Remarks at the Presentation Ceremony for the Enrico Fermi Awards at the Department of Energy
The President. Secretary Hodel, Dr. Anderson, Dr. Neddermeyer, Dr. Trivelpiece, and ladies and gentlemen:
You know, from long years out on the mashed-potato circuit, you always tried to think of some reason that you could sort of express at the beginning of your remarks as to why you were qualified or what you had in common with the occasion that could bring you there. And the only thing that I could think of for this morning goes back some years to when I was doing a television show called "The General Electric Theater." [Laughter]
And I remember that I was up at that great installation in the State of Washington where so much was being done with nuclear power. And in one particular building where they were showing me through, why, we put on felt boots and we put on some gowns and then we went through. But then we had to peel all of this off. And there was a slot machine there in which you put your hands and your feet— [laughter] —and there were four dials that started ticking away as to the amount of radioactivity that you might have acquired in your extremities. And mine all—on three of them, stopped. But on my left hand, that dial kept on ticking, and it was getting up there toward where the numbers were red. And I was getting a little concerned. And the manager of the plant looked over my shoulder, and he says, "Oh, your left hand." He says, "That always happens." He said, "That's the radium dial on your wristwatch." [Laughter] I was very relieved.
I was 200 miles away from there when I realized—I don't have a radium dial. [Laughter] Every once in a while, I still put my head under the covers and look to see if my hand's lighting up. [Laughter]
But on December 2d, 1942, James Conant, the Science Adviser to the President of the United States, received a coded message during a phone call from Arthur Holly Compton, "The Italian navigator has landed in the New World," Compton said. Conant inquired, "How were the natives?" And Compton answered, "Very friendly."
Well, ladies and gentlemen, that coded message signaled to President Roosevelt that the first demonstration of a sustained nuclear reaction had taken place. The Italian navigator referred to was Enrico Fermi. And on that day, the whole of mankind landed in a new world.
The two individuals that we honor today played significant roles in the early exploration of the atom. I understand Dr. Anderson was present in Chicago at the time of the first sustained reaction. Dr. Neddermeyer was also involved, conducting his research in another part of the country.
Wartime necessity focused that early research on the production of a weapon—a weapon that, once brought to bear on the enemy, effectively ended the conflict that then engulfed the world. This development 40 years ago forever changed the world and our perceptions of the consequences of conflict, which is why 40 years later, we continue to search for surer ways to control and reduce nuclear weapons and, eventually, better ways to defend against them.
While we might speculate on what the world would be like had nuclear weapons never been developed, we can't wish them away. And that's why I have challenged America's scientists and engineers to search for ways by which these weapons systems might eventually be rendered obsolete.
But while we're understandably caught up in our concerns for control of nuclear weapons, we mustn't lose sight of the tremendous peaceful benefits that nuclear science has brought us over the decades. These benefits were also a gift from nuclear explorers like the men we honor today.
Nuclear energy now plays, and will continue to play, an important role in meeting our nation's energy needs. Today, nuclear plants generate more electricity for the American people than oil-fired facilities. I noticed a story in the paper the other day about air pollution in a Colorado mountain resort. Apparently, woodburning fireplaces were used so extensively that this beautiful mountain retreat is developing a smog problem—a reminder that there is a cost to every form of energy.
We do know that the complete fissioning of a single pound of uranium, a single pound, provides two and a half million times more energy than the burning of a pound of fossil fuel. This form of energy has tremendous potential for mankind. And we plan to move forward prudently and systematically to ensure that the people of the United States are able to use it safely and keep warm, provide light, and to serve as a vehicle for a better life.
Energy production, while one of the most significant uses of nuclear power, is certainly not its only peaceful application. More than 40 million Americans each year receive medical treatment using radioactive isotopes and radiation therapy. In industry, the essential task of nondestructive testing is tied to the use of nuclear material, ensuring the quality of welds and the strength of building materials.
The concern over this awesome power is understandable, but we must not let this concern deter us from harnessing it to peacefully serve mankind. In his article, "Fermi's Own Story," Fermi wrote: "Perhaps a time will come when all science and technical progress will be hailed for the advantages that it may bring to man and never feared on account of its destructive possibilities."
Well, the two men we honor today, like Enrico Fermi, are part of that small band of explorers that discovered, in a new world, a world where potential is limited only by our imagination. They represent the best traditions of American science. They're a tribute to our freedom and to our security. We're proud of them. And it is with great pleasure that I will present the awards.
First, there is Dr. Herbert L. Anderson. And Doctor, this citation is signed by Secretary Hodel and myself. It reads:
[At this point, the President read the citation, the text of which follows:]
For his pioneering collaborations with Enrico Fermi in demonstrating the emission of neutrons in fission at Columbia University; for his essential role in constructing the first chain-reacting piles; for his work on production and determination of the properties of tritium and helium-3; for his collaboration with Fermi in detecting the first hadronic resonance at the University of Chicago; and for his continuing contributions to understanding the nature of strong and weak nuclear forces.
This citation comes with a gold medal and a check. And I am proud to present them, Dr. Anderson, to you now.
Dr. Anderson. Thank you, Mr. President. It's an honor for me to receive this award. This award, the Enrico Fermi Award, has a special significance for me. Fermi was my teacher, and he was a friend. And we worked together, almost on a daily basis, for 15 years.
All the developments having to do with the development of nuclear energy, starting in the days at Columbia—when Fermi first arrived in this country—in which we discovered that neutrons were emitted in the fission of uranium, until the day in Chicago when we saw the first nuclear chain reaction go, and then finally in Los Alamos, where we had an opportunity to see how the nuclear energy could be used, also, to end the war, which was pressing on us at that time—all these experiences were a great adventure to me. And I'm terribly pleased to have this occasion to be acknowledged by you, Mr. President.
The President. And then, there is Dr. Seth H. Neddermeyer. Doctor, your citation reads:
[At this point, the President read the citation, the text of which follows:]
For participating in the discovery of the positron; for his share in the discovery of the muon, the first discoverer of the subatomic particles; for his invention of the implosion technique for assembling nuclear materials; and for his ingenuity, foresight, and perseverance in finding solutions for what at first seemed to be unsolvable engineering difficulties.
Now, Dr. Neddermeyer, here's your citation
Dr. Neddermeyer. Thank you, Mr. President.
The President. —your gold medal and your check.
Dr. Neddermeyer. This is totally unexpected. Thank you, Mr. President. Somebody must have made a mistake. [Laughter]
The President. No mistake was made, and certainly neither of you made mistakes- [laughter] —and we're indebted to you.
Well, you know, I am very humbled by this experience. I feel a little bit like the old farm gentleman who was in a bar one day, and two gentlemen with much more knowledge and sophistication than he had were discussing nuclear energy. And finally, aware of his presence and thinking they'd have a little joke, one of them said to the old farmer, "Where would you like to be in the event of a nuclear explosion?" And the old boy said, "Someplace where I could say, 'What was that?'." [Laughter]
But on behalf of all the people of our country, thank you both, and God bless you.
Secretary Hodel. That concludes our ceremony. Thank you very much.
Note: The President spoke at 11:11 a.m. in the Forrestal Building Auditorium following remarks by Dr. Alvin W. Trivelpiece, Director of the Office of Energy Research, and Secretary of Energy Donald P. Hodel.
Ronald Reagan, Remarks at the Presentation Ceremony for the Enrico Fermi Awards at the Department of Energy Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project https://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/node/262788