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Marcelo Damy: Atomic opinions

Physicist defends the use of nuclear power stations for generating electricity and criticizes thermal energy

MIGUEL BOYAYANMarcello Damy de Souza Santos could easily be defined as a man of strong opinions. That, in his case, is not to say much. Although he does not look like it, he is also physically strong. At first sight, the hearing device in his right ear and a slight effort to walk deceive the interviewers.

It so happens that, at the age of 88, Damy smokes ten cigarettes a day, personally feeds a few dozen little doves that frequent his garden, often deals with electrical and electronic devices in his house (sometimes, he even invents one), supervises a group of former students for a doctorate educated by him, and provides advisory services for the Nuclear and Energy Research Institute (Ipen), which he helped to create in 1957, then with the name of the Atomic Energy Institute.

Physicist Marcello Damy proves to be even more interesting when he begins to talk. His opinions on any subject show, always, an enormous conviction. Whether to repulse, with irony, environmentalists who are opposed to the use of nuclear energy, or to criticize colleagues who only use the university to their own benefit.

Marcello Damy joined the Polytechnic School at the beginning of the 30’s, and had the good luck to find two European professors who changed his life. The physics and chemistry sections of the then School of Philosophy, in those days, worked at the Poly, which allowed the pupils to accompany the then revolutionary lectures of Italians Gleb Wataghin (a physicist) and Luigi Fantappié (a mathematician), completely different from the ruling habit of preparing lessons based only on very old books. The young Damy did not hesitate to dive headfirst into physics and into the researches led by Wataghin.

From then on, the youngster born in Campinas built up an exuberant curriculum, rarely equaled in Brazil, with real contributions to the knowledge of nuclear physics, and, in some cases, for industry. He retired as an emeritus and full professor at the University of São Paulo, and went to the State University of Campinas and the Pontifical Catholic University of São Paulo, besides universities in The United Kingdom and the United States. His interest for atoms turned him into a specialist on the nuclear question, and an unflagging advocate of electricity generated from enriched uranium. Knowledgeably and slightly ironically, he explains why Brazil must redirect its investments into this sector.

He has a wide range of interests. Music is one of them – and not the least important. With his wife, Lucia, and a few friends, Damy even started a group that played ancient music, preferably baroque, at his home. Lucia at the piano, her husband on the recorder. In the house where they live, it is easy to perceive their taste: there is a harpsichord, a piano and an authentic pianoforte, besides string and wind instruments. The walls are covered with pictures almost all painted by Lucia, some of which won prizes abroad. With rare talent, Damy has managed to bring together a few passions: as he loves music and is a pioneer in experimental physics in Brazil, it did not seem difficult to him to invent an apparatus for tuning instruments. The main excerpts from the interview now follow.

The Minister of Science and Technology, Roberto Amaral, caused polemics for having said that Brazil ought to master all nuclear knowledge, including the atomic bomb. How do you see the possibility of the use of this kind of energy in Brazil?
If we look at the international panorama, we will see that hydroelectric energy, which is the great motive power in Brazil, represents less than 5% of the generation of electricity in the world as a whole. Now, hydroelectric energy does very well when there are favorable conditions and there is regular rainfall. But when Saint Peter quarrels a bit with us, we go into a blackout. Hydroelectric energy is interesting when there is a natural waterfall that can be put to good use and that has a reasonable scheme of work throughout the year. The most common source of energy in the world is thermal energy, from petroleum, coal, gas. It was what Fernando Henrique Cardoso chose for Brazil. The country bought a certain number of these power stations, and up to today they have not come into operation.

Are you referring to gas?
Yes. Then you have to import gas from Bolivia. The gas pipeline goes from Brazil to Bolivia, to take away their gas – which is something absurd, even from the strategic point of view, an enormous gas transmission line, made of tubes. Anything can cause an accident, and then all the power stations stop. You cannot have an industry relying on variables that are so easy to be hit. And it is expensive, it depends on foreign policy, it’s a complicated problem. Whereas atomic energy is not. Brazil is the fifth largest holder of uranium reserves in the world. It is the fifth, because we have explored only a very small region. We needed to develop the technology for using uranium in reactors to generate electromotive power.

This is a problem that has been completely resolved in Brazil. We developed the technology for building a nuclear reactor and we did this with our uranium. Afterwards, all the technology for producing uranium and enriched uranium, which is used in bombs, was developed. This was done with collaboration between Ipen, the Navy and Rio de Janeiro. The discovery of the technology for enrichment took place back in the 70’s. Attempts had been made before based on classical methods. They used a centrifuge to separate the heavier uranium, because the particles of lighter uranium acquire less speed in a centrifuge, so then they thought that with a centrifuge you could separate the uranium easily. But it is difficult to separate it. Then this technique for separation was studied here and developed all over the world. We have this technique of centrifuging, which works very well, the reactors are kept going with Brazilian uranium, enriched here, processed and transformed into fuel here in Brazil.

If all these questions have been resolved, why do we have problems with regard to the question of nuclear energy?
The Angra power stations were purchased by Admiral Álvaro Alberto at a time when Brazil had not mastered the enrichment of uranium, that is to say, the separation of uranium 235 from 238. It was it those days, in the 70’s, that the Brazil-Germany agreement was done. It so happens that we would always remain dependent on imports, and, in the case of war, these imports are impossible to be carried out, because the fuel used for the production of energy can be refined a bit more and used to make an atomic bomb. Studies carried out here led to the method of separation of uranium that is the perfectly equivalent of the methods for separation used in the United States, in Germany, and in the former Soviet Union. As a consequence, Brazil became independent in fuel production. And considering that we are the fifth largest holder of uranium reserves in the world, and we have only examined about 1/30 of the national territory, it is clear that this is a fuel that we ought to use.

Environmentalists always raise doubts as to nuclear power stations.
The problem with the environmentalists is the exploitation of their lack of knowledge of the problem. The first atomic reactors made were, of course, nothing more than controlled atom bombs. There was a potential risk of their exploding. But this doesn’t exist any more. A nuclear power station today offers far less risk than a hydroelectric power station.

But there are the examples of Chernobyl (1986) and Three-Mile Island (1979)…
Chernobyl had a very good reactor, very well designed, which worked extremely well – there are several reactors in Chernobyl. In one of them, the technicians, one weekend, decided to investigate to see if the security conditions were working well. They changed the system a bit, and when they carried out the experiment, what they ought to have expected happened. I mean, they meddled with something they didn’t understand and ended up causing the explosion. But this is the only reactor to have exploded. Well, it exploded not because it was under normal working conditions, but because the technicians tried to put it into an abnormal position to see if the glass would break. They tipped the glass over and saw that it really did break. Three-Mile Island was the same thing. It’s a case of technicians starting to fiddle with the control system.

Couldn’t the same happen with other power stations?
It can happen with several kinds of experiment, even in a drugstore. If a person goes into a drugstore, gets a phial on which it is written that the substance is poisonous and drinks it to test it, he finds out that it really is poison.

Well, the problem there is the extent of the damage that a power station does…..
It’s a problem of discipline and choice of the technicians who are going to operate the reactor. Now, people can always take the precaution of never letting the reactor store more fuel than it needs for its normal working. That is where the possibility of an explosion ends, even if you want it to.

Isn’t the question of nuclear waste a serious environmental issue?
No, it isn’t. You just have to plan a reactor that has minimal waste. Waste disintegrates with time. You just have to bury it well, in a place apart, and it ends up becoming harmless. Even if it takes a few thousands of years to do so. Now, you have to note the following: the argument about the dangerousness of the waste is ridiculous, because the quantity of uranium that is burnt in a year to keep the reactor in Angra working is something that can be put into two buckets, or something like that. You can get an old mine, in a place where there is no infiltration of water, and throw this used uranium down there. As they do in the United States, in Germany, France, Britain, everywhere. In those places, it doesn’t seem dangerous, only here. And only if it is done by us! If it’s done by them, there’s no danger at all.

Angra 2 has been called “the firefly power station”, for very often working and then switching off. Has this kind of problem been resolved?
I haven’t heard any more talk of technical problems with the reactors at Angra. I was against the building of the reactor in Angra, because I thought that instead of Brazil buying two reactors worth their weight in gold from Germany, we ought to build them here. Even though at first we made a smaller reactor to assess the quality of our uranium, to test our technology, and then to set off for bigger things. Instead of this, they did that program for several powerful reactors.

But hasn’t this got to do with the international agreements that Brazil has signed, on arms controls?
No, for the following reason: the international agreement that exist are concerned with the uranium that is imported together with the reactor that is going to use it. For Angra 1 and 2, at the beginning we used to import all the fuel, because Brazil didn’t know how to enrich uranium. Then we discovered how to enrich uranium. And, for Angra 3, we have no need to use anyone’s uranium, we can make it all.

What did you think about the declaration by Minister Roberto Amaral because of his omment “yes, we even ought to know how an atom bomb is made”?
There, I think he was a bit unfortunate. It appears that he did not weigh up well what he was saying, or did not assess the consequences. He ought to have expected this reaction, if he weren’t so imprudent.

Do you believe that the production of energy using biomass can be a way out?
That is a joke. If you think you’re going to find sugarcane bagasse to keep an Itaipu kind of power station going… You won’t, ever. It’s all right for lighting up in the evening, to keep folks amused. As to the other kinds of energy, they have brought very few results in the rest of the world. Solar energy, for example, is very limited and expensive.

When did nuclear physics come into your life?
It was natural evolution. In the period I started to study with Professor Gleb Wataghin, in the 30’s, first at the Polytechnic and then at the School of Philosophy, cosmic rays were known, those particles that fall to Earth, and radioactive substances. We used to work on this. Nuclear energy was not known, nor was making good industrial use of energy. This came with the Second World War. At bottom, physics is an experimental science. We studied the phenomena of nature. Among them, there are the radioactive phenomena discovered by Pierre and Marie Curie, at the beginning of the 20th century. Well, studying radioactivity became important. The whole world over, they started to study the properties of radio and of radiation. It was these studies that developed and were transformed into nuclear physics.

You were one of the pioneers in experimental physics in Brazil. In those days, wasn’t there much interest for the theme?
In those days, in the 30’s, the professors would just teach physics. And in the following way: the professor would study the lesson on the previous day to pass on to the students. The difference in knowledge between the professor and the students was 24 hours. In 1938, after graduating, I went to Cambridge University, in Britain, and did an attachment at the Cavendish Laboratory, which was the greatest center for physics in the world. There, I presented a project to my director, William Lawrence Bragg, who won a Nobel Prize for Physics, to build some rather complicated equipment for studying penetrating cosmic rays that fell over a large expanse. He approved the project and, when the apparatus was almost ready to work, came the decision to close down the university, because of the war. It was then that my supervisor, W. H. Lewis, invited me to stay there and to work with them. I said that it did not just depend on me, not least because it was the Brazilian government that kept me there. They wrote a letter to our government asking about this possibility. And it was my good luck and their bad luck – or vice-versa – that the Minister of Foreign Relations was Oswaldo Aranha, my father’s first cousin. His line of thought went like this: “If Marcello can be so useful in Britain, to the point of their wanting to keep him there, he is going to be much more useful here, because we have nobody with this specialization”. So I came back, then.

Of your contributions to physics, physicist José Leite Lopes highlights the discovery of the penetrating component of cosmic radiation, in 1939.
This was done with this apparatus I brought back from Britain. The British were so correct with me that the director of the laboratory said: “It is important to finish this experiment. The laboratory is giving you the apparatus you built to take back to Brazil”. In Rio de Janeiro – Brazil was joining the war and there was a lot of German espionage carried out by radio -, a zealous customs official inspected the apparatus I brought with me, set up in a steel box that was 80 centimeters in depth. When he saw that it had 40-something valves, he said: “This is a radio transmitter”. And he seized my baggage. But, in the end, I managed to get it back again, and it was with it that we carried out the study of the showers that penetrate in great depth.

German physicist Werner Heisenberg published a book on cosmic radiation, analyzing work by you, Gleb Wataghin and Paulus Pompéia on this discovery. He attributed part of the success of the research to the period that you spent in Britain.
Precisely. My apparatus was the first in the world that measured times in the order of 1 hundredth of 1 millionth of a second. The ones that worked up until that time had the technology that Wataghin brought to Brazil. With it, they would measure 100 millionths of a second, and I managed, with my apparatus, to measure 1 hundredth of 1 millionth of a second. It was 10,000 times more sensitive. With this, we in Brazil discovered penetrating showers, a characteristic phenomenon of cosmic rays. Cosmic rays are radiation that comes from space and hits the Earth. It is a relic of the formation of the Universe, particles that did not join up with larger masses to originate planets, stars, etc. Then they wander through space – we are continually subject to being bombarded by cosmic rays. It so happens that they discovered that these rays some times come simultaneously, like a group of particles, and this constitutes a shower. Studying these showers, we discovered that there are some dozens of meters in length. And these are very penetrating – we managed to measure them even at the bottom of the Morro Velho mine in Minas Gerais, the deepest in the world. Then we baptized them with the name of penetrating shower. It was discovered by us, here in São Paulo, by Wataghin, by me, and by Pompéia. Wataghin got so enthusiastic that he wrote a summary of the work, and managed to get it published in the Physical Review Letters, in 1940.

We would like you to talk about crystals and the influence you had in the industrial sphere.
During the period of the war, Professor Pompéia and I were mobilized to help the Navy. The problem was to locate submarines at a distance, using sonars. At the time, we tried to use the auditive method, with a very sensitive microphone that we would put into the water to hear the noise of the enemy propeller. We made a floating laboratory on the Santo Amaro lake, here in São Paulo, we perfected the instruments and developed detectors. We would put the detector into the water and, a long way from it, a little boat made by us, which worked with a little electric motor and a battery. The microphone would capture the noise of the turbulence caused by the propeller. Afterwards, when we carried out the experiment in Rio, we got a surprise that we ought to have expected if any one of us had been a sailor: that the sea is very noisy. There is the swell, winds… When we put the apparatus into the water, we could hear everything, any lousy little wave. We would hear so many noises that it would be impossible to distinguish one thing from another. Then, we started using a different technique, the ultrasonic depth sounder, which had been studied by a great physicist, Langevin, in the First World War. He used a very sensitive microphone, but only at very high frequencies, and these microphones were made of piezoelectric quartz. We started to work on the quartz, cutting into fine slices, at a given angle, to arrive at the best results. And, in the end, we resolved the problem of sonars for the Navy.

Did the experiments with quartz have any influence on the steel industry?
No. They had an influence on the watchmaking and precious stones industries. But this was done long after the war. In the war, we were working with Rochelle salt. Afterwards, when the problem arose of a lack of quartz in Brazil – the regions that produced pure quartz started producing impure quartz and almost nothing could be put to good use -, the solution for Brazil was seen to be to take the pure, but badly crystallized, stone, to dissolve it and crystallize it well.

What view do you have today of the science and technology system?
There has been extraordinary progress. Particularly when one takes into account that in Brazil there is a difficulty for getting funds for research. Today, we come across two contradictory things: on the one hand, competent laboratories that are meeting difficulties for getting funds; and, on the other, incompetent laboratories that throw money away without producing anything. This happens in all countries, but in Brazil this proportion is rather high. Now, when I talk about this, I am obviously excluding FAPESP, a model of correctness, of how one should work in assisting scientific development. I am referring to allocations from the ministry and suchlike, which enter through the universities and are applied in areas that make no sense at all.

And physics, how is it today in Brazil?
I think that it is doing well. The number of high-level scientific works that we publish a year is significant and has been growing. But I think that scientific research could be even more developed if there were stricter and more just criteria in the majority of Brazilian scientific institutions. The resources are still much applied because of political interests. Not in São Paulo, but in the rest of Brazil, rather.

How do you see the effort of making a sort of marriage between companies and universities so as to bear fruit for all?
During the period that I was in Britain and, later, in the United States, I saw that the universities provide know-how for industry and, sometimes, suggest new things to the owners of industry that they had never thought to exist. That is where the researcher transfers his creation to a firm. But this not through the university. The firm enters into contact with the university, the university with the professor, and the professor carries on working at the university, and both take away a fraction of the contract. It works like that in the United States and in Britain.

What do you think of researchers working in the universities and in companies, or having an interest in royalties from developing products.
Having a share in royalties is reasonable. If the researcher makes a good discovery, it is good for him to have a bigger profit; if he makes a lousy discovery that brings a loss, he should contribute to cover the loss he caused, instead of receiving his wages. I believe the rest can only be done by the universities. I mean, something clear cut and correct. The university always as an intermediary. Of course, there is a danger there: the individual begins to use the university to solve the company’s problems. And this happens a lot here in Brazil. Particularly in the areas of chemistry and biology. It’s an ugly business. Individuals that are on the payroll, earn from the government, and also receive a tip from outside to run research in an area where there is a lot of interest.

Are you in favor of companies hiring researchers, for their own account?
Of course. I think that all technology should be carried out technologists paid by the beneficiaries of this technology. As the Technological Research Institute (IPT) does, for example. This could be done for the university. Now, the only danger I see is discovering that the number of thieving colleagues that there are is much larger than one imagines. Plenty of guys who do a little bit of research on the side, don’t tell anyone, sell it to someone else, and then run research at the university, not in the interest of the university or of science, but of their friends.

Have you earned money from your research and innovations?
I have never sold anything, I have always published. The only time I worked for an industrial concern was in the period of research with quartz, for X-Tal, in Rio, where I was employed as a technician and received 500 cruzeiros a month, and a return airfare paid for once a week. This influence of research on the company made it possible for them, within two years, to make quartz of such a quality that today all watches uses crystals made to the recipe of Marcello Damy.

Why do we not have a Nobel Prize for Physics?
I think that our physics has not reached the Nobel level, because it began to develop in Brazil a shorter time ago than in other countries. Perhaps the work by César Lattes, who discovered the pi meson, deserved the prize.

You also like music a lot. What is this instrument for tuning that you invented like?
Sound is always produced by a vibration in the air, produced in general by some object that moves. It can be a diaphragm, a sound box – like a violin -, or the string of a bowed instrument, or percussion, like the piano. The problem is to establish something that vibrates at a predetermined frequency and a high degree of precision. This is done with quartz. I get some quartz and take off a slice. The slice is going to drive millions of vibrations a second. Then, I use electronic circuits. By varying the thickness of the quartz, the frequencies that it can produce vary. I program the apparatus, I put it onto the strings of the instrument, and it gives off all the frequencies I need for the piano, the harpsichord, etc. I myself built the apparatus here at home.