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.

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Introduction: Context for the blog

For my first real post on this blog, I thought I might outline the idea behind the blog and what you can expect in the future.

In a world where climate change is a topic almost constantly in the media, energy generation and fossil fuels are important topic in both civil and political spheres. Renewable energy solutions are important and there is much exciting science coming our way in the future. Then there is nuclear power. Nuclear power, specifically fission power, has been around for a while (a lot longer than you think, as I’ll explain in my next post) and boasts significant efficiency, cost and safety (yes, safety) benefits over other non-renewable energy sources (1).

Despite this, nuclear power remains a controversial topic worldwide, and especially in Australia. Disasters such as the infamous Chernobyl, Three Mile Island and Fukushima, as well as lesser known incidents, such as the Sellafield fire in the UK reinforce the negative associations of nuclear power. Atomic energy of any sort has this negative association, and this is probably due to the effects of the bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, as well as the above ground testing in the USA, and the Pacific in the 50s, 60s and 70s, and all the negative outcomes associated with these events.

But all is not bad with nuclear power. In fact, a recent study showed that nuclear fission is significantly safer than coal power, despite the three major nuclear incidents of the past 70 years. The paper published by NASA (2), showed that nuclear power was responsible for preventing an average 76,000 deaths between 2000-2009, and an estimated 1.8 million deaths before 2000, because less coal power was needed.

The controversy surrounding nuclear power is one fraught with emotion and complex discussions of risk vs. reward. In Australia we currently have no commercial power stations, and only one small research reactor at the Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation (ANSTO). However, we also have the majority of the world’s uranium ore, with current estimates at 31% of the world’s supply (we are the third largest producer of uranium after Canada and Kazakhstan) (3).

Having this valuable resource and not making use of it seems a bit counter intuitive, and there has been multiple attempts to allow nuclear power in Australia, all of which were unsuccessful. However, the nuclear landscape in Australia is still lively, with South Australia announcing a Royal Commission into nuclear power generation, in response to the current economic contraction.

Nuclear power remains contentious and I hope to delve deep into the controversy in Australia and around the world of the next 10 weeks. First I will start with a bit of history, of nuclear power itself, and the controversies and social movements that have grown up around it. After this, I hope to flesh out the controversy, identify the key players, their impacts and motviations, and really get to the core of the nuclear power issue. Thanks for reading, if you have any comments, queries or suggestions for the blog, please comment below.

Say something controversial.