Origins of the Nuclear Program

What Soviet Science Is Offering the U.S.A.

by Susan Welsh

This article was published in New Solidarity, May 12, 1977. It has been slightly edited and endnotes have been added to familiarize the modern reader with the context in which the article was written, 30 years ago.

The recent offers of Soviet Academicians N.G. Basov, E.P. Velikhov, and L.I. Rudakov of broad-ranging cooperation with the United States for the development of controlled thermonuclear fusion power[1] confront many pro-development Americans with what they perceive to be a dilemma. Is scientific and economic cooperation with the U.S.S.R. truly in U.S. national interest? Or will it help to strengthen the military and economic might of the other "superpower," America's rival and only possible adversary in a general thermonuclear war? Would we risk giving secrets to a power whose intent is to "bury" us?

Such fears have been purposely fostered by the British elites and their witting and unwitting allies in this country, to smash the nascent Soviet-American entente that emerged during World War II, and that has threatened to reassert itself many times since. U.S. aid to the Soviet Union's atomic research program during the war epitomized the type of cooperation which the Cold War was engineered by the British to destroy.

The history of the U.S.S.R.'s nuclear energy research since 1917 demonstrates vividly why the cited fears are groundless. In fact, the impulse to scientific-technological development in the Soviet Communist Party and in the Soviet scientific community is fundamentally a pro-American impulse—and not pro-British—even though individuals are not always conscious of the distinction, and despite certain exceptional cases.

This must necessarily be true, simply because Britain has nothing to offer the Soviet Union but the tattered baggage of Fabian Liberal ideology, while the U.S., despite British subversion here, is still the greatest industrial power in the world. Only if the U.S. forfeits its own historic commitment to science and development in favor of the zero-growth, deindustrialization policies advocated by Britain and Britain's co-thinkers in America, would American and Soviet policies so seriously clash as to make nuclear war likely. Only under these conditions would Soviet technological advance pose a threat to the security of the United States.

But an early and enthusiastic U.S. acceptance of the offers of Basov, Velikhov, and Rudakov will tremendously strengthen precisely those Soviet political currents that most correspond to both U.S. and Soviet national interests for peace and progress. Soviet scientists are certainly not immune to British Fabianism; however, such tendencies could never become dominant in the Soviet Union short of a British coup which would reverse the country's commitment to science and industrial development, a possibility ruled out by the stalwarts of the military command.

Leibniz, Russia, and America

What we know today as Soviet science had its origins in the international humanist networks of the 17th and 18th centuries, as German philosopher and scientist G.W. Leibniz organized Tsar Peter the Great to establish the Russian Academy of Sciences in 1725. The tradition of Russian-American Entente is also deeply rooted, dating back to Catherine the Great's support for the League of Armed Neutrality, which helped make possible the victory of the American Revolution over Britain.

Even leading Bolsheviks, when searching for a model to describe their own aspirations for the U.S.S.R's development, looked to America. For example, Joseph Stalin compared the rapid growth of the Soviet economy following the Civil War to the industrial development of the United States:

The sap of economic life in our country is surging upward with irresistible force, upsetting all the scientific plans of our financial experts. That means that we are experiencing an upsurge of economic and labor activity, at least as powerful as that which America, for example, experienced after the Civil War.[2]

Vernadsky and the Noösphere

The father of the Soviet nuclear energy program was the great biogeochemist Academician V.I. Vernadsky (1863-1945). He and Pierre and Marie Curie, with whom he worked, were the first scientists to realize the tremendous significance that radioactivity would have as a source of energy, and also in the scientific explanation of heretofore highly puzzling phenomena such as volcanic activity and geological change. Vernadsky's primary scientific contribution was his formulation of the modern conception of the biosphere, as the totality of living matter which transforms solar energy for its own non-entropic development. Living matter, Vernadsky believed, is the primary determinant of geological change; and human social evolution—technological progress—is the most significant geological factor of all. Vernadsky was fascinated by relativistic conceptions of space and time, and studied how the ideas of the mathematician Bernhard Riemann could be applied to changes in the structure of living matter. He was not a physicist and did not himself work on the Soviet nuclear physics research, but it was he who insisted that such a program be undertaken, and he served as an advisor to it until his death. Vernadsky viewed nuclear energy as a crucial element in what he called the noösphere—the highest level of evolution of the planet, a human society characterized by rational, creative determination of its own future development. He wrote in 1922:

We are approaching a great transformation in the life of mankind, with which nothing it has lived through previously can be compared. The time is not far off when man will take atomic energy into his hands, a source of power that will make it possible for him to construct his life just as he desires. This may happen in the immediate years ahead, it may happen a century from now. But it is clear that it must happen.

Vernadsky went with a Russian delegation in 1913 to the International Geological Congress in Toronto (where the keynote speech announced the threat of a "coal famine," declaring that in 1,500 years, the planet's coal supplies would run out, threatening a gloomy end to civilization). Following the congress, the Russian delegates toured the United States, including a visit to the Carnegie lab in Washington, D.C. They returned home brimming with plans for the future of Russian science, and envious of the facilities available in America. What particularly impressed Vernadsky was what he perceived as the dirigist nature of American scientific organization. Reflecting the ideas of the American System economist Henry Carey, whose views were well known in Russia, Vernadsky wrote in 1915:

At the present time we have the example of another country comparable to us in extent of territory, the United States. It is with a feeling of shame that we compare our knowledge and theirs concerning the resources of our respective countries and the methods of their utilization. And yet, we began work in this direction almost a whole century earlier.... We spent very little for this work, which was done largely through the volunteer efforts of private individuals and societies, who were conducting investigations in their spare time. The Americans had all this, of course, perhaps even to a larger degree. But they also had the colossal assistance of both the federal and state governments, especially during the last 40 years.... And such expenditure of government means was the most proper method of spending this money. It has paid for itself many times, for it rendered extremely efficient the productive forces of America, given to her by nature. Our productive forces, which are most probably greater than those which were granted to the United States, are dead capital, almost unknown even to their possessors.

Vernadsky believed that as a result of the ravages World War I brought to the economies of Europe, the United States would increasingly become the center of major scientific work. He observed that scientific literature in English had begun to flourish over the last ten years, analogous to what had previously existed in German:

We must now make use of this new development, especially since it affords us a more complete view of what is being done in the New World, where, at the present time, a mighty advance of organized work is proceeding in the domain of natural science and mathematics. There is no doubt that Europe is thus losing a certain part of its preeminence; the world of scientific organization is being transported to the New World.... [In order for Europe to recover from the economic sufferings of the war] it is necessary to increase the productivity of labor, to strengthen man's powers in struggling with nature, and this can be achieved only through the development of the technique of science.

As a result of Vernadsky's organizing efforts, the Commission for the Study of Natural Productive Forces (KEPS) was founded in 1915, for the purpose of mapping out the country's strategic raw materials resources for use in the war effort. KEPS continued to play an important role well into the Soviet period. By that time, Vernadsky's views on the subject were so generally accepted, that British Fabian Julian Huxley marveled, following a trip to the Soviet Union in 1931, that the Soviet government's annual appropriation for its geological survey exceeded that of all the rest of Europe put together.

Vernadsky was never a Communist, and in Western studies of the period, much is made of his alleged hatred of the Bolshevik government. This is a lie. Vernadsky bitterly opposed the harsher features of Soviet policy toward the "bourgeois intelligentsia" during the turbulent late 1920s and after, but it remains a fact that he cast his lot with the Soviet state. He believed that it was a social order under which his policies could be implemented, and he stayed in the Soviet Union.

Vernadsky praised the Gosplan (Soviet state economic planning agency) and the U.S.S.R.'s planning of scientific research, as a step toward the eventual creation of a "scientific brain center" for rational planning of worldwide social and economic development. Concerning the government's attitude toward nuclear research, he told the First All-Union Conference on Radioactivity at the Leningrad Radium Institute in 1932 that "the authorities in our country fully recognize the significance of this work, and I strongly believe that because of this, a mighty Radium Research Institute will finally be created in our country...."

The Nuclear Program

The Soviet nuclear energy program achieved the first cyclotron in Europe (1937), the first atomic reactor in Europe (1946), the first hydrogen bomb in the world (1953), and the first industrial atomic power station in the world (1954). The magnitude of these accomplishments is thrown into sharp focus by the fact that in 1918, there were only 40 physicists left in the country, due to emigration and death in the frightful famines and epidemics of the Civil War period. Vernadsky, writing years afterward, explained that the State Radium Institute which he founded in 1932 was staffed largely by geologists rather than physicists, partly due to the death by starvation of so many leading physicists during the war. According to some estimates, industrial output in 1921 had plummeted to 20 percent of its pre-World War I level. Lenin's New Economic Policy brought temporary alleviation of the economic crisis, but the critical political and technological weakness of the agricultural sector asserted itself with a vengeance in the second half of the 1930s, until Stalin's decision to implement a draconian program of collectivization and industrialization.

Under these dire circumstances, the question of what funds to allocate for scientific research was not easily answered. Never until after World War II did the Soviet nuclear program receive the kinds of funds its directors wanted. Nevertheless, the Stalinist industrializers in particular perceived that scientific and technological progress was the only only long-term solution to the country's problems, and so allocations were, by Julian Huxley's standards, "tremendous." In 1930, A.F. Ioffe, the distinguished director of the Leningrad Physico-Technical Institute, decided that the nuclear program had to be rapidly escalated from the meager levels of the 1920s. Fearing that it would be impossible to get funding in mid-year, he bypassed the normal channels and went straight to G.K. Ordzhonikidze, chairman of the Supreme Council of the National Economy and typical of the breed of "pro-American" Stalinist, who gave him everything he asked for in ten minutes flat.

During the 1920s and 1930s, before nuclear research became a matter of national security, there was a large degree of collaboration among an international network of scientists, which made the great breakthroughs of that period possible. Soviet scientists both contributed to and benefitted from that international exchange. Vernadsky worked with the Curies in Paris during 1923-24, and traveled extensively in Europe before World War II. Pyotr Kapitsa worked at Lord Rutherford's lab in England, and L.D. Landau collaborated with German physicists. Pierre and Marie Curie's son-in-law Frederic Joliot-Curie, a member of the French Communist Party who later developed France's nuclear energy program under President Charles de Gaulle, was one of many Western scientists who corresponded with and visited the Soviet researchers. Physicist I.V. Kurchatov, who directed the Soviet program until his death in 1960, enthusiastically told colleagues at the Leningrad Physico-Technical Institute in 1934, who were advising him to stick with engineering physics, since nuclear physics would never lead to anything, to remember

... how enthusiastically we tackled the atomic nucleus after Frederic Joliot's letter to Abram Fyodorovich [Ioffe] about the puzzling data from experiments with beryllium radiation and after what Chadwick wrote about discovering the neutron? ... The Curies are at the "pearly gates." To get to know the atomic nucleus—the basis of matter—there's the problem! How useful it was to discuss with Frederic Joliot his remarkable experiments and our first steps! … The Radium Institute is preparing neutron sources.... We have all the essentials.... If we turn up anything we don't understand, then we'll call in the theorists—Frenkel, Tamm, Landau....

With the exciting discoveries of the late 1930s, the Soviet program, like that in other countries, quickened its tempo. Following the achievement of nuclear fission in Germany in 1938, it became possible for the first time to talk about a nuclear chain reaction—without which nuclear energy could not be utilized by man. A chain reaction could presumably be achieved, provided that several neutrons were released during the fission process. Joliot's group in France, an American group, and Kurchatov's lab in the U.S.S.R. all determined that the number released would indeed be sufficient. The Soviet Academy of Sciences established a Commission on Isotopes in 1939, with Vernadsky as its director, and Vernadsky himself began an intensive study of uranium. "I think this is a colossal step in the creation of the noösphere," he wrote to a collaborator.

In 1940 Kurchatov drew up the first comprehensive plan for uranium research, and a Special Committee for the Problem of Uranium was constituted by the Academy of Sciences, to revamp every aspect of the nuclear program for a more massive effort to coordinate the Academy's research. The 14-man Committee was headed by Vernadsky's student V.G. Khlopin; it included Vernadsky, his students A.E. Fersman and A.P. Vinogradov, the physicists Ioffe, Kapitsa, Kurchatov, and others.

Suddenly, to the surprise of the Soviet group, the West imposed total secrecy over its own fission research. But the Soviets, evidently believing that nothing was to be gained from censorship of this type, continued to publish their own results in both the popular and technical press until well into the war—1943—leading Arnold Kramish of the Rand Corporation to complain that they seemed "almost deliberately derisive" of the security precautions of Germany and the Western allies! In fact, an Izvestia editorial on New Year's Eve, 1940, tells a great deal about the fundamentally humanist motivation for the Soviets' policy. Titled "Uranium 235," it said:

Physics stands at the threshold of discoveries of boundless significance. We are confronted not only with the fact that mankind will acquire a new source of energy surpassing by a million times everything that has been hitherto known. Nor is our perspective merely that we shall have a "fuel" which will substitute for our depleting supplies of coal and oil and thus secure industry from a coal famine. The central fact is that human power is entering a new era....
Man will be able to acquire any quantity of energy he pleases and apply it to any end he chooses.

Vernadsky would have called in the noösphere.

World War II and After

Hitler's attack on the Soviet Union on June 22, 1941 threw the U.S.S.R. into terrible disarray, and the nuclear program was temporarily abandoned. Soviet armies were routed, and by November 1941 the Germans occupied the country's industrial heartland. Industrial output fell by more than half. Under these circumstances, there was nothing for the scientists to do but salvage and store what equipment they could, and apply their skills elsewhere until it was possible to resume work.

In spring of 1942, Ioffe, Vernadsky, Khlopin, and Kapitsa were summoned to Moscow for consultation on how nuclear research could be started up again—to make a bomb. The Battle of Stalingrad in 1942-43 turned the tide of the war, and Kurchatov returned to Moscow and began, with a small staff, to pick up the pieces. The United States delivered a small quantity of uranium oxide and uranyl nitrate salts in January 1943 at Soviet request, and over the opposition of Great Britain. This provided the basis for a relatively small-scale Soviet research program.

After the U.S. bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the Soviets undertook their own crash "Manhattan Project," and in 1949 they exploded their first atomic bomb.

The complex dynamics of postwar international moves toward, and away from, cooperation for peaceful development of nuclear energy will be a subject for future research. From the Soviet side, it began when Kurchatov, soon after the detonation of the U.S.S.R.'s first atomic bomb in 1949, turned his attention increasingly to the challenge of controlled thermonuclear reactions (CTR)—fusion power. Informed of some important conceptual advances by his colleagues I.E. Tamm and A.D. Sakharov in the design of a Magnetic Thermonuclear Reactor, Kurchatov, with his characteristic dynamism, set about to organize a fusion program. "It's time the experiments took over. A big effort will be needed. A huge operation will have to be initiated," he told his staff. A lab was soon set up under L. Artsimovich.

Convinced of the need to reinstitute the type of scientific cooperation that had existed before the war, and encouraged by President Eisenhower's "Atoms for Peace" proposals, Kurchatov persuaded the Soviet government to, in the words of his Soviet biographer, "call on scientists of the world to lift the veil of secrecy from thermonuclear research." Kurchatov proposed this in broad terms in a speech to the 20th Congress of the Soviet Communist Party in February 1956:

Controlled thermonuclear reactions should make it possible to obtain energy not from the energy concentrated in the atomic nuclei of the rare elements uranium and thorium, but through the formation of helium from a substance widely found in nature—hydrogen.
Solution of this most difficult and majestic task would free mankind forever from concern about the earth's energy resources essential to its existence.
We Soviet scientists would like to work on this scientific problem, which is of vital importance for mankind, side by side with scientists from all countries of the world, including American scientists, whose scientific and technical achievements we value highly.

Two months later, Kurchatov dropped a real bombshell: accompanying General Secretary N.S. Khrushchov and Prime Minister Nikolai Bulganin on their visit to England, he made a speech at the Harwell nuclear research laboratory declassifying Soviet fusion research virtually in toto, and calling upon other countries to do the same. (The United States did so only two years later.) Basov, Velikhov, and Rudakov have taken up where Kurchatov left off; the ball is now in the U.S. court.

[1] During 1976-1977, the Soviet fusion research program made some important advances, and its leaders travelled to the United States and other companies to make their discoveries known, to seek international cooperation for a breakthrough to fusion power for energy production, and to thereby consolidate domestic support and funding for the program. The Carter Administration was not interested; in the name of "conserving energy," deindustrialization, and deregulation, it rejected an approach that would provide virtually unlimited supplies of clean energy for the world. It even classified some of the Soviet briefings (one asks: Classified from whom?). A few highlights:

  • July 1976, physicist Dr. L.I. Rudakov of the Kurchatov Institute, an expert in electron-beam fusion, toured research labs in the United States, giving briefings at the Gordon Plasma Physics Seminar, Sandia Lab in New Mexico, Naval Research Lab in Washington, D.C. He gave details about how his lab had achieved controlled thermonuclear fusion energy via electron beam-induced fusion, for the first time anywhere in the world. Rudakov's target design was not only unique in its utilization of soft x-rays for driving the implosion of the fusion fuel to high densities, but it was also extremely stable during the implosion, making the design many times more effective in terms of achieving higher fusion energy gains. Citing Soviet advances, he proposed to close the "fusion gap" between the U.S.S.R. and the U.S., by combining U.S. technology with Soviet science. He suggested that key components for his reactor prototype be built in the United States. For example, his system needed 48 electron-beam guns, which could be constructed on an industrial production-line basis. He had repeatedly asked U.S. aerospace firms to sell this equipment to the U.S.S.R. The firms were willing, but the State Department had blocked it.

Rudakov's discoveries, while representing a major step forward in the inertial confienemnt mode of fusion energy production, also had direct military applications. In February 1977, U.S. strategic arms negotiators were reported to have told their Soviet counterparts that further public revelations and discussion of Soviet qualitative basic research breakthroughs of immediate significance for strategic weapons applications would severely jeopardize the early signing of a SALT II agreement. The U.S. insisted that SALT III must outlaw weapons systems based on qualitatively new principles.

  • Soviet scientists made available to their U.S. colleagues a lengthy research report, in a breach of normal "classification" procedures. The U.S. Energy Research and Development Administration (ERDA) published a translation under the title, "Results of Research in Controlled Thermonuclear Fusion Performed in the Soviet Union from May 1976 to April 1977."
  • The Joint U.S.-U.S.S.R. Fusion Power Coordinating Committee met in Princeton, N.J., in the summer of 1977. Academician E. Velikhov, the head of the Soviet fusion program, presented an offer for U.S.-Soviet collaboration in the "magnetic liner" experiment, based on new Soviet breakthroughs, to be performed with scientists from Los Alamos National Laboratory. If implemented, the project was expected to take years off even the most optimistic timetables for fusion-generated power. Velikhov, apparently recognizing the political importance of a breakeven fusion experiment in light of the Carter Administration's cutbacks in fusion research, short-circuited the normal channels for initiating such proposals and went directly to the head of the U.S. magnetic fusion research effort, Dr. Edwin Kintner, and the head of the Los Alamos Laboratory.
  • Two thousand scientists from around the world attended the American Physical Society's Plasma Physics Division meeting in Atlanta, Georgia in November 1977. Almost every approach to fusion power was making significant progress. Controversy raged over Rudakov's claims for high-gain pellet designs for initial fusion.
  • Academician Nikolai G. Basov, director of the P.N. Lebedev Institute in Moscow, the Soviet Union's leading laser scientist, and a Nobel laureate, made an unexpected appearance at the International Scientific Forum on an Acceptable Nuclear Energy Future of the World, sponsored by University of Miami Center for Theoretical Studies in Ft. Lauderdale, Fla., Nov. 7-11, 1977. The conference released a statement concluding that plutonium recycling and fast fission breeder reactors were essential to the future of the U.S. and the world. Basov told the group: "We consider the task of this talk [both laser fusion and the energy question] solved, if the participants in the present meeting could see not only our results and conclusions ... but at the same time the vital necessity to concentrate the efforts of scientists and to coordinate the investigations in this field on a larger scale than we have now." He detailed the recent experimental results of his research teams, and released laser fusion reactor designs prepared by the Moscow Institute for High Temperatures.
  • On Dec. 16, 1977, Basov addressed a session of the U.S.S.R. Supreme Soviet, reporting, among other things, that "the U.S.S.R. holds the leading position in research on controlled thermonuclear fusion (CTR)." The government newspaper Izvestia omitted the reference to fusion power in its summary of his remarks, suggesting that the Soviet leadership was by no means united behind the policies. The national economic plan for 1978, announced to the Supreme Soviet by Gosplan chief Nikolai Baibakov, had been a gloomy presentation of growth targets well below those originally charted for 1976-1980. He made it clear that 10th Five Year Plan targets were not being met in a number of important branches of agriculture and industry.

This footnote is drawn from articles in Executive Intelligence Review and New Solidarity, including by Charles B. Stevens and Uwe Parpart.

[2] Report to a meeting of the Moscow Organization of the RCP (B), May 9, 1925.

© 2009 Susan Welsh, All Rights Reserved.