Technology In the Shadow of Nuclear Fission

Just prior to the arrival of our two guests from the Chernobyl area in June, I was reading Pedro Arrupe’s memoir of the bombing of Hiroshima on August 6th, 1945. Of course, the nuclear disaster at Chernobyl has certain things in common with the devastation of Hiroshima, even though the purposes of the human endeavor manifested in each case are radically different. Both the accidental explosion at the Chernobyl nuclear reactor and the intentional exploding of the first atomic bomb in the skies over Hiroshima were products of the modern technology of nuclear fission, and produced not only immediate damage due to explosion and fire, but also various health problems due to the resulting radiation.

At just about the same time, my sister was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, and was – at that point – waiting a therapy of radiation to battle the tumor. This created in my mind a juxtaposition of three very different manifestations of the human condition flowing out from the development of the inherently destructive technology of nuclear fission: the willful leveraging of its destructive power for violent and malicious ends; the failure of human effort and management to contain its destructive force in well-intentioned applications; and the potential for its destructiveness to be harnessed and directed toward achieving human good, when it can be willfully contained.

It was hard not to be struck by the irony that the technology which was deployed to such brutal ends in 1945, and the mismanagement of which in 1986 had caused such human suffering, could be a key contributor in potentially saving the life of my sister, among so many others, today. It’s a commonplace that technological advancements tend to be developed for military application, and only later leveraged for constructive purposes, but there’s also quite a bit of work that goes on to develop technologies, or at least technological applications, for commercial purposes. Today is a good day to reflect on the too little-noticed fact that we have very little control over how technologies we develop today will be applied and advanced tomorrow. And if the devastating craft of 1945 can manage to be repurposed for beneficent ends, how also can our best and brightest work today be turned against us by an adequately powerful malfeasant will – and ask: Why are we so disinclined to concern ourselves about genies being let out of bottles?