History of Nuclear Energy Production
Physicist Enrico Fermi discovered the potential of nuclear fission in 1934, when he bombarded uranium atoms with neutrons and was surprised to discover that the products of this reaction were much lighter than uranium. On December 2, 1942, Fermi created the first controlled, self-sustaining nuclear reaction, using uranium and control rods in a similar configuration to how they are used today. Illustrating the power and potential of this new technology, the United States carried out its first test of a nuclear bomb in the New Mexico desert in July 1945.
Nuclear power plants soon began sprouting up in the 1950s and 1960s, and were hailed as a safe, clean alternative to current energy practices. The amount of energy produced by the fission of a single uranium atom is approximately 10 million times the energy produced by the combustion of a single coal atom. To put it another way, a pound of uranium, which is about the size of a baseball, could power a submarine or an aircraft carrier for as long and at the same rate of speed as approximately one million gallons of gasoline.
For a nuclear power plant to work, the uranium being employed must be supercritical, or overheated, making it prone to meltdown. To prevent nuclear meltdown, nuclear plants must be constantly monitored and employ a number of fail-safes to protect people nearby from radiation poisoning. The public became aware of the dangers of nuclear power on March 28, 1979, when the Three Mile Island nuclear reactor in Pennsylvania overheated as the result of a faulty coolant valve. Even though no one was injured in the fallout from the meltdown, it called attention to the potential dangers of nuclear power.
Critics feel that the threat of a meltdown like the one that occurred on Three Mile Island constitutes an unacceptable risk, while supporters claim that, with proper safety precautions, the risk of a meltdown is minimal to the point of being almost impossible. Supporters also point out that secondary safeguards, such as the concrete bunkers surrounding the plant, prevented any radiation from escaping Three Mile Island during the meltdown. Even though a meltdown haunts any discussion of nuclear power, most of the controversy about the technology deals with the disposal of nuclear waste.
Fuel rods in nuclear plants must be replaced approximately every two years, when the uranium inside is spent. However, the uranium is still very volatile, creating a lot of heat and radioactivity, which means that the rods must be handled and stored very carefully so that they do not contaminate their surroundings. Unfortunately, the half-life of uranium is so long that spent fuel rods will still be radioactive for hundreds of years, meaning that the storage in nuclear facilities will eventually become inadequate. Several European countries have reprocessing plants, which remove leftover uranium and plutonium from the fuel rods once they have sufficiently cooled. Some of the products of reprocessing can even be used for other energy purposes.
During the late 1970s, US president Jimmy Carter vowed to rid the world of nuclear weapons, expanding on efforts by President Richard Nixon, who had overseen the closing of US reprocessing plants in 1970. The most recent US nuclear power plant was finished in 1973, during the Nixon administration. Carter assumed that if the United States continued to decrease its production of nuclear power, particularly reprocessing, other countries would follow suit, leading to a subsequent decrease in nuclear weaponry. So far, this has not been the case. In fact, Japan is currently building a new reprocessing plant, and many nuclear supporters in the United States feel that the US is falling behind in the use of nuclear waste as fuel because of the stigma of nuclear power. Others have pointed out that US nuclear policy has not prevented countries such as North Korea and Iran from enriching uranium for use in nuclear weapons.
As international attention has begun to focus on methods for combating climate change, advocates of nuclear power have suggested it as an alternative to coal-burning and other environmentally harmful methods. Environmental group Greenpeace, however, has long protested the use of nuclear power, arguing that the known risks of the continued use of nuclear energy outweigh any possible benefits. Greenpeace claims that nuclear energy is not as efficient as many supporters assert, and that it produces less power each year than renewable energy sources like wind and solar power.
Greenpeace also claims that nuclear power is far from the cheapest, most efficient, or even the cleanest alternative power source and the United Nations agreed in 2000, when delegates refused to grant greenhouse gas credits to nuclear power plants. A year later, nuclear power failed to receive a sustainable energy label from the UN, since uranium is still derived from non-renewable resources, such as coal and granite. However many estimates, including those of physicist Bernard Cohen, suggest that uranium ore could provide electricity for several billion years, which, while finite, is still much longer than the expected life of such power sources as oil and coal.