National Geographic : 1954 Jan
Man's New Servant, the Friendly Atom 71 "Tamed" Atomic Energy Fights Disease, Helps Factories and Farmers, and May Become an Important New Source of Industrial Power BY F. BARROWS COLTON Assistant Editor, National Geographic Magazine With Illustrations by National Geographic Photographer Volkmar Wentzel EHIND the guarded doors of two strange buildings at Oak Ridge, Ten nessee, I saw atomic energy being put to work as the servant of man. That same morning newspaper headlines had told of tests of new, more terrible atomic weapons.* But here I watched unfolding the brighter, happier story of how atomic energy is building a better world. Here the same terrific power that explodes atomic bombs has been tamed and harnessed for countless peaceful tasks. Oak Ridge "Drugstore" Sells Energy In one big Oak Ridge structure I gazed up with a feeling of awe at the towering bulk of the gigantic atomic pile, or graphite reactor, within whose hidden depths this new amazing energy is unlocked from inside atoms. In another I was shown the world's first "atomic drugstore," where, if you are quali fied, you can buy atomic energy by mail order. This energy is sold and used in the form of elements made radioactive in the atomic pile. Already atomic energy is at work in the world around you. If you have an overactive thyroid gland, your doctor may give you an "atomic cocktail" of radioactive iodine to slow down the gland's activity and improve your health. If you have a farm, you may be benefiting soon from things atomic energy has revealed about the growth of crops. Your car may last longer because radioactive atoms have helped improve lubricating oils. Within a few years atomic energy will be running at least one good-sized electric power plant, soon to be built by the United States Atomic Energy Commission. It will produce 60,000 kilowatts of electrical energy, enough to supply a city of 100,000. Private companies, too, are working on pre liminary plans for electric power plants using atomic energy instead of coal. At least one firm already has started a factory to manu facture equipment for them. In January, 1954, the United States Navy expects to launch its first atomic-powered submarine, able to cruise submerged for months at a time.t Lessons learned from its operation will pave the way for the use of atomic energy to drive merchant and pas senger ships and for making industrial power. To understand atomic energy, you need to remember first that everything is made up of atoms, much as a house is made of bricks. Each atom has a core, or nucleus, composed of tiny particles, protons and neutrons. Atomic energy is the potent binding force that holds these particles tightly together within the atom's nucleus. It is so powerful that one atomic scientist has estimated that a piano wire, held together with the same force, could support all the ships of the pre World War II United States Navy. This still-mysterious energy is an elusive, almost ghostlike thing. When released it takes the form of rays which cannot be seen, heard, or felt. The rays can be detected only by sensitive counters, which translate them into audible clicks or flashing lights, or by the darkening of photographic film. If managed with proper care, these rays are as safe and useful as the fire in your furnace or the electric current in an insulated wire, though they can be deadly dangerous if not shielded and carefully handled. America's Atom Program Is Costly To date American taxpayers have spent nearly 12 billion dollars on the atomic energy program for both defensive and peaceful uses. In terms of invested capital it is now one of the largest industries in the United States. If not used in war, our radioactive materials stockpiled for making bombs can produce atomic energy for peaceful purposes. To learn at first hand how atomic energy is working to aid mankind, I visited three of the Atomic Energy Commission's great na * For a graphic description of atom-bomb tests, see "Nevada Learns to Live with the Atom," by Samuel W. Matthews, NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC MAGAZINE, June, 1953. t See "Our Navy's Long Submarine Arm," by Allan C. Fisher, Jr., NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC MAGAZINE, No vember, 1952.