Science, speaking in its usual language of paradox, has spent most of the last century revealing terror in the tiny things of life. The germ theory of disease probably drove to the grave a lot of genteel old ladies ignored by the streptococcus. By the time mankind grew accustomed to bacillae, American physicists sent some explosive atoms to Hiroshima, giving the world a new source of frenzy. With his new Atoms for Peace, David O. Woodbury has at last sought out the scientists who are working with peaceable, tractable atoms, making significant discoveries that have largely escaped journalistic attention.
In exposing the realistic prospects for harnessing the nuclear horses, Woodbury has unfortunately chosen to write in bite-sized sentences of annoying simplicity. But if the book is as pre-digested as Gerber's baby-food, it presents some sobering facts about adult dreams: atomic autos, helicopters, and railroad trains. Men who contemplate their future autos probably give their atomic Ford the mental shape of a Thunderbird. Actually, as Woodbury points out, any atomic car would have to carry fifty tons of metal shielding, giving the auto the shape and price of a Stanley Steamer.
In exploring the areas where most imaginative men would place atomic engines, Woodbury arrives at pessimistic conclusions. It is in less startling, but far more significant areas that the atom has already had permanent impact--in the form of radioactive isotopes. Radioisotopes play roles of tremendous importance in the treatment of cancer, materials testing, and in archaeological dating. Many physiological secrets, Woodbury predicts, will shed their mystery with the aid of new techniques of radioactive tracing. Woodbury briefly explains the tracer clues in photosynthesis, which scientists are now pursuing in an attempt to uncover the mysterious catalysts that hold the key to synthetic food.
The more material world, for a long time to come, will use atoms mainly to generate electric power. Operation of an atomic reactor at Chalk River in Canada established the essential safety of an atomic power plant. When the reactor, one day, ran out of control it merely grew hot enough to melt tons of metal, without causing a catastrophic explosion.
Atomic power is nearer than even Woodbury acknowledges, for the Atomic Energy Commission has announced plans to accept bids on April 15 for construction of America's first private reactors. In his casual assumption that free enterprise will naturally prevail in the atomic power industry, Woodbury skims over many decisions that Americans should make now. The atomic power industry will present even fewer elements of risk to private operators than steam-generated power stations. For the government has supplied all the technological research, and it will inevitably maintain sole responsibility for delivery of nuclear fuel to power stations, and disposal of the lethal, radio-active ashes. With the governmental hand so heavy at the helm, it is time to chart the course of industrial development. Atoms for Peace offers no guidance in plotting the atomic future.