Mr. Minderhoud is a teacher in Covenant Christian High School and a member of Hope Protestant Reformed Church, Walker, Michigan.
The Italian navigator has landed in the new world.” So went the coded message communicating that Italian- American physicist Enrico Fermi had, on that second day of December, 1942, set off the first self-sustaining nuclear chain reaction, in a squash court of Stagg Field at the University of Chicago. This important discovery quickly led to the assembling of a half a million people and two billion dollars in resources in New Mexico, known as the Manhattan Project. The goal of this project was to press the power of the self-sustaining nuclear chain reaction into the formation of a massively destructive nuclear bomb.
Many discoveries in the early part of the twentieth century, especially the studies of the inner aspects of the atom, contributed to the knowledge that there is a tremendous amount of energy binding the tiniest particles of matter together. Studies, like the one in the squash court of Stagg Field, revealed that internal energy in the atom could be released in the form of heat. Collectively, the energy stored in the inner parts of the atom can be referred to as nuclear energy. The world has since then stood in awe at the power in the atom as it has been displayed in nuclear bombs, and then later, in the modern nuclear power plants. We too stand in awe of this power. But we stand in awe, not in extolling the accomplishments of mankind apart from God, but because we can see a tiny glimpse of the majestic power of God. God is omnipotent—all powerful. Jehovah is excellent in power. We know this because the Word tells us so. But we know this too because we can observe His power in the creation around us. When we consider Jehovah’s power, we bow in humility before Him. We recognize we are but nothing compared to and apart from God. Let us be reminded of that again, and do so by a brief examination of the power of God as it is displayed within the nucleus of an atom.
The atom is an extremely tiny part of the creation. Consider the “o” on this page of type. If one were to line up a long row of uranium atoms from one side of the “o” to the other side, one would need to place a staggering 6.5 million uranium atoms next to each other. And understand too, that the nucleus of the uranium atom is much smaller than the atom itself. Generally speaking, it is 10,000 times smaller. And it is this miniscule part of creation that is responsible for the tremendous amount of energy released in the nuclear bomb or in the nuclear power plants. This is nuclear power, and it is generated by breaking a tiny nucleus into even smaller pieces.
The nucleus of an atom consists of particles called protons and neutrons. The protons have a positive electrical charge and would naturally repel each other (the electrostatic force) except for a unique force—the “strong nuclear force,” which man is only beginning to understand—that powerfully holds protons together only when they are in very close proximity to each other. The farther apart the protons, the less the nuclear force, and the protons repel each other all the more, resulting in an “unstable” nucleus. The larger the nucleus, the more unstable it will be, due to the larger number of protons and neutrons within the nucleus. This is the case because the protons are not held together as efficiently by the “strong nuclear force” when they are pushed farther apart because of the presence of so many neutrons. For example, an iron atom may contain 26 protons and 29 neutrons—a relatively small number of each, thus a “stable” nucleus. On the other hand, uranium atoms may contain 92 protons and 143 neutrons—so many particles that the electrostatic force between same-charged protons is greater than the attractive “strong nuclear force”—creating an unstable nucleus. The greater the number of protons or neutrons, the more unstable the atom.
In the providence of God, an unstable nucleus “naturally” becomes stable by the process of radioactive decay. Radioactive elements—those whose nuclei are unstable—may become stable by emitting some form of radiation. Radiation can be in the form of highly energetic particles of matter (alpha or beta particles, for example) or high frequency forms of electromagnetic radiation (light), such as x-rays or gamma rays. For example, radon gas (naturally found in the soil—often detected in one’s basement) is a naturally radioactive element that may become more stable by emitting an alpha particle, a group of two protons and two neutrons, and change into a more stable element. There are a number of naturally occurring radioactive elements in the creation that become more stable by emitting some form of radiation. Examples of radioactive elements would include uranium, radon, and forms of potassium, cobalt, and carbon.
An unstable nucleus can also become stable by a method called artificial transmutation. In this case an unstable nucleus is bombarded by a fast moving neutron, which makes the nucleus all the more unstable, resulting in the splitting of the nucleus into two smaller, more stable nuclei. The splitting of the nucleus is accompanied by a release of radiation, loose stray neutrons, and tremendous energy. In the wisdom of God and under His governing hand, only a few radioactive elements readily undergo this process, called fission. Thus, we need not fear that a particular lump of radioactive material is going to undergo fission spontaneously, releasing energy equivalent to tons of TNT. This does not happen without artificial means.
Nuclear bombs and nuclear power plants derive their power from these unstable nuclei by using the method of artificial transmutation. Consider a lump of uranium atoms. Imagine that this lump is composed primarily of the uranium atoms that contain 92 protons and 143 neutrons (uranium-235)—the type of uranium that can more easily undergo fission. If this lump were to be subjected to an explosion that contained fast moving neutrons, a neutron would hit a uranium atom and initiate fission. As the uranium atom splits into two smaller, more stable nuclei, it releases many more neutrons, which in turn hit other uranium nuclei, initiating more fission reactions. If the correct amount of uranium atoms are present, a “sustained nuclear chain reaction” can be obtained—a chain reaction similar to the one obtained in the famous squash court of the University of Chicago in 1942. Providing conditions where the unstable nuclei continue to split in a continuous chain reaction is the key to nuclear power.
In the process of becoming stable, some of the mass of the nucleus is destroyed and converted into energy. One hundred years ago Albert Einstein, directed by the hand of God, uncovered the reality that the mass of a substance can be changed into tremendous amounts of energy, governed by the relationship expressed in the formula E=mc2. “If an atom were the size of a room, its nucleus would be no larger than a grain of sand. Yet this tiny speck of matter is held together by forces so powerful that when an unstable nucleus like that of uranium 235 is split … the energy unleashed from a few pounds of that metal is equivalent to the explosion of thousands of tons of TNT.”¹ When a single atom of uranium splits, energy is released. The amount of energy appears to be inconsequential.² Even the amount of energy released when the 6.5 million uranium atoms that are lined up in the letter “o” are all split within a very short time of each other doesn’t produce enough heat to be easily measured.³ However, a nuclear-powered submarine operating on one pound of pure uranium-235 carries enough atoms of uranium to produce as much heat as is generated by almost three million gallons of gasoline.4 What a mind-boggling amount of energy released by a relatively small amount of material! Nuclear bombs and nuclear power plants capitalize on the transformation of tiny amounts of mass into energy during fission by obtaining an enormous number of these unstable atoms in one lump of critical mass. A few pounds of pure unstable uranium contain enough atoms to provide the destructive power of a nuclear bomb.
A description of the nuclear blast tested in the New Mexico desert by scientist George Kistiakowsky brings to life the amazing power present in a few pounds of unstable nuclei. Describing the explosion he witnessed in the pre-dawn hour of July 16, 1945, he wrote:
All of a sudden the entire desert for miles and miles, and the mountains, about ten miles away, were lighted with an intensity the like of which one had never seen before. I was partially blinded…. When my sight returned, the whole atmosphere was showering with a violet light…. At that time we didn’t know what was happening…. And then a long time afterward, about a minute or so, the blast wave finally traveled the six or seven miles and hit me … throwing me to the ground.
That power was displayed a number of times in test explosions and in the two bombs dropped on Japan in early August 1945. Today this same power is harnessed in a “controlled” nuclear chain reaction in nuclear power plants. Rather than allowing all the neutrons that are produced when a uranium atom splits to collide with the other neighboring uranium atoms in the lump, only a few neutrons are permitted to collide. This limits the amount of energy released at any one time—keeping the reaction under control. Today there are 440 commercial nuclear power reactors in 31 different countries in the world, producing approximately 16% of the world’s electricity. Some countries obtain ¾ of their power from nuclear power, while the United States receives only about one fifth of its energy from nuclear sources.6 The development and use of nuclear power has grown in the past sixty years and shows promise of continued growth.
The Power of God
“Touching the Almighty, we cannot find him out: he is excellent in power” (Job 37:23). Sixty years ago man witnessed a most amazing and unique display of a portion of God’s power. In those days, and much more so today, man glories in the accomplishments of mankind and in what is yet to come. Man has always sought to achieve greatness for himself and apart from God. But God says in Isaiah 42:8, “I am the LORD; that is my name: and my glory will I not give to another.” God is the sovereign, omnipotent Creator and Ruler of all. “To whom then will ye liken me, or shall I be equal? saith the Holy One” (Is. 40:25). Man himself is nothing but a tool in the hand of Almighty God. But God is great. He has all power.
We truly marvel at the amazing power of God. Certainly that power has been displayed in recent months in the so-called natural disasters of hurricanes, tsunamis, and earthquakes. But the nucleus of an atom is also an example of the power of God. It is a part of the creation we often overlook because we do not see physical evidence of that power in our day-to-day lives. However, the many nuclear weapons in the weapon storehouses of many nations ought to be a vivid reminder to us that the atom contains much power. And in these days the move towards alternative energy sources is growing—including a march toward nuclear power. Surely, whenever we hear or read of these things we ought to marvel at this unique energy source, but above all, may we bow in humility before Jehovah who has created each atom and gives it its power—a mere glimpse of the unlimited power of God.
We are humbled by this even more when we consider the vastness of the creation. Consider the millions of atoms of uranium that string across the letter “o.” Never mind the trillions and trillions of atoms that make up each tiny creature on earth. And yes, Earth is inhabited by trillions of such tiny creatures. And forget not that Earth is but a speck of dust in the heavens among all the other planets, stars, and heavenly luminaries. Think of all the energy stored in the nuclei of all those atoms in the creation. What power! Our God created all of this. He did so by the word of His power. And each day, every atom in existence is directed and governed to move according to the sovereign, almighty, everywhere-present word of God’s power. This is true power and greatness. This is our God! And so we thank God for His creation, which leads us to contemplate His power (Belgic Confession, Art. 2). We must learn to use the creation to that end—that we marvel at God’s works and praise Him as Almighty God.
It is no small thing that we begin our worship services with the confession that “Our help is in the name of the LORD, who made heaven and earth” (Ps. 124:8). These are words of unspeakable comfort to weak and weary souls burdened with sin and its suffering. Our help is in the Almighty Creator. There is none greater. As we contemplate the marvelous power of God in creation, our thoughts inevitably turn to the power of God in the wonder work of salvation. The work of our salvation is far more marvelous than all the power and beauty and intricacies of the atom’s nucleus. What can be more amazing than bringing to life something that is dead? We were dead in our sins and now are alive in Christ. We have been forgiven our sins because of the Word who became incarnate and dwelt among us and died for our sins and rose again. This is power! This is greatness! Our God is not some weak beggar wringing his hands wondering how he is ever going to save those who keep defying him at every turn. Our God saves us and sanctifies us, beginning to end. He is the powerful God who redeemed us and delivered us from the power of sin and of death. He is Jehovah—who preserves us throughout all the trials of life. Fear not, for the Sovereign, Omnipotent One has redeemed us. “Fear not, thou worm Jacob, and ye men of Israel; I will help thee, saith the LORD, and thy redeemer, the Holy One of Israel” (Is. 41:14). He has called us by name. He has said, “Thou art mine” (Is. 43:1). We belong to Jehovah. We are safe in His Almighty arms (Deut. 33:27). He faithfully and powerfully works all things for our good, being both willing and able. What a wonder that we mere creatures may dwell in perfect fellowship forever with the Almighty God. Bow before His presence with humility and awe and give thanks! Bow before Jehovah who is excellent in power!
¹ Wilson, Mitchell. Energy. Time Incorporated: New York, 1963, p. 149.
² The inconsequential energy released when one uranium-235 atom splits is approximately 200 Mev (million electron volts) or 3 X 10-11 Joules or 3 X 10-14 BTU. For more calculations see:http://www.science.uwaterloo.ca/~cchieh/cact/nuctek/fissionenergy.html
³ The heat released from these 6.5 million uranium atoms would be 2 X 10-7 BTU.
4. One pound of pure uranium-235 would produce about 3.5 X 1010 BTU. Note: 1 gallon of gasoline produces 124,000 BTU of energy. For more details, see: (http://www.eia.doe.gov/kids/energyfacts/science/energy_calculator.html)
5. Giovannitti, Len and Fred Freed. The Decision to Drop the Bomb. Coward-McCann, Inc.: New York, 1965, pp. 196-7.
6. For more facts about countries with nuclear reactors, see:http://www.uic.com.au/nip07.htm