Why Britain Didn’t Beat the U.S. to the Atomic Bomb

Washington, D.C., 15 November 2013 — The literature about the development of the atomic bomb, its use against Japan, and subsequent developments, is extensive and rich (including my own book, “Too Dumb to Meter”). But a new book by Graham Farmelo — “Churchill’s Bomb: A Hidden Story of Science, War, and Politics” — provides new material and insights into the development of nuclear weapons and peaceful nuclear power in the 1940s and 1950s.

Farmelo’s book reminds us that Britain in the early days of the unraveling of the mysteries of the atom was far in the lead among the nations seeking to exploit nuclear energy. Ernest Rutherford was head-and-shoulders above any other scientists in beginning to understand the forces bound up in the nucleus of the atom. His students and disciples, James Chadwick and John Cockroft in particular, first understood the seminal notion that the atom could be split, releasing enormous amounts of energy.

Winston Churchill, both in and out of power and favor during the early days of the understanding of atomic physics, showed a perceptive interest in the science. In the 1930s, he was writing with insight of the promise and threats of the power bound up in the atom.

But as time passed, the Brits squandered their advantages in nuclear physics, for a number of reasons that Farmelo describes in detail. Churchill came under the influence of the physicist Frederick Lindemann, a mediocre scientist (but masterful politician) who was skeptical of the work of the disciples of Rutherford. Perhaps he was also jealous.

Then, as Hitler arose in Germany and was driving out a generation of the most insightful and productive scientists from his homeland and conquered territories because they were Jews, Britain failed to take advantage of the outflow of talent. To its credit, the UK arranged for exile for the scientists fleeing Nazi Germany. But it failed to use their talenst; most of the best eventually left Britain for the U.S., among them Albert Einstein, Leo Szilard, Hans Bethe, and Enrico Fermi.

As the war developed, Britain was unable to devote the political, economic and industrial might needed to develop atomic energy, while the U.S. achieved the task. As World War Two came to a close, Churchill found himself begging the U.S. for atomic crumbs, which Washington only sparingly chose to scatter among the Brit boffins and politicians. This reflected the reality, which Churchill did not want to realize, that the British empire was a fading relict of history.

Farmelo’s book is fascinating (despite some awkward writing and a scattering of annoying cliches). Among the interesting elements is the story of how Klaus Fuchs, the Soviet spy who infiltrated the U.S. program in Los Alamos, came first to Britain and then to the U.S.

Fuchs provided much information to the Soviets about the U.S. project to develop a fusion weapon, although, as it later turned out, he stole a design by Edward Teller that was not feasible. The work of Stan Ulam led to the H-bomb, which was not part of the intel that Fuchs passed on to his Soviet masters. Nevertheless, the Soviets, using insights from Andrei Sakharov and possibly intelligence from spies in the U.S., came up with the design for a thermonuclear weapon on their own.

Ironically, after the war Britain became the first country (arguably, it was Russia) to develop atomic generation of electricity for the civilian grid. But the Brits fancied a technology using heavy water and natural uranium and featuring on-line refueling. That whole generation of reactors proved uneconomic. Again, as in the race the develop a bomb, the Yanks, with their industrial and economic might, ultimately won the race to develop civilian applications of atom splitting.

Farmelo’s excellent book passes this judgement on Churchill’s engagement with nuclear power: “While the articles Churchill wrote in the 1930s warning that nuclear energy might soon be harnessed are testimony to his sagacity as a writer, his handling of the technology when it arrived was not one of his great achievements as a politician.”

Graham Farmelo, “Churchill’s Bomb: A Hidden History of Science, War, and Politics,” Faber and Faber, London, 2013.