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
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