Introduction: History of nuclear power (Part 2)

So, I left off the last post with the start of commercial nuclear power testing, where did it go from there?

The first full-scale commercial nuclear power plant was called ‘Yankee Rowe’ and was opened in Rowe, Massachusetts in 1960 (it operated until 1992). This facility was able to produce 250MW of electricity, and its success spurred on the uptake of nuclear technology around the world(1).

By 1972, there were commercial nuclear reactors built in Canada, France, the UK, Russia and Kazakhstan, along with those already built in Iran, Pakistan and Israel(1).

Despite a drop off in orders for new reactors during the 1970s and 1980s, global electricity production from nuclear remained at around 16-17% (1).

Following this slump, nuclear energy began to take off again, mainly due to the development of the ‘third generation’ style of nuclear reactors. The first third generation reactor was built in Japan in the late 1990s, and boasted superior safety and affordability(1).

The attributes that signify a third generation reactor include:

  • Standard (often modular) design
    • This allows for cost savings and for some parts of the structure to be built off-site
  • Longer lifespan
    • Up to 60 years
  • Reduced possibility of meltdown
    • This is achieved by including many more redundant and ‘always on’ passive safety features
  • Resistance to external damage
  • Higher efficiency of the reactor itself by:
    • Using more of the stored energy in the fuel
    • Producing less waste
    • Extending the useful life of the fuel (2)

The realisation that the world is using every increasing amounts of electricity, along with concerns for energy security and carbon emissions has also seen a spike in the amount of nuclear power being accessed around the world (1).

However the areas traditionally associated with nuclear power, the US and Russia, are not where this new demand is coming from. There has been a huge increase in uptake of nuclear power in India and Eastern Asia, where energy demands and the environmental impacts of massive coal-burning power stations are being felt (3).

China currently has 26 active nuclear power stations, with 25 more currently under construction. There are also plans for many more to be built in the future (3).

On our home turf in Australia, we still only have one (experimental) nuclear reactor, despite having 31% of the world’s uranium supply (4). There are hints of change on the horizon, with South Australia’s royal commission and increasing calls from the public for investing in non-fossil fuel alternatives.

Hopefully we will see some change in the future, but that is unlikely to happen in the current nuclear climate in Australia, with a lingering resistance to this kind of technology. And who knows, if the Greens (who steadfastly refuse to use nuclear power) continue to gain more seats in the parliament, we may not see this change for a while.

You may have noticed three glaring omissions from this brief history of nuclear power, don’t worry I haven’t forgotten.

My next post will be one where we start to look a little bit more at the nuclear controversy itself, when I discuss three events that have probably had the biggest impact on the debate of nuclear power: the Three Mile Island, Chernobyl, and Fukushima nuclear disasters.

Say something controversial.

Matt

References

(1) http://www.world-nuclear.org/info/Current-and-Future-Generation/Outline-History-of-Nuclear-Energy/

(2) http://www.world-nuclear.org/info/Nuclear-Fuel-Cycle/Power-Reactors/Advanced-Nuclear-Power-Reactors/

(3) http://www.world-nuclear.org/info/Country-Profiles/Countries-A-F/China–Nuclear-Power/

(4) http://www.world-nuclear.org/info/Country-Profiles/Countries-A-F/Australia/

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Introduction: The history of nuclear power (Part 1)

So, where did all this begin? Unfortunately, there is no denying that the roots of nuclear power have their origins in something far more sinister: nuclear bombs.

The first part of this two part history will focus on the initial development of nuclear energy tools, and the second part will discuss the development of this technology to where it is today.

The driving force that was WWII resulted in a burst of research on nuclear energy; nuclear fission had only been discovered in the 1930s but there were mounting fears of a German nuclear weapon(1). The Manhattan project was the result of this fear, and following many years of research in the UK and the US, the first successful nuclear weapon was detonated on 16 July 1945, at the White Sands Proving Ground in New Mexico. The ‘Trinity’ test was the first to showcase the awesome power possible from an uncontrolled nuclear reaction(2).

image of first nuclear bomb detonation

The Trinity test, 0.016 seconds after detonation. The height of the blast wave is 200 meters.

Just 21 and 24 days later respectively, the bombs would be dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. It was only after the end of WWII, that the potential energy generating applications of controlled nuclear reactions were explored. After the huge effort required to create the atomic weaponry that ended WWII, there was a large accumulation of technology and expertise that allowed the USA to direct its energy to energy production(1).

The first test nuclear reactor to produce electricity was named ‘Experimental Breeder Reactor-1 (EBR-1), and was switched on for the first time in Idaho, in December 1951 (1).

The US President at the time was Eisenhower, and following the end of the war he gave a speech titled ‘Atoms for Peace’. An example of cold war propaganda, this speech attempted to muffle the fear the world was feeling about living in a nuclear age, and direct their thoughts to the possibilities nuclear power offered:

“To the making of these fateful decisions, the United States pledges before you–and therefore before the world–its determination to help solve the fearful atomic dilemma–to devote its entire heart and mindto find the way by which the miraculous inventiveness of man shall not be dedicated to his death, but consecrated to his life.”(3)

This speech also initiated a US government program of the same name which entailed the free spread of information around the world to enable governments to build their own nuclear reactors, with the goal of cheap energy for everyone. It was through this program that Pakistan, Iran and Israel were able to build their first nuclear reactors(4).

Aside from basic electricity generation, nuclear reactors also had the benefit of using much less fuel for a given amount of energy, and it for this reason that much research in the late 40s and early 50s was directed towards producing reactors for naval use(1).

The Pressurised Water Reactor (PWR) was a design that was favoured for naval use as it used ordinary water in its reactor core, where previous designs had required the use of ‘heavy’ water(1).

Following the development of PWRs the USS Nautilus, the first nuclear submarine, was launched in 1954. The USA and USSR then went on to launch nuclear powerd ships in 1959.

The first nuclear power plant that provided electricity to the grid was also a PWR, and was switched on in 1957 and ran until 1982. This was the dawn of the commercial age of nuclear reactor technology(1).

I will finish up the history of nuclear power in the next post.

Say something controversial.

Matt

References

  1. http://www.world-nuclear.org/info/Current-and-Future-Generation/Outline-History-of-Nuclear-Energy/
  2. https://www.osti.gov/opennet/manhattan-project-history/Events/1945/trinity.htm
  3. https://www.iaea.org/about/history/atoms-for-peace-speech
  4. http://www.armscontrol.org/act/2003_12/Lavoy