The Acheson-Lilienthal Report


Constructive Applications for Atomic Energy

To "outlaw" atomic energy in all of its forms and enforce such a prohibition by an army of inspectors roaming the earth would overwhelm the capacity and the endurance of men, and provide no security. This conclusion has a further implication in a search for a security system. While suppression is not possible where we are dealing with the quest for knowledge, this thirst to know (that cannot be "policed" out of existence) can be used, affirmatively, in the design and building of an effective system of safeguards.

Human history shows that any effort to confine the inquiring human mind, to seek to bar the spirit of inquiry, is doomed to failure. From such efforts comes subversion fraught with terrible consequences: Gestapo, inquisitions, wars. The development of atomic energy is one of a long, long line of discoveries that have their well springs in the urge of men to know more about themselves and their world. Like the jiu jutsu wrestler whose skill consists in making his opponent disable himself with his own thrusts, the designers of a system of safeguards for security should and can utilize for enforcement measures that driving force toward knowledge that is part of man's very nature.

If atomic energy had only one conceivable use--its horrible powers of mass destruction--then the incentive to follow the course of complete prohibition and suppression might be very great. Indeed, it has been responsibly suggested that however attractive may be the potentialities for benefit from atomic energy, they are so powerfully outweighed by the malevolent that our course should be to bury the whole idea, to bury it deep, to forget it, and to make it illegal for anyone to carry on further inquiries or developments in this field.

We have concluded that the beneficial possibilities--some of them are more than possibilities, for they are within close reach of actuality--in the use of atomic energy should be and can be made to aid in the development of a reasonably successful system of security, and the plan we recommend is in part predicated on that idea.

That mankind can confidently look forward to such beneficial uses is a fact that offers a clue of not inconsiderable importance to the kind of security arrangements that can be made effective The difficulty of recruiting enforcement officers having only a negative and policing function, one of prohibiting, detecting, and suppressing, is obvious. Such a job lacks any dynamic qualities. It does not appeal to the imagination. Its future opportunities are obviously circumscribed. It might draw the kind of man, let us say, who was attracted to prohibition squads in years past. Compare this type of personnel with those who could be expected to enter a system under which it is clear that the constructive possibilities of atomic energy may also be developed. Atomic energy then becomes a new and creative field in which men may take pride as participants, whatever their particular role. They are in "on the ground floor" of a growing enterprise. Growth, opportunities, future development--these are the characteristics, let us say, of the field of air transport that have made it possible for the airlines to attract a high grade and youthful personnel.

The importance of this fact that atomic energy has beneficial uses as well as destructive uses, in terms of the attraction of personnel in a security organization will, of course, depend upon the functions given to that organization. If the security organization has not only enforcement but also development functions, then this consideration of beneficial possibilities becomes a most weighty one.

What are the beneficial possibilities? We have had the benefit of a thoughtful, unpublished report on the technical possibilities now apparent in this field. This report was prepared for the Secretary of War's Interim Committee on Atomic Energy by a panel of scientists who worked with a large additional group of leading scientists in the field.* The conclusions there stated represent an appraisal of these possibilities, that is, in our opinion, challenging and at the same time balanced and restrained.

In introducing its conclusions the report observes that "We are probably no more able to foresee the ultimate fruits of development than were Faraday's contemporaries to understand what would come of the discovery of electro-magnetic induction." It gives a further sense of perspective in emphasizing that "The unique pre-occupation of the war years in the use of atomic energy for military weapons . . . has probably retarded our understanding of other applications." We believe that this is equally true at present.

The report discusses two "great fields" for beneficial use, "the development of atomic energy as a controlled source of power" and "the application of radiations and radioactivities to the growth of the

sciences and the practical arts." It gives a sober appraisal of each of these possibilities: "It is probable," the report states, "that the exploitation of atomic energy as a tool for research will outweigh the benefits to be derived from the availability of a new source of power." But this new source of power is itself regarded as of great significance, and is thought to be "the most appropriate focal point for the work of the next few years."

"We have examined in some detail [the report continues] the technical problems of making available heat and power on the scale of present world consumption from controlled nuclear reactors. We see no significant limitations on this development, either in the availability or in the cost of the fundamental active materials. We see characteristic limitations and characteristic advantages in atomic power which make us regard it in great measure as a supplement to existing sources, and an incentive to new developments, rather than as a competitor, let us say, to coal or to petroleum products. We see no foundation in current science for the hope that atomic power can be effectively used for light, small portable units such as are required for aircraft and for automotive transportation; but we believe that the development of rather large power units for heat and conversion to electrical energy is a program for the near future; that operating units which will serve to demonstrate the usefulness and limitations of atomic power can be in existence within a few years, and that only the gradual incorporation and adaptation of such units to the specific demands of contemporary economy will involve a protracted development."

Finally, the report takes up the opportunities which have been opened in the field of research by the prospect of a plentiful supply of radioactive substances as byproducts of the manufacture of fissionable materials, a circumstance which it has been said may well be as significant for scientific progress as the ready availability of microscopes for every laboratory.

"It should be understood [the report says] that work specifically focused on atomic power need not and should not interfere with making available to biology, medicine, chemistry, and physics the radiations and activities characteristic of this field . . . We should not be astonished if the greatest benefit of this program were in fact to lie in therapy for some of the neo-plastic diseases, such as cancer, or in the increased understanding of biological systems or of the realities of the physical world, which will in turn open up new fields of human endeavor."

The full report contains descriptions in more concrete terms of some of these possibilities. We are convinced that in the vigorous exploitation of them lies one of the greatest hopes of developing a successful system of international control.

Under the most favorable conditions, the peril of atomic warfare can be averted only by drawing upon the best human resources of good will, imagination, and ingenuity. All experience teaches that these resources cannot be tapped except by challenging opportunities. One of the most serious dangers to the promotion of effective international action is the danger that our natural preoccupation with the destructive aspects of atomic energy may blind us to its useful aspects. Upon searching investigation, some of the latter may prove illusory. But if the lessons of past scientific and technological progress mean anything, we also know that many of these opportunities will materialize. We believe that only a system of safeguards which is built around these hopeful prospects can succeed. We have tried throughout this report to make explicit the connection between a system of safeguards and these opportunities.

Important, perhaps even decisive, in the proposals we put forth in this report is the fact that many of the constructive activities required in the development of atomic energy involve no risks of providing a material basis for weapons of war. This aspect of the matter is dealt with in detail in Chapter V of this Section.