Pivotal Moments in Nuclear History

For our upcoming show, we asked our guests, Alex Wellerstein and Linda M. Richards, to provide us with several moments they consider most pivotal in nuclear history. They kindly obliged with not only a list but also commentary. 

Alex Wellerstein

Here are a few “pivotal moments.” Some of them are well known (and so I’ve said less about them); some of them are less known. I’ve interpreted “pivotal” as “things that really changed or really could have changed the direction of history”—unfortunately this results in more “negative” than “positive” moments because a lot of the “positive” ones are less clearly “pivotal” under this definition. So, for example, the first U.S. civilian nuclear reactor to me is not pivotal because if it hadn’t been developed, another one would probably have been developed later. This first civilian reactor was more of its time than shaping its time.

Summer of 1942: President Franklin Roosevelt approved of an acceleration of the American bomb-development program. What had been a merely exploratory program was now one much more determined to produce weapons for use in the war. This acceleration meant bringing in the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to build the massive plants necessary to produce fissile material, and the Manhattan Project formally began. I point this out in contrast to the more famous Einstein letter of 1939, which started only a very small, exploratory effort. Lots of nations during World War II had small, exploratory programs looking into the question of nuclear fission, but only the United States (at the urging of the United Kingdom) moved it into the stages necessary to actually build nuclear weapons.

1945: The United States bombed Hiroshima and Nagasaki. No further commentary really necessary.

August 12, 1945: The Smyth Report was released. This report was the first technical history of the atomic bomb, written by a Princeton University physicist at the request of the Manhattan Project brass while the project was still being completed. Its release was an unprecedented action: when else does the use of a new super weapon get immediately followed up by an official history explaining how it was made? The reasons for the report’s release were curious: the scientist-administrators supported it because they felt it made democratic decision making about the bomb possible; the military brass supported it because it outlined the limits of what could be said.

1954: The Castle Bravo accident occurred. The United States’ first solid-fuel (and thus portable) hydrogen bomb test was a success—more than a success. It detonated with over 250% more explosive yield than expected, and then the wind changed, blowing toxic fallout over a wide swath of inhabited area and a Japanese fishing boat. One of the Japanese fishermen died as a result, and the native islanders exposed to the fallout would have increased cancer and birth-defect rates in the coming decades. On a more global scale the Bravo test made the issue of thermonuclear weapons, and nuclear fallout, a subject of intense attention.

1962: The Cuban Missile Crisis was one of the two moments where the world was one slipup away from nuclear war.

1979: The Three Mile Island accident didn’t kill nuclear power in the United States because that was an industry already floundering for economic reasons. But it certainly put the nail in the coffin (so far, anyway).

1983: The other moment when the world was potentially one slipup away from nuclear war, though less known than the Cuban Missile Crisis, was the 1983 War Scare. During this period the Soviet Union was convinced (by bellicose American rhetoric, directed mostly at a domestic audience) that the United States was potentially planning a surprise nuclear attack as part of its NATO exercise Able Archer. The scariest part of the whole affair is that the United States did not realize how seriously spooked the Soviets were until later. (President Ronald Reagan expressed astonishment in his diaries that the Soviets took him so seriously.) It is precisely this possibility of disconnect, of such potential consequences from simple misunderstanding of intentions, that makes nuclear weapons so dangerous.

1986: The Chernobyl accident was a stunning, terrifying example of a worst-case nuclear-power accident.

2011: The long-term effects of the Fukushima accident are still unclear, as are the short-term effects. But the demonstration that a serious accident can occur in a very modern, very common type of nuclear reactor (and a different type than the one at Three Mile Island at that), right in the middle of an alleged “nuclear renaissance,” has made the future of nuclear power a very real and controversial question once again.

Linda Richards

1895−1897: X-rays were discovered in 1895, and then in 1896 radiation emanating from uranium salts was discovered, followed by the discovery of the electron in 1897. Together, these heralded a new way of understanding matter.

X-rays were startling and exciting, and the technology moved quickly. Discoverer Wilhelm Roentgen thought the invention so important to humanity and medical care that he did not patent the device. He died penniless despite his expertise in photography and X-rays.

The quintessential negative story of the X-ray involves Roentgen’s wife, Anna Bertha. On seeing the first X-ray (of her hand), she exclaimed “I have seen my own death!” (

Though her words were only meant to describe what she was seeing—her own skeleton—many later understood it as a haunting prediction.

The fledgling nuclear-medicine industry began in tandem with the use of X-rays and the early studies of radioactivity.

In 1902−1903 Henri Becquerel published “On the Radio-Activity of Matter” and Madame Marie Sklodowska Curie published her dissertation, “Radio-Active Substances,” establishing radium as a new chemical element. (A rare copy in English of her dissertation can be found at the Special Collections and Archives Research Center at Oregon State University.) Ernest Rutherford found and studied two kinds of rays and named them alpha and beta, and by 1903 he determined gamma rays could also be emitted from radioactive substances.

Economic opportunities soon arose. Pierre and Marie Curie had connections to the emerging radium industry because they saw the healing potential of radium and radioactivity. Yet Pierre also warned of the dangers of radioactivity falling into the wrong hands in his Nobel Prize acceptance speech in 1905. He concluded that with the discovery of radium “the question can be raised whether mankind benefits from knowing the secrets of Nature, whether it is ready to profit from it or whether this knowledge will not be harmful for it. . . . I am one of those who believe with Nobel that mankind will derive more good than harm from the new discoveries.”

Atomic hopes and threats soon made their appearance in literature, including in H. G. Wells’s The World Set Free (1914), Arthur Train’s The Man Who Rocked the Earth (1915), and Upton Sinclair’s 1924 play The Millennium.

1913: Niels Bohr’s model of the atom, a nucleus surrounded by electrons, appeared 100 years ago this year. That same year, Lise Meitner became an associate at the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute.

1932−1933: James Chadwick discovered the neutron (predicted decades before by Ernest Rutherford). In 1933 Leo Szilard came up with the idea of a nuclear chain reaction started by neutrons.

1935: The Nobel Prize in Chemistry was awarded to Irène and Frederic Joliot-Curie for artificial radioactivity, which generated the isotopes that would be essential in nuclear medicine.

1939: Confirmation and understanding of fission by Lise Meitner, Otto Hahn, Fritz Strassmann, and Otto Frisch. Fission was quickly replicated by others, including Enrico Fermi in Italy and the Joliot-Curies in France. This led to not only the first nuclear weapon but to the eventual development of nuclear-power reactors, real-world descendants of the turn-of-the-century utopian dreams of perpetual energy from nuclear reactions.

1939: Leo Szilard, Eugene Wigner, Albert Einstein, and Edward Teller wrote a letter to President Franklin Roosevelt. They feared the Germans would be able to fashion a fission weapon, and suggested a program to investigate the possibility and so counter any German attempts.

1942: The first artificial nuclear reaction was sustained in the secret Chicago Met Lab. The same year, uranium mining began in secret on what is now the Navajo Nation.

July 16, 1945: Previous attempts by scientists to discourage the use of the bomb increased after the first plutonium bomb was exploded in the desert near Alamogordo, New Mexico. At the Trinity test the nuclear-testing blueprint was established: local populations were not evacuated, despite radiation exceeding what health physicists had established as a safe level.

1957: The first major nuclear-power accident occurred at the Windscale reactor in England.

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