The history of nuclear power

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Nuclear power is an incredibly interesting topic. The recent success of HBO’s Chernobyl TV program cast fresh light on the disaster that shook the world in 1986 and the energy source that caused it to happen. Let’s take a look back at how nuclear power came to existence and how it is viewed today.

To understand nuclear power we have to go all the way back to 1895 when Wilhelm Roentgen discovered there was an invisible ray traveling from a cathode tube and lighting some photographic plates. These rays became known as X-rays. From here the work on these rays grew and grew. Gamma rays became better understood and in 1898 the Curies successfully isolated Polonium and Radium and coined the term radioactivity. 

Fast forward to 1938 and scientists are now shooting neutrons at uranium to see what would happen, they discovered a lot of energy is released. It became apparent that by splitting an atom through fission, energy is created. With World War Two in full swing, considerable efforts were made to weaponize this technology, and soon the atomic bomb was created. The devastating impact it had on the world is well known.

In 1951 the first nuclear reactor was created, it produced electricity. In the 60s and 70s the world was very excited about nuclear energy and it was believed to be the answer to the world’s energy problems. France moved 75% of its energy production to nuclear sources and the US reached around 20%. Then accidents started to occur.

The first notable accident was in 1979 at Three Mile Island in Pennsylvania. A partial meltdown showed people how dangerous nuclear power could be if not properly controlled. This was the warning but Chernobyl was a true nuclear disaster. In 1986 a large cloud of radiation was released. The impact reached as far as the East Coast of America and across all of Europe. Public opinion now shifted away from nuclear. It was seen as too dangerous to properly harness. 

Yet the disasters that took place actually caused a lot of improved safety standards to be introduced. The Chernobyl disaster that had taken place could have been avoided if proper standards were in place. Slowly people started to believe in nuclear power again. The 90s and 2000s were a time of few to no nuclear accidents.

In 2011, a tsunami rocked Japan and in the process created a partial meltdown of a nuclear plant. It once again highlighted the frailty of nuclear power and showed that it could never be truly trusted. 

Today 10.8% of the world’s energy is provided by nuclear energy a figure that continues to fall since it reached 17.6% in 1996. Based on current projections we may not rely on nuclear energy at all in fifty years’ time. The debate is ongoing whether that is a wise move.
While the nuclear accident in Japan in 2011 resulted in the evacuation of nearly 200,000 people, in the end, there were no long term radiation issues found. Some people argue that nuclear is one of the least dangerous forms of energy ever produced and that a number of large accidents are misleading people to rally against it. Some estimates suggest that the fuel source has actually saved lives. One study suggests that 1.8 million lives have been saved by the pollution that has been offset by using nuclear instead of fossil fuels.

While renewable energy sources are likely the future the question remains to what extent nuclear will play a role. Many experts argue that a realistic scenario will have to have nuclear as a key part of the solution. We are quickly running out of fossil fuels and other sources have not yet stepped up to take their place as some people had hoped. Nuclear may yet still play a central role in the provision of world energy in the future.