From the archive: looking ahead to our atomic future

The modern mind boggles, and more when it learns how reckless the US was with ‘the atom’ as it entered the 1950s rich and bullish.

While the military tried nuclear bombs within sight of Las Vegas (casinos held parties for tourists to watch detonations from the roof), scientists worked on reactors to generate power (promised to be “so cheap it couldn’t be metered”) and nuclear medicine (which was already regulated after frequent drinking of ‘energy drink’ Radithor had in 1932 caused a famed golfer’s jaw to fall off), and some pondered radiation for making land arable and seawater drinkable.

Glowing radium clocks had existed for a long time already (the women who painted them had to be buried in lead coffins), so why not glowing golf balls too? There was also a US government PR campaign that advocated using nukes for things like mining and even creating an alternative to the Panama Canal.

The train that Oppenheimer mentioned never materialised; instead, the first experiments occurred in the ocean. The US Navy commissioned the USS Nautilus submarine with a 10MW reactor in 1954, work having begun back in 1947.

The US Air Force, meanwhile, had studied nuclear aircraft, and in 1955 up went a converted Convair B-36 jet bomber, albeit not to test the accompanying 1MW reactor’s propulsion but if enough lead and rubber was in place to protect the crew from radiation sickness.

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