It was in 1934 that a Hungarian-born American scientist named Leo Szilard came up with the basic idea for nuclear power. His concept of creating nuclear power came while he was waiting for the traffic lights to change to green in London, England. During his thought process, he visualized one atom of uranium disintegrating and releasing or giving off one or two neutrons that will go on to split even more uranium atoms. Szilard thought that this process would bring about a “chain reaction,” which leads to an enormous release of energy that may be too powerful for humans to handle.
The Chicago Pile-1
In 1938, Szilard moved to the United States after finding out that another war may arise in Europe. During his time in the US, he worked alongside Walter Zinn and Enrico Fermi to finalize the nuclear chain reaction experiment. The project was done by December 2, 1942, when they were able to build the Chicago Pile-1, the world’s first nuclear chain reactor. The CP-1 reactor provided the US government an assurance that they can win battles against enemy countries, as they can utilize its power to build nuclear weapons. However, the government also thought that Nazi Germany was also researching on using nuclear power for war, which was why they were hastening the process of developing weapons. Sadly, their hunch was right, since Nazi Germany is indeed trying to create nuclear weapons at the beginning of World War II, but the project fell through when they were unable to create a proper working reactor.
The Creation of the Atomic Bombs
As Szilard was one of the scientists responsible for creating the CP-1, he became a member of the Manhattan Project, which aimed at creating the first atomic bomb that may be used in World War II. Fearing that the government may use his ideas and inventions to kill innocent people, he drafted the Szilard petition in 1945. The petition states that the United States government should only use the atomic bombs if Japan refuses to surrender and agree to the US’ terms. If Japan does not surrender, the atomic bombs should only be utilized to scare the government of the said country by firing the bomb far away from the country. The Szilard petition was supposed to be sent to President Harry S. Truman, but it never reached Truman’s office, and two atomic bombs were dropped at Hiroshima and Nagasaki in Japan on August 6 and 9, 1945. In the aftermath of the atomic bombing, more than 100,000 civilians were killed in Hiroshima, while there were over 60,000 who perished in Nagasaki. Japan surrendered on August 15, 1945, and they eventually signed the Japanese Instrument of Surrender on September 2 at Tokyo Bay. The written agreement ended World War II.
After World War II
As for Szilard, he created the Emergency Committee of Atomic Scientists in 1946 with the help of Albert Einstein. The committee’s goal is to warn people about the dangers and the negative aspects that the atomic bombs bring to the world. In addition, Szilard hopes that his inventions will never be used to make nuclear weapons again, and instead should be utilized to promote peace by creating nuclear energy to help developing countries get enough power for homes and facilities.
Szilard also moved on to focus on biology during the later years of his life. During this time, he was able to invent the chemostat, which is a bioreactor that allows a scientist to control the growth rate of microorganisms within their container. In 1960, Szilard was diagnosed with bladder cancer, and he was treated by cobalt-60 radiotherapy that he had previously designed based on his knowledge of nuclear power and radiation. The great scientist died on May 30, 1964, in California, United States, after suffering a heart attack in his sleep.
Because of Szilard’s efforts to shift the focus of nuclear power development from weapons to energy, there are more than 440 nuclear power stations in the world, producing approximately 3,730,000 megawatts of electricity for many countries. These numbers may increase rapidly in the time to come as more and more government officials are seeing the potential of nuclear power as one of the best sources of energy on Earth.