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Debate about the use of nuclear technology (and its destructive and constructive capabilities) continues to rage more than sixty years after the United States released a uranium bomb on Hiroshima and (three days later) a plutonium bomb on Nagasaki. As contentious an issue as nuclear weapons remains, proponents of nuclear power champion its ability to produce energy more cleanly than any other resource.
When the first nuclear weapons exploded over Japan in 1945, observers all over the world knew that human life had changed in an instant. In the years since, nuclear technology has struggled to define itself as a public good when the public seemed more inclined to view it as an evil. Its proponents argue that electricity made from nuclear reactors has the capability to power the world more cleanly than any other resource can. Opponents are less sure. As the debate rages, nuclear power has become an increasingly important part of world energy.
Beginning as a Bomb
By the late 1930s World War II threatened the globe. Leaders of every nation searched for any edge that would defeat the enemy forces. Scientists in the United States and Germany experimented with nuclear reactions. In Germany leaders felt that such a technology might be a decisive force in the war effort. In reaction, U.S. scientists enlisted U.S. physicist Albert Einstein to write a letter about their research to President Franklin D. Roosevelt. In his letter Einstein stressed the technology’s potential—particularly if it were developed by the enemy. In October 1939 Roosevelt authorized government funding for atomic research.
Eventually science and the military would be linked in a way never before seen. However, first scientists needed to demonstrate the viability of an atomic reaction. Of course, today the concept of force generated by separating atomic particles is fairly well known; however, in 1940 such a concept smacked of science fiction. In 1940 the U.S. physicists Enrico Fermi and Leo Szilard received a government contract to construct a reactor at Columbia University. Other reactor experiments took place in a laboratory under the west stands of Stagg Field at the University of Chicago. In December 1942 Fermi achieved what the scientists considered the first self-sustained nuclear reaction. It was time to take the reaction out of doors, and this process would greatly increase the scope and scale of the experiment.
Under the leadership of General Leslie Groves in February 1943, the U.S. military acquired 202,343 hectares of land near Hanford, Washington. This land was one of three primary locations of Project Trinity, which was assigned portions of the duty to produce useful atomic technology. The coordinated activity of these three locations under the auspices of the U.S. military became a path-breaking illustration of the planning and strategy that would define many modern corporations. Hanford used water power to separate plutonium and produce the grade necessary for weapons use. Oak Ridge in Tennessee coordinated the production of uranium. These production facilities then fueled the heart of the undertaking, contained in Los Alamos, New Mexico, under the direction of the U.S. physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer.
Oppenheimer supervised the team of nuclear theoreticians who would devise the formulas using atomic reactions within a weapon. Scientists from a variety of fields were involved in this complex theoretical mission. After theories were in place and materials delivered, the project became one of assembling and testing the technology in the form of a bomb. All of this needed to take place on the vast Los Alamos compound under complete secrecy. However, the urgency of war convinced many people that this well-orchestrated, corporate-like enterprise was the best way to save thousands of U.S. lives.
By 1944 World War II had wrought a terrible destruction on the world. The European theater of war would soon close with Germany’s surrender. Although Germany’s pursuit of atomic weapons technology had fueled the efforts of U.S. scientists, German surrender did not end the U.S. atomic project. The Pacific theater of war remained active, and Japan did not accept offers to surrender. Project Trinity moved forward, using the Japanese cities Hiroshima and Nagasaki as the test laboratories of initial atomic bomb explosions. The U.S. bomber Enola Gay released a uranium bomb on Hiroshima on 6 August 1945, and the U.S. bomber Bock’s Car released a plutonium bomb on Nagasaki three days later. Death tolls vary between 150,000 and 300,000, and most were Japanese civilians. The atomic age, and life with the bomb, had begun.
Experiments and tests with nuclear and hydrogen bombs continued for nearly twenty years after World War II. Many of the scientists who worked on the original experiments, however, hoped that the technology could have nonmilitary applications. Oppenheimer eventually felt that the public had changed its attitude toward scientific exploration because of the bomb. “We have made a thing,” he said in a 1946 speech, “a most terrible weapon, that has altered abruptly and profoundly the nature of the world . . . a thing that by all the standards of the world we grew up in is an evil thing.”
Many of the scientists involved believed that atomic technology requires controls unlike those of any previous innovation. Shortly after the bombings a movement began to establish a global board of scientists who would administer the technology with no political affiliation. However, wresting control of this new tool for global influence from the U.S. military proved impossible. The U.S. Atomic Energy Commission (AEC), formed in 1946, placed the U.S. military and governmental authority in control of the weapons technology and other uses to which it might be put. With the “nuclear trump card,” the United States catapulted to the top of global leadership.
In the 1950s scientists turned their attention to applying nuclear reaction to peaceful purposes, notably power generation. The reaction is a fairly simple process. Similar to power generators fueled by fossil fuel, nuclear plants use the heat of thermal energy to turn turbines that generate electricity. The thermal energy comes from nuclear fission, which is made when a neutron emitted by a uranium nucleus strikes another uranium nucleus, which emits more neutrons and heat as it breaks apart. If the new neutrons strike other nuclei, chain reactions take place. These chain reactions are the source of nuclear energy, which then heats water to power the turbines.
Soon the AEC seized this sensibility and began plans for “domesticating the atom.” It was quite a leap, though, to make the U.S. public comfortable with the most destructive technology ever known. The AEC and other organizations sponsored a barrage of popular articles concerning a future in which roads were created through the use of atomic bombs, and radiation was employed to cure cancer.
In the media the atomic future included images of atomic-powered agriculture and automobiles. There were optimistic projections of vast amounts of energy being harnessed, without relying on limited natural resources like coal or oil. For many Americans this new technology meant control of everyday life. For the administration of U.S. president Dwight Eisenhower the technology meant expansion of U.S. economic and commercial capabilities.
As the Cold War took shape around nuclear weapons, the Eisenhower administration looked for ways to define a domestic role for nuclear power even as Soviet missiles threatened each American. Project Plowshares grew out of the administration’s effort to turn the destructive weapon into a domestic power producer. The list of possible applications was awesome: laser-cut highways passing through mountains; nuclear-powered greenhouses built by federal funds in the Midwest to enhance crop production; and irradiated soils to simplify weed and pest management. Although domestic power production, with massive federal subsidies, would be the long-term product of government effort, the atom could never fully escape its military capabilities. This was most clear when nuclear power plants experienced accidents.
Accidents Fuel Public Doubt
A number of nuclear power plant accidents occurred before the late 1970s, but they went largely unnoticed by the U.S. public. Nuclear power became increasingly popular, even though critics continued to argue issues of safety. In 1979 the United States experienced its first nuclear accident in a residential area outside of Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. The accident at Three Mile Island (TMI) nuclear power plant entirely altered the landscape of American power generation. Although involving only a relatively minor release of radioactive gas, this accident demonstrated the public’s lack of knowledge. Panic ripped through the state, and Harrisburg was partially evacuated.
Of course, the international community took notice of the TMI accident; however, it clearly did not present a grave threat to the world. The world’s other superpower had even greater difficulty with its atomic industry, which was plagued by accidents throughout this era. None, however, compared to the Chernobyl meltdown that occurred in Ukraine in 1986. During a test the fuel elements ruptured and resulted in an explosive force of steam that lifted off the cover plate of the reactor, releasing fission products into the atmosphere. A second explosion released burning fuel from the core and created a massive explosion that burned for nine days. It is estimated that the accident released thirty to forty times the radioactivity of the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Hundreds of people died in the months after the accident, and hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians and Russians had to abandon entire cities.
The implications of nuclear weapons and nuclear power had already been of great interest to environmental organizations before Chernobyl. After Chernobyl international environmental organizations such as Greenpeace dubbed nuclear power a transborder environmental disaster waiting to happen. Interestingly, even within the environmental movement, nuclear power maintained significant support due to its cleanness. Whereas almost every other method for producing large amounts of electricity creates smoke or other pollution, nuclear power creates only water vapor. Yet, at least in the public’s mind, there remained the possibility of atomic explosions.
Growth in the International Market
Although accidents decreased the U.S. domestic interest in nuclear power generation, the international community refused to be so quick to judge the technology. Since the early 1990s nuclear power has become one of the fastest-growing sources of electricity in the world. Nations that depend on nuclear power for at least one-quarter of their electricity include Belgium, Bulgaria, Hungary, Japan, Lithuania, Slovakia, South Korea, Sweden, Switzerland, Slovenia, and Ukraine.
According to the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, nine countries possessed nuclear weapons capability (United States, China, France, Russia, and Britain, India, Pakistan Israel, Korea. Thirty nations have some 440 commercial nuclear power reactors. Currently fewer nuclear power plants are being built than were built during the 1970s and 1980s, but the newer plants are much more efficient and capable of producing significantly more power. Additionally, nuclear power is being used for needs other than public electricity. In addition to commercial nuclear power plants, there are more than 280 research reactors operating in fifty-six countries, with more under construction. These reactors have many uses, including research and training and the production of medical and industrial isotopes. Reactors are also used for marine propulsion, particularly in submarines. Over 150 ships of many varieties, including submarines, are propelled by more than two hundred nuclear reactors.
Finally, nuclear power has also become a volatile par of international politics. Nations such as North Korea and Iran have used their pursuit of “peaceful” nuclear technology to raise the ire of many western nations in hopes of forcing them into negotiations. Particularly in the case of Iran, many nations are suspicious of its claims of “peaceful” uses. Fearing their own security, Israel and other nations have demanded that Iran not be allowed to develop new nuclear technology of any sort. These fears seem to have made it more attractive for rogue nations to increase the threat level.
Regardless of the use to which it is put, nuclear energy continues to be plagued by its most nagging side effect: even if the reactor works perfectly for its service lifetime, the nuclear process generates dangerous waste. In fact, reactor wastes from spent fuel rods are believed to remain toxic for fifty thousand years. At present each nuclear nation makes its own arrangements for the waste. U.S. nuclear utilities now store radioactive waste at more than seventy locations while they await the fate of the effort to construct and open a nuclear waste repository inside Nevada’s Yucca Mountain.
Internationally, the situation is not much clearer. Opponents in Germany have obstructed nuclear waste convoys, and shipments of plutonium-bearing waste to Japan for reprocessing are often placed under dispute. Some observers have voiced concern that less-developed nations will offer themselves as waste dumps for the more-developed nations. The income from such an arrangement may be too much to turn down for many nations.
Rising energy prices of all sorts, however, brought the nuclear industry robust interest in the twenty-first century. In particular, new attention has been focused on reprocessing used nuclear materials. In this fashion, the very idea of “nuclear waste” has been redefined. Proponents argue that there is no such thing as waste if the spent rods can be reprocessed in order to fuel other types of plants. These efforts are particularly advanced in France, the global leader in nuclear power in 2009.
In the energy industry many observers continue to believe that nuclear power remains the best hope to power the future. The issues of safety and waste removal need to be dealt with. However, in nations with scarce supplies of energy resources, nuclear power—even with its related concerns—remains the most affordable alternative.
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