Nuclear Energy

The 20th century also presented issues related to the development of another form of energy—nuclear energy. In 1896 Antoine Henri Becquerel, a French professor and scientist, made a discovery that was foundational to the development of nuclear energy. He discovered the radioactivity of uranium. Radioactivity is a property possessed by some elements, by which energy can be spontaneously emitted during disintegration of these elements' atomic nuclei. Becquerel shared the 1903 Nobel Prize in physics with his colleagues Marie and Pierre Curie, who had conducted further research into the phenomenon. In 1939 scientists discovered that it was possible to maintain a fission reaction capable of releasing enormous amounts of energy. Fission is the splitting apart of the atomic nucleus of a radioactive element, such as uranium, by the impact of a subatomic particle, or neutron, which results in the release of large amounts of energy.

In 1942 U.S. scientists produced nuclear energy in a sustained nuclear reaction, and in the 1940s nuclear power was used in the creation of atomic bombs. It was an atomic bomb that destroyed the cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945. Electricity was generated for the first time by a nuclear reactor in 1951—in the United States at an experimental station in Idaho. In 1957 the first commercial nuclear power plant began operating in England. In nuclear power plants, electrical energy is produced by controlled fission reactions that result in the production of steam that turns turbines. But for several reasons nuclear power plants have never reached the energy-producing output that they were once expected to achieve. The uranium and plutonium that are used in fission reactions are nonrenewable resources, and the cost of setting up a nuclear power plant is very high. But even beyond this, the production of nuclear energy carries many risks. The greatest is the possibility of the leakage of the radioactivity that is produced when a nuclear reaction takes place. In 1979 at a nuclear power plant in Three Mile Island, Pennsylvania, a small amount of radioactive material leaked out into the air and water as a result of equipment failure and human error. Far worse than this accident was one that occurred in 1986 in Chernobyl, in the Ukraine, which was then part of the Soviet Union. A reactor in a nuclear power plant overheated, and the reactor's lid was blown off, spewing a cloud of radioactive waste into the atmosphere that affected all of Europe. Approximately 135,000 people were evacuated from surrounding areas immediately after the accident, and a total of 30 fatalities resulted directly from the accident. The high levels of radiation covering the 20-mile radius surrounding the accident site have had lasting and devastating effects on the lives of the people in the region in countless other ways. For example, an enormous increase in rates of thyroid cancer—from four to six cases per million Ukranian young children in the years preceding the accident to 45 cases per million from 1986 to 1997—has surfaced since the accident.35 In addition, in the years since the accident first occurred, more than 300,000 people have had to be resettled from areas contaminated by radiation.

Aside from operational safety issues, there are other problems associated with nuclear power that have incited many emotionally charged arguments about its usefulness as a form of energy. For example, there is still great uncertainty about the safest way to handle, store, and dispose of nuclear waste, which has the potential to expose people and the environment to harmful radiation. Also, there is a concern that nuclear power plants may be prime targets for terrorist attacks, since an attack on a nuclear power plant can result in a massive, uncontrolled radioactive explosion. Because of all the risks involved in nuclear power production, stringent government intervention and regulation of nuclear power plants are necessary.

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