Reconciling the Irreconcilable, the new book (1) by Quentin Michel, a Professor at the University of Liège’s Department of Politics, dissects the dilemma presented by nuclear science: the impossibility of partitioning the knowledge necessary to harness an electronuclear power station from that required for the construction...of an atom bomb. In discovering the extraordinary potential of nuclear fission, the physicists of the last century, without wishing to, opened up Pandora’s Box. In effect they thus liberated the most destructive weapon ever known and an ‘electricity factory’ of unparalleled power, even if it is today controversial. Blocking the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction without preventing the peaceful use of nuclear technology; flushing out the miscreants and stopping the cheats: it is a game of checks and balances which the international community has been playing for sixty years, with a subtle mixing between reactions to international events and a legal framework of increasing rigour. It is over this historical weft and woof that Quentin Michel retraces the development of international and European nuclear trade monitoring systems, and goes on to analyse them in detail.
‘It all began in a small laboratory’: that’s how the story of an extraordinary discovery, but one with potentially heavy consequences for humanity, might start. It is in going back to the origins that Quentin Michel begins his book on the monitoring of nuclear trade: he invites us, in a very lively manner, to discover the very first steps taken by contemporary atomic science. Be it ‘civil’ or ‘military’. Or both at the same time, as it is indeed a question of that in this book…
It was thus in 1934, before the Second World War, that nuclear science germinated, with the discovery of artificial radioactivity by Frédéric Joliot and his wife, Irène Curie, in their Paris Radium Institute laboratory. Four years later, German chemists and physicists observed that the splitting of an atom of uranium bombarded by neutrons – what they called ‘nuclear fission’ – is capable of liberating an absolutely extraordinary energy potential. This discovery rapidly grabbed the attention of the majority of research teams. Publications mushroomed and, in April 1939, the Joliot-Curie couple published, in the British science journal Nature, an article demonstrating that the fission of a uranium atom liberates, besides an impressive quantity of energy, two or three neutrons known as ‘secondary neutrons.’ These particles, once freed, disperse into the neighbouring mass where they can create other fissions, freeing new neutrons which in their turn cause new fissions, etc. This phenomenon, known as a ‘chain reaction’, is the key event which allows the propagation of atomic ignition indispensable to developing a nuclear weapon.
From this moment, researchers realised that the use of the energy liberated by nuclear fission could be envisaged along two axes: civil and military. Nevertheless the use of atomic fission on a large scale still seemed Utopian to the majority of physicists, including Albert Einstein himself. Certainly, the imminence of the Second World War enabled a presentiment of the advantages one of the belligerents possessing a nuclear weapon could offer. But the majority of scientists, military chiefs and politicians considered that it was technically impossible to develop such a weapon during the supposed duration of the coming conflict. Thus, in August 1939, Winston Churchill, who was not yet the British Prime Minister, confided his belief that any German threat to bomb England with a nuclear weapon should be considered a bluff, which need not be taken into account.
Certain nuclear physicists, such as the Hungarian Leo Szilard, nonetheless did not share this confident optimism. On the contrary they suspected that Nazi Germany was already engaged in a vast research programme devoted to the development of an atomic weapon. But they struggled to convince colleagues not to publish the results of their work so as not to divulge information likely to be successfully used by the military research teams of the Third Reich.
Danger alert! Scientists sound the alarm
Despite everything, the extreme imminence of the hostilities led a growing number of scientists to realise the danger that a ‘nuclear’ Germany would represent. And this risk seemed all the more real in that the recent advances in nuclear knowledge were the work of German physicists. The Reich’s research teams remained at the forefront, despite the exile of a significant number of their physicists, due to anti-Semite persecutions. This emigration would moreover give rise to a double process. On the one hand the arrival of these expatriates of a very high scientific standard would considerably boost the quality of the research teams in the host countries, granting the Allies a then underestimated technological advance. On the other hand, the information passed on by these defecting physicists would lead to a significant overestimation of the Nazi nuclear programme.