- "Leave the atom alone."
- –E.Y. Harburg
Historical Context Edit
Mushroom clouds and boundless energy; utopia or annihilation. The technology of nuclear fission carries the promise of both, or neither. In physics and chemistry, nuclear fission is the decay – natural or not – whereby the nucleus of an atom breaks down into lighter nuclei, spinning off neutrons and photons, thus releasing significant amounts of energy. If a chain reaction can be started, whereby these free neutrons and photons cause other nuclei around them to split, a lot of energy gets released all at once.
Building on the work of scientific geniuses such as Marie Curie, Ernest Rutherford, Niels Bohr, Enrico Fermi, and Edward Teller, the United States funded the Manhattan Project, headed by physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer, in 1942 AD to create a sustainable nuclear reaction using uranium or plutonium. The result was the first atomic bomb successfully tested in the New Mexico desert in July 1945. The next month, America dropped two more on Japanese cities, leaving between 129 thousand and 246 thousand dead. Once Soviet spies stole the plans, the nuclear arms race was on.
Yet nuclear fission also offered the hope for cheap, “clean” energy. In September 1948 in Oak Ridge, Tennessee, electricity was generated by a nuclear reaction for the first time – at least enough to power a light bulb. A second, larger experiment in Arco, Idaho, in 1951 proved the feasibility of building a nuclear power plant. Thus, in 1954, the world’s first nuclear plant to generate electricity for a power grid started operations in Obninsk in the Soviet Union, followed shortly by the world’s first full scale nuclear power station at Calder Hall in England. Despite nuclear meltdowns such as those at Three Mile Island in 1979, Chernobyl in 1986, and the three at Fukushima-Daiichi in 2011, nuclear-generated power may be the savior of modern civilization.