Of all the energy types we use, nuclear energy is one of the newest forms. Although ancient Greek philosophers first came up with the idea that all of life is composed of invisible particles called “atoms,” it wasn’t until the 18th and 19th century that scientists really started to pursue the theory. In 1904, British physicist Ernest Rutherford, the father of nuclear science, wrote “If it were ever possible to control at will the rate of disintegration of the radio elements, an enormous amount of energy could be obtained from a small amount of matter.” He was correct.
In 1938, Otto Hahn, Fritz Strassmann and physicist Lise Meitner found that the nucleus of a uranium atom could be split by hitting it with neutrons. This process is called fission. When the uranium nucleus split, some of the mass was converted to heat energy. In 1942, Enrico Fermi and a group of other physicists saw that the fission of one uranium atom created more neutrons which could then split other uranium atoms, creating a chain reaction. It didn’t take them long to realize that there was a large potential for massive amounts of energy to be produced. That process was soon called nuclear fission. Otto Hahn and Enrico Fermi were both awarded Nobel Prizes for their efforts.
Not long after, the process of nuclear fission was used for highly destructive purposes under the code name “Manhattan Project.” After World War II, the United States government strongly encouraged the development of nuclear energy for peaceful, civilian purposes. With this thought in mind, Congress created the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) in 1946 and an experimental site in Idaho was constructed. This reactor ended up producing the first electricity from nuclear energy in late 1951. The first nuclear power plant designed to provide energy to a community was established in Obninsk, Russia, in 1954.
The 1960s showed significant growth for nuclear energy. Utility companies across the country saw nuclear energy as economical, clean, and safe. Nuclear reactors do not pollute the air or produce greenhouse gases. They can be built in urban or rural areas, and do not radically alter the environment around them.
Due to the cons listed above, the “rise” of nuclear power has stagnated. It creates 20% of the United States’ total electricity, but there is still a future for nuclear power in nuclear fusion. Fusion differs from fission in that instead of splitting an atom, you’re joining two atoms together. The sun in constantly undergoing nuclear fusion so such a process is absolutely possible. Unfortunately, nuclear power plants do not have the ability to safely produce energy by nuclear fusion yet. It’s not clear if this type of energy will ever be possible, but if we can unlock nuclear fusion and find a safe and reliable way to use (or dispose of) spent rods, nuclear energy can still be a contender in the energy industry.