[FOUNTAIN]The opening of the nuclear Pandora’s box“Sir, some recent work by E. Fermi and L. Szilard leads me to expect that the element uranium may be turned into a new and important source of energy in the immediate future. It is conceivable that extremely powerful bombs of a new type may thus be constructed. I would suggest the government respond quickly to the new research.”
In 1939, when Albert Einstein wrote this letter to President Franklin D. Roosevelt, a very small number of physicists were the only ones who believed that nuclear bombs could actually be constructed. In fact, Mr. Einstein himself, who provided the theoretical foundation for nuclear development, did not realize the fearful might of nuclear weapons when he wrote the letter. He compared the possibility of the successful production of a nuclear bomb to “shooting into the air in the darkness and hitting a bird.”
But the skeptical physicist wrote the letter to the president when a fellow physicist and Jewish refugee, Leo Szilard, persuaded him to do so. To those who sought refuge in the United States to escape the Nazi government, it was the ultimate nightmare that Adolf Hitler would win World War II with nuclear weapons.
German scientist Otto Hahn had already completed the nuclear fission chain reaction of uranium 235 in 1938. As the uranium nucleus is split during fission, some of its mass would be converted to energy, and according to Einstein’s formula, the resultant energy would be enormous. But scientists were skeptical because, in general, over 99 percent of uranium is the uranium 238 isotope, which does not produce a chain reaction. Only 0.7 percent of the element is uranium 235, whose fission produces energy. In the 1930s, producing weapons-grade highly enriched uranium seemed like an impossible task.
But the United States successfully produced nuclear weapons with highly enriched uranium in the summer of 1945, right after the Nazi regime surrendered. Since the war was already won, American scientists opposed using the catastrophic weapon. But nuclear weapons had already left the hands of the scientists. They predicted that the world would be divided into those who had nuclear weapons and those who didn’t. North Korea might prove the prediction of the fathers of nuclear weapons yet again.
by Oh Byung-sang
The writer is the London correspondent of the JoongAng Ilbo.