelt, Atomic Heritage Foundation) took steps to develop the project, creating a series of expert committees that managed the research.

A huge secret industrial project

The actual steps for the implementation of what was called the “Manhattan Project” were taken unofficially from the Oval Office. The project itself, with a clear organizational chart and huge allocation of funds, was launched after two years. By then, its objective was already defined. Although it was known that it was possible to develop a bomb, the right method to do so was not. It was decided to implement three procedures for enriching uranium and one for enriching plutonium, in the hope that one of the methods would work.

Its development is the story of some of the most acclaimed scientists of the last century in interrelationship with large industrial corporations and the army, to translate original scientific discoveries into a completely new type of weapon.

When the existence of this nationwide secret project was revealed to the American people after the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, most were surprised to learn that such a government-run secret operation existed, with a labor force comparable to the automotive industry working across the country. At its peak, the project employed 130,000 workers and, by the end of the war, had spent $2.2 billion (The Manhattan Project).

The project, developed against the clock, was an example of management, by coordinating the research, development and production phases simultaneously, applying new project management tools such as Complex Network Diagram, PERT Diagrams, the Critical Path Method and the Gantt chart, which were used on a large scale (The Manhattan project – project management during difficult times).

Scientists in the atomic bomb project: ethical justification

The scientific team was huge, with over 100 scientists working on it directly, half of whom were European refugees, mostly German. They were joined by a team of 20 British scientists under the leadership of Sir James Chadwick (Who Built the Atomic Bomb?).

The excellence of the participants is reflected in the number of those who received the Nobel Prize before or after the project, with names like Fermi, Lawrence, Bohr, Chadwick, Seaborg, Bethe, Wigner and Feynmann. At the head of the project was J. Robert Oppenheimer, who is considered the father of the atomic bomb.

The entire team of scientists contributed willingly to the project, justified by the need to pre-empt possession of the bomb by the Nazi regime. Joseph Rotblat’s reflection is certainly representative of general thought, saying that: He had moral reservations about working on the atomic bomb, but that he left them aside, convinced that building one before Germany was critical to the survival of civilization (see more).

What happened in Germany

In Germany, there was no parallel project, among other reasons, because of the scant enthusiasm of the more qualified scientists as a result of their limited devotion to the Nazi regime. These included Hahn and Heisenberg, who was entrusted with the mission. The project resulted in the development of a small reactor for producing electricity.

Some scientists react to the atomic bomb, it was not an easy task

The Manhattan physicists had little doubt in 1944 that the bombs would be successfully tested, although the first test was not until 16 July 1945. In the Los Alamos laboratory, there was a race against the clock to assemble the bombs. But with Germany’s imminent defeat and the common knowledge that Japan did not have the necessary resources to manufacture atomic weapons, some questioned whether they should continue working on the project.

Prior to the first real test in the Alamogordo desert, there was a backlash against the continuation of the project. Joseph Rotblat, a Pole and the only participant who had not acquired American nationality, directly quit the project. He dedicated the rest of his life to promoting nuclear disarmament and was a Nobel Peace Prize winner in 1995.

Niels Bohr, one of the most influential scientists of the twentieth century, urged Roosevelt and Churchill to consider openly sharing this technology with all nations and to lay the groundwork for the international control of atomic energy.

Various initiatives were forged in the different laboratories belonging to the project to request that it be shut down. It was not an easy task since a secret high-security project was being worked on under military discipline in wartime. For example, telephone communication between different laboratories was banned. Moreover, the reaction of scientists opposed to the continuation of the project could not be coordinated. It is assumed that the various written requests for suspension that were circulated clandestinely by the different laboratories were signed by more than 80 project scientists.

The Chicago Metallurgical Laboratory produced the Franck Report, signed by heavyweights such as Szilard and Seaborg, which was sent to the new President Truman. It reported: “If the United States would be the first to release this new means of indiscriminate destruction upon mankind, she would sacrifice public support throughout the world, precipitate the race of armaments, and prejudice the possibility of reaching an international agreement on the future control of such weapons”  (see more).

nuclear threat The test is performed

On 16 July, the bomb was detonated, producing an intense flash of light seen by observers in bunkers 10 kilometers away, and a fireball that expanded to 600 meters in two seconds. It grew to a height of more than 12 kilometers, boiling up in the shape of a mushroom. Forty seconds later, the blast of air from the bomb reached the observation bunkers, along with a long and deafening roar of sound. The explosive power, equivalent to 18.6 kilotons of TNT, was almost four times higher than expected.

Oppenheimer himself was present at the test, and his words at that time clearly reveal his feelings: “I remembered the line from the Hindu scripture the Bhagavad-Gita that says, Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds”. I suppose we all thought that, one way or another.(“Father of the Atomic Bomb” was Blacklisted for Opposing H-Bomb). Shortly afterward, Hiroshima and Nagasaki suffered the horror caused by the destructive capacity of this new weapon. World War II ended a few days later.

The whole Manhattan scientific team plunged into great discomfiture. What had been the pride of ownership turned to introspection and taciturnity. The sentiment of many who had not been openly opposed to aborting the project may be reflected in the answer that Richard Feynman, one of the great geniuses of post-war physics, gave in a BBC interview shortly before his death. To the question of how he felt about his participation in the project, he replied with regret that in the race against the clock, he forgot to think why he joined.

The scientists’ opinion was literally crushed. In victorious America and especially in its official spheres, Oppenheimer represented the visible head of a successful project that had given the country great power. Only two months after the victory, Oppenheimer met with President Truman to express his feelings of guilt and to propose the abandonment of nuclear power. Truman dismissed him with these words addressed to the Secretary of State: “I never want to see that son-of-a-bitch in this office ever again (As Hiroshima Smouldered, Our Atom Bomb Scientists Suffered Remorse).

75 years of nuclear threat

Joseph Rotblat learned of the bomb dropped on Hiroshima while listening to the BBC, and said he remembered an avalanche of emotions. “Guilty is perhaps the wrong word,” he said. “Angry, and the other emotions uppermost in my mind were worry and fear. I knew even then that this was just the beginning. I knew that a bomb 1,000 times more powerful would be developed.”

The present inhabitants of the planet have lived our entire life with the nuclear threat and we have certainly made no effort to assess its true scale.

nuclear threat The whole world is currently affected by collective angst due to the coronavirus outbreak, which destroys lives, harming our feelings, our daily activity and our economy, although we are all convinced that in a matter of months this nightmare will have passed.

The use of nuclear weapons would have incomparably more serious consequences. In only a few days, 250,000 people died in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Rotblat’s prophecy has materialized, and there are two or three thousand times more powerful bombs. It is estimated that there are in the order of 10,000 devices worldwide.

The so-called nuclear arms race, which has lasted for three-quarters of a century, has been permanently accompanied by anti-nuclear movements around the world. However, it is high time for society as a whole to become aware and to put definitive pressure on the political leaders of all nations. Let us make our own Pope Francis’ appeal from Nagasaki Peace Park last year: “Convinced as I am that a world without nuclear weapons is possible and necessary, I ask political leaders not to forget that these weapons cannot protect us from current threats to national and international security. We need to ponder the catastrophic impact of their deployment, especially from a humanitarian and environmental standpoint, and reject heightening a climate of fear, mistrust and hostility fomented by nuclear doctrines.(Address on Nuclear Weapons of Holy Father Francis in the Epicenter Park of the Atomic Bomb (Nagasaki, November 24, 2019).


Manuel Ribes

Bioethics Observatory – Institute of Life Sciences

Catholic University of Valencia


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