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EDITORIAL
from issue no. 10/11 - 2009

Atomic power for peaceful purposes and social progress


Not that there was any particular aversion towards us, but then, maybe more than today, there was the anxiety that the development of techniques related to nuclear power might become an uncontrolled process, or might lead to non-peaceful use of those same techniques


Giulio Andreotti


Giulio Andreotti, Minister of Industry and Commerce, with the Soviet vice prime minister Leonid Smirnov 
(first on the left) and the Russian astronaut Gherman Titov (first on the right) in Rome, 27 March 1968, on the occasion of the Electronics Show [© Associated Press/LaPresse]

Giulio Andreotti, Minister of Industry and Commerce, with the Soviet vice prime minister Leonid Smirnov (first on the left) and the Russian astronaut Gherman Titov (first on the right) in Rome, 27 March 1968, on the occasion of the Electronics Show [© Associated Press/LaPresse]

Some years ago the general public and politicians in particular seemed to have no awareness of the practical significance of scientific research for Italy. There was respect, yes – the sort of respect for things that give a tone, in which one sees intrinsic dignity – but it was hardly credited with the practical importance that, for historical reasons, it had long held in other countries.
We have made progress along that road, but I always thought that if our politicians would go one step further and devote some time to investigating the matter, without taking over from the engineers, no doubt the cause of development of our country, even in the concrete needs of society, would benefit from it.
I already had this awareness when I became Minister of Industry in 1966. I held the post after holding that of Minister of Defense for seven years. I was informed of my replacement at Defense by a telegram from Aldo Moro, precisely when I was in Washington at a meeting with McNamara on nuclear planning. Back in Rome, Moro begged me to remain in government, offering me Industry or Education. I chose the economy ministry where, among other things, the Committee for Nuclear Energy needed to be reorganized, shaken by the unjustified persecution of its director, Professor Felice Ippolito.
In handing over to me, my predecessor, Senator Lami Starnuti, candidly told me that though the Minister of Industry was president of the Committee, he had never wanted to set foot there. I, however, convinced of the importance of the energy sector, went there every week to try to get rid of the block put on all programs, something that had virtually paralyzed the institution.
I tried to give full backing to the scientists because they were somewhat depressed at being considered by many a set of dreamers and their research a luxury that we could not afford. It’s true that, in general, they inspired a certain respect, using a very specific language, which at times, made me, coming from a literary tradition, feel on the margin. But I sensed that here was the secret for advancing – or, by neglecting, blocking – progress in Italy. I remember that in March 1966, in a speech to the National Institute of Nuclear Physics, where with Professor Salvini we took in hand the legal, financial and administrative organization of the Institute, I asked myself: “If it weren’t for the Institute, where would our country be in this field today? We could not have been able to keep up with the pace at which we should move ahead, not only to deal with emerging scientific needs, but above all with the extremely practical needs essential to the life of our country”. Although not an expert, I recognized, in fact, that in certain moments and in certain areas the scientific community had achieved a leading position for Italy, which as a whole has never had a level of research comparable to other world powers.
It was not the first time I was involved with nuclear energy. Indeed, as president of the Committee, I came across an issue that I had already worked for at the Ministry of Defense: the plan for a nuclear-powered ship. Originally a submarine had been thought of, then it was seen that the civilian use of nuclear power was much more acceptable and feasible, and we had in fact signed an agreement between the two ministries, and now I was dealing with the other side. But there were two stumbling-blocks to the initiative. The first was the laborious negotiations with the Americans to get the necessary quantity of uranium. On the level of courtesy they were quite willing, but, a little disturbed by their delaying tactics, I went to talk with the influential senator John Pastore, who oversaw nuclear issues for the United States. His answer, without any diplomatic mincing of words was: “Just forget it”. Not that there was any particular aversion towards us, but then, maybe more than today, there was the anxiety that the development of techniques related to nuclear power might become an uncontrolled process, or might lead to non-peaceful use of those same techniques. At that point we went for the alternative offered to us by the French Government, but the long interval was fatal to the project. Years later, when the Suez Canal crisis created psychosis about the scarcity and high price of oil, it would have been easy to accuse those who had sunk the project of shortsightedness, but almost always progress has gone through these early stages of distrust and fear. And the scandal that erupted in the ’sixties concerning Professor Ippolito was undoubtedly an example of this eternal fear: anxiety about such overwhelming potentiality was widespread and Ippolito, one of the initiators of the Italian nuclear industry, became a symbol of the new road that was to be taken.
Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev in Geneva 19 November 1985 [© Associated Press/LaPresse]

Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev in Geneva 19 November 1985 [© Associated Press/LaPresse]

Nobody then had absolute certainties and there were some developments of which the purpose and even the genesis was not clear to see. Hence a certain divergence in views was permissible. In addition Italy is a country where there is much talk of novelty and even of revolution, but where it is difficult in negotiating and especially in deciding on anything in the absence of his majesty the “precedent”. But those who had political responsibility should not have come to a halt for fear of a wrongful use of those technologies. The issue interested and worried everyone. Among my papers, for example, I have found a note that I made for myself at the time on the various opinions that existed in ecclesiastical circles: among the Montiniani, those close to Paul VI, there were very critical views of the President of Italy Giuseppe Saragat, one of Ippolito’s fiercest accusers, while in the circles thought to be close to Siri, the Cardinal of Genoa, Saragat’s statements against the former director of the Committee were enlightening. I mention this because obviously there was no economic or commercial interest behind the Vatican’s concern with the problems associated with the development of nuclear energy in Italy, but because even in the religious field, apart from on the purely theological issues, only time can tell which of two legitimate conflicting judgments is right.
But from people such as Ippolito and Antonino Zichichi, very competent experts in their sphere but also endowed with the capacity to communicate with those, like myself, who were not in the field, I got to learn how science could be an active tool for building a better world without the worries that troubled the childhood and adolescence of many of us. In 1986, for example, I was pleased to see the introduction into the UN agenda in Geneva of an East-West joint research project on nuclear fusion. I had spoken on the matter in August at the Erice Conference with the scientific advisor to the US government Edward Teller in the context of the vast movement for “Science without secrets and without frontiers” in which I was involved together with Professor Antonino Zichichi and which led to the creation of the World Lab, an excellent tool for peace. It was no accident that we set up the World Lab in Geneva, the former headquarters of the League of Nations, home to the great CERN research center and, in 1985, the location of the historically significant encounter between Reagan and Gorbachev.


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