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  Library Correspondence Edward Teller: Letter, July 23, 1953

Letter on Dangers and Military Applications of Nuclear Energy
From:Edward Teller
To: Sterling Cole, United States Congressman
Date: July 23, 1953

Edward Teller to Sterling Cole
July 23 1953

The Honorable Sterling Cole 
Joint Committee on Atomic Energy 
The Congress of the United States 
Washington, D. C.

Dear Sir:

In response to your invitation to make a statement in connection with the development of atomic energy by private enterprise, I should like to discuss two topics concerning which I have some specific experience. These are the safety of nuclear reactors and the connection between power production and military application.

Briefly, my opinion can be stated as follows. First, nuclear power-producing units will be dangerous instruments and careful thought will have to be given to their safe construction and operation and, second, there is a great and increasing need for fissionable materials in the military field.

I should like to recommend:

First, that an advisory committee should be set up to review planned reactors and supervise functioning reactors under the control of private enterprise. Instead of setting up a new committee, the present Advisory Committee on Reactor Safeguards of the Atomic Energy Commission might serve this purpose, and Second, that the Government stimulate power production by private enterprise by guaranteeing to buy militarily useful by-products at a pre-determined price and in limited but large quantities for a period of five or ten years.

Safety of Nuclear Reactors
For the past six years I have served as the Chairman of the Reactor Safeguard Committee. Recently, this committee and the Industrial Committee on Reactor Location problems have been merged into the Advisory Committee on Reactor Safeguards, and I am participating in the work of this new committee.

Up to the present time we have been extremely fortunate in that accidents in nuclear reactors have not caused any fatalities. With expanding applications of nuclear reactions and nuclear power, it can not be expected that this unbroken record will be maintained. It must be realized that this good record was achieved to a considerable extent because of safety measures which have necessarily retarded development.

The main factors which influence reactor safety are, in my opinion, reasonably well understood. There have been in the past years a few minor incidents, all of which have been caused by neglect of clearly formulated safety rules. Such occasional accidents can not be avoided. It is rather remarkable that they have occurred in such a small number of instances. I want to emphasize in particular that the operation of nuclear reactors is not mysterious and that the irregularities are no more unexpected than accidents which happen on account of disregard of traffic regulations.

In the popular opinion, the main danger of a nuclear pile is due to the possibility that it may explode. It should be pointed out, however, that such an explosion, although possible, is likely to be harmful only in the immediate surroundings and will probably be limited in its destructive effects to the operators. A much greater public hazard is due to the fact that nuclear plants contain radioactive poisons. In a nuclear accident, these poisons may be liberated into the atmosphere or into the water supply. In fact, the radioactive poisons produced in a powerful nuclear reactor will retain a dangerous concentration even after they have been carried downwind to a distance of ten miles. Some danger might possibly persist to distances as great as 100 miles. It would seem appropriate that Federal regulations should apply to a hazard which is not confined by state boundaries. The various committees dealing with reactor safety have come to the conclusion that none of the powerful reactors built or suggested up to the present time are absolutely safe. Though the possibility of an accident seems small, a release of the active products in a city or densely populated area would lead to disastrous results. It has been therefore the practice of these committees to recommend the observance of exclusion distances, that is, to exclude the public from areas around reactors, the size of the area varying in appropriate manner with the amount of radioactive poison that the reactor might release. Rigid enforcement of such exclusion distances might hamper future development of reactors to an unreasonable extent. In particular, the danger that a reactor might malfunction and release its radioactive poison differs for different kinds of reactors. It is my opinion that reactors of sufficiently safe types might be developed in the near future. Apart from the basic construction of the reactor, underground location or particularly thought-fully constructed safety devices might be considered.

It is clear that no legislation will be able to stop future accidents and avoid completely occasional loss of life. It is my opinion that the unavoidable danger which will remain after all reasonable controls have been employed must not stand in the way of rapid development of nuclear power. It also would seem that proper legislation at the present time might make provisions for safe construction and safe operation of nuclear reactors. In case an accident should occur which involved the lives of many people, pressure for such legislation would become overwhelming. Proper steps taken at the present time could reasonably prepare for accidents and minimize the suffering that is caused, when and if they should occur.

It would seem reasonable to extend the Atomic Energy Commission procedures on reviewing planned reactors and supervising functioning reactors to nuclear plants under the control of private enterprise. To what extent these functions should be advisory or regulatory is a difficult question. I feel that ultimate responsibility for safe operation will have to be placed on the shoulders of the men and the organization most closely connected with the construction and the operation of the reactor.

Power Production and Military Application
The first and best known military application of atomic energy was con-nected with strategic bombing. In the popular mind, such strategic bombing has been identified with the destruction of cities. The belief is widely held that a relatively limited number of atomic bombs can not only cause terrifying destruction but would produce saturation, that is, only a limited number of atomic bombs would be needed. It is my conviction that this opinion is based on a misconception and that indeed a great stockpile of fissionable material could be usefully applied in warfare. Furthermore, it seems to me that a more general use of fission weapons will not result necessarily in a more thorough destruction of cities but might rather be used against military targets of the more conventional type. It seems to me therefore that a less expensive source of fissionable materials would be desirable. Such a less expensive source could be obtained if atomic reactors were constructed for the dual purpose of providing power and producing fissionable materials.

Strategic targets include industrial plants and military installations far behind the enemy's lines. Depending on the vulnerability of these targets and on their contribution to the enemy's war effort, one may well be justified in using atomic bombs against these targets. The size of the target need not be decisive and the number of such targets may be quite appreciable.

The possible tactical targets are even more numerous. Any concentration of fighting forces or of material near the fighting lines constitutes tactical targets. Strongly defended positions might be attacked by atomic bombs. Atomic weapons could be used against beachheads or against enemy forces attempting to cross a natural obstacle. Conversely, atomic weapons could be employed to prepare a landing on a beachhead or the attack of a parachute force. The vulnerability of naval vessels to atomic bombs has been demonstrated in the Bikini tests. Vehicles less expensive than naval units may present atomic bomb targets, particularly if the cost of the bomb is lower than the cost of the vehicle which one attempts to destroy. An enemy bomber or even an enemy fighter plane might be considered as a possible target for an atomic bomb.

It might seem extravagant to use atom bombs for all these different types of targets. The question of extravagance or of sound economy must be considered, however, in connection with the ease of delivery, with the expense of delivery and with the expense of the fissionable materials. I can think of no exception to the rule that the cost of delivery will be less if one produces a certain damage by atomic weapons rather than by more conventional means. It is therefore the cost of fissionable materials which will decide how extensively one can use atomic weapons in warfare. The more the cost of atomic weapons can be reduced, the greater will be the number of applications where relatively cheap delivery systems can replace the much more expensive conventional methods. Increase in our stockpile of fissionable materials may therefore reduce the military expenditure without reducing military potential.

It seems to be doubtful whether, on the basis of present technology, atomic energy can produce power in an economically profitable manner. Power production can, however, be conducted in such a manner as to produce militarily useful materials. It would seem to me reasonable to stimulate the construction of power-producing reactors by guaranteeing a price at which the Government will buy the militarily useful by-products. This price should of course be set lower than the price at which the Atomic Energy Commission is producing fissionable materials at the present time. It probably will be necessary to set a limit to the amount of fissionable material which the Government is prepared to purchase and also to set a limit to the time during which such purchases will be made at the fixed price. Nevertheless, it seems probable that if a fair price is guaranteed for a period like five or ten years, this will be an effective stimulant to the nation's atomic power industry. This industry is likely to become a factor in national defense which may not be second even to the steel or aircraft industries.

The above contains the substance of the testimony which I have prepared for the joint Congressional Committee. I should like to express my very great regret that at the date set for the hearing it was completely impossible for me to leave Livermore. It would be a great pleasure to appear before the joint Congressional Committee at any time to amplify the above statements or else to help in any other way that you can think of.

Yours very truly,
                                                        Edward Teller

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