KRONOS Vol II, No. 1
THE ULTIMATE CATASTROPHE?
H. C. DUDLEY
Before the first detonation of an atomic bomb (1945), the probability of igniting the
atmosphere and inducing a vast nuclear accident was examined by the leaders of the Manhattan
Project. The findings were kept shrouded in top secret governmental files until 1973.
A peek at these findings resulted from an interview with one of the directors of the Project
in 1959. This was reported by the eminent writer Pearl Buck, generating but little public notice at
Nevertheless, the current widespread interest in all aspects of nuclear safety, resulting from
the projected all-out expansion of nuclear power plants, has caused various individuals to reconsider
the possibility that nuclear catastrophes could accidentally occur. This writer discussed the question
in 1974(1) while Greenberg and Sizemore have examined aspects of nuclear safety as well as the
psychological and moral problems engendered by developments in nuclear science between 1945 and
The scientific community paid little attention to these writings, however. Yet, when this
writer published a paper, "The Ultimate Catastrophe,"(3) in a journal which has wide circulation
among scientists, and because this piece was publicized nationwide by the AP, those in the
pro-nuclear camp felt required to answer. These answers were not in the nature of reasoned scientific
arguments, but took on many attributes of political propaganda, generating a climate that is anything
but scientific. Ironically, we have come to a point where the subjects - "The Scientific Method",
"Freedoms of Expression", and "Nuclear Power" - intersect.
In an attempt to counteract the effects of the wide news coverage of these events, a senior
scientist who is of the inner circle of the cc nuclear camp" published one of the most unusual
editorials ever seen in scientific literature.(4) In this, he lashes out and castigates all scientists who
have the poor taste to disagree publicly with him and his supporters. He uses such terms as "Keeping
it honest", "Half-truths", and "Irresponsible scientifically".
The cat was let out of the bag in the very first paragraph of editorial commentary:
"When scientists express opinions on scientific matters in the public forum they are
not subject to the sanctions that regulate opinions expressed in the usual channels of scientific
communication" (emphasis added).(4)
This confirms what many have long suspected, but were never able to pin down. There exists
well established mechanisms, albeit unofficial, which are, in effect, kangaroo courts and star chamber
proceedings. They are used to control, discipline, and stifle the scientist who becomes too
iconoclastic. Of course this will be done in a most gentlemanly, scientifically impeccable, and
certainly high-minded manner. Peer review processes can provide excellent sheltered cells from
which to safeguard the integrity of "good" science. The closing paragraphs of the above-mentioned
editorial are most illuminating as an example, for they contain the proposed setting up of additional
and more formal apparatus for applying controls to those who do not conform to the approved norm.
"The AAAS is a natural focus for these concerns.... Out of such an exchange may
come better mechanisms for keeping our science honest, even when it is not subject to the
usual sanctions of the scientific community" (emphasis added).
In this context, Webster defines SANCTIONS as "the enacting of penalties for disobedience
of a rule of conduct."
In a rebuttal to my article, "The Ultimate Catastrophe," the senior professional physicist of
those who are pushing for all-out expansion of nuclear power - Hans Bethe (1967 Nobel Laureate
in Physics) - wrote as follows: (5)
"In the November 1975 issue of the Bulletin, H. C. Dudley (3) claimed that it is
possible that an atomic weapon might ignite a thermonuclear reaction in the atmosphere (or
the ocean) and thus destroy the earth. This claim is nonsense. Dudley's claim is based on a
report by the writer Pearl Buck of an interview with Arthur H. Compton in 1959. Had
Dudley consulted the original literature, or any of the scientists conversant with the problem,
he would soon have recognized that Pearl Buck had completely misunderstood Arthur H.
The basic theory of thermonuclear reactions in the atmosphere was developed in a
report by E. J. Konopinski, C. Marvin, and E. Teller, published by the Los Alamos
Laboratory. This work was done before the first nuclear test at Alamogordo in July 1945,
and assured the leaders and members of the project that no danger existed that the test would
set the atmosphere on fire. The report LA-602 was circulated in August 1946; it was secret
until February 1973 when it was declassified" (emphasis added). [Technical equations
omitted. See original for details.] . . .
"Summarizing, Dudley has nightmares which have no relation to reality. Ignition of
the atmosphere or the ocean by atomic weapons is not a matter of probability, but simply will
not happen" (emphasis added).
The official report which Dr. Bethe quotes at some length (LA-602) is titled "IGNITION OF
THE ATMOSPHERE WITH NUCLEAR BOMBS" and reads in part as follows:
The report comes to this conclusion:
"The detonation of a fission or thermonuclear bomb produces a high temperature
which will stimulate the reaction of atomic nuclei of the air with each other. If an ignition
point exists and is surpassed, the thermonuclear reaction may be propagated to all parts of the
I replied: (6)
"While the above numbers may be somewhat in error, the quenching must
eventually take place as long as the detonation wave is a simple plane perturbation. There
remains the distant probability that some other less simple mode of burning may
maintain itself in the atmosphere. Even if the reaction is stopped within a sphere of a
few hundred meters radius the resultant earth-shock and the radioactive contamination of
the atmosphere might become catastrophic on a world-wide scale.
One may conclude that the arguments of this paper make it unreasonable to expect
that the N + N reaction could propagate. Unlimited propagation is even less likely.
However, the complexity of the argument and the absence of satisfactory experimental
foundations makes further work on the subject highly desirable" (emphasis added).
"How can one conclude, as Bethe does, that these words 'assured the leaders and
members of the project that no danger existed that the test would set the atmosphere on
fire'? [emphasis added]
Possible effects of a nuclear detonation under water are not mentioned in LA-602.
Reaction of water vapor as a constituent of the atmosphere was considered but judged to
be of little significance because of the relatively low concentration of hydrogen atoms
(LA-602, pp. 2, 6).
With respect to the pressures within the Sun far exceeding that at the deepest point
in the sea, Bethe is absolutely correct. No claim was made that these pressures were
equal. What was stressed was the similarity of certain conditions.
It is not necessary to have such pressures to cause fusion. Hydrogen bombs are
initiated by pressures generated by implosion at a fraction of the Sun's internal pressure.
Lasers are initiating fusion at about atmospheric pressures. Billions have been spent over
the past 30 years endeavoring to produce sustained fusion at pressures of only a fraction
of atmospheric pressure. These expenditures are justified on the basis of the hope of
eventually producing electric power from such reactions.
Bethe gives as a nuclear reaction of 'reasonable probability the following:
deuterium + deuterium yielding either tritium or helium-3. This reaction produces 3 to 4
MeV energy per event. There is little deuterium in seawater. There is much hydrogen:
hydrogen + hydrogen yielding deuterium produces 0.42 MeV of energy per event.
These equations describe two exothermic fusion reactions which differ in degree,
not in kind. It becomes then a question of probabilities, not absolutes. And because we
are discussing accidents, this translates into what limits of risk are acceptable. For
whom? How and by whom determined? [emphasis added]
This brings us to the fourth aspect of my original paper which Bethe carefully
ignored, and which I consider the very crux of this whole discussion. The unstated
assumption inherent in all current calculations and projections of nuclear safety, as
applied to power installations or weaponry, is that presently-accepted theories define all
possible parameters of nuclear reactions [emphasis added].
During the past 10 years, there have appeared literally hundreds of scientific papers
which return to the old concept of the 'ether', variously termed 'Fermi gas', 'subquantic
medium', 'neutrino sea', etc. Out of this develops a crucial question; Are the theories and
assumptions which form the base for Bethe's conclusions now tenable, for these require
the absence of any such generalized medium.
Inexorably, nuclear physics is caught up in the on-going 'Information Explosion',
which is nothing less than a scientific revolution of the first magnitude. I suggest that
nuclear technology 1976 has outdistanced the theories and concepts, models 1946, which
are currently used by most to explain nuclear phenomena. One cannot, in good conscience,
ignore the growing number of scientific papers, worldwide, which deal with
various aspects of an energy-rich subquantic medium.
With the quite evident changing nature of the whole of nuclear science it becomes
morally necessary to ask: Have calculations ever been made of the possible effects of a
fission detonation in water? And were these updated when fusion energy yields reached
1,000 times that of fission devices? If these estimates have been made, fine. If not, why
not? But in any case, let somebody, somewhere, somehow get the information out."
Other professional physicists, including some who question the advisability of extension of
fission power facilities, also attack my conclusions, often by use of not-so-subtle sarcasm and
ridicule.(7) In no case have these professionals addressed themselves to the main point of my
argument, namely that nuclear science has not kept pace with the Information Explosion
(1950-75) which has required every other branch of science and engineering to re-examine fundamental
hypotheses and assumptions.
From conversations which I have had with many physicists it seems that tribal conformity
which has been ingrained by the teaching methods of the past 35 years precludes any real unbiased
scientific examination of potential nuclear dangers. Alternative hypotheses are heresies which will
not be tolerated and must be suppressed by every means available. Therefore it appears that those
of the Humanities in our universities may be required to force the issue, demanding that physicists
rid themselves of the intellectual provincialism which makes a mockery of what is taught to our
students as the "Scientific Method".
1. H. C. Dudley, "is there an ether?", Industrial Research
(Nov. 15, 1974), pp. 41-46.
2. L. M. Greenberg and W. B. Sizemore, "From Microcosm to Macrocosm: The Fearful
Symmetry of Catastrophism," KRONOS, Vol. I, No. 2 (Summer-1975), pp. 3-16.
3. H. C. Dudley, "The Ultimate Catastrophe," Bull. Atomic Scientists
(Nov., 1975), pp. 21-24.
4. A. M. Weinberg, "Science in the Public Forum: Keeping it Honest," Science, 191 (30 Jan.1976), p. 341.
5. H. A. Bethe, "Legitimate Catastrophe?", Bull. Atomic Scientists (June, 1976), pp. 36-37.
6. H. C. Dudley, "Are Your Assumptions Tenable?", Bull. Atomic Scientists (June, 1976), p. 38.
7. Letters. Bull. Atomic Scientists (Jan., 1976), pp. 2-3; Ibid. (June, 1976), p. 38.
"The years when Ages in Chaos and Worlds in Collision were written were years of a
world catastrophe created by man -- of war that was fought on land, on sea, and in the air.
During that time man learned how to take apart a few of the bricks of which the universe is
built--the atoms of uranium. If one day he should solve the problem of the fission and fusion of the
atoms of which the crust of the earth or its water and air are composed, he may perchance, by
initiating a chain reaction, take this planet out of the struggle for survival among the members of
the celestial sphere."Immanuel Velikovsky, Worlds in Collision|
(From the Preface - September 1949)