Nuclear power is the process of generating electricity through controlled nuclear reactions. All large scale reactors used in the production of electricity use the energy given off by fission reactions to heat water and then use the steam to drive turbines generating electricity. There has long been talk of using fusion instead, but as of this time, such reactors don’t exist.
Nuclear power was first achieved by Enrico Fermi in 1934. Leo Szilard, another researcher, realized that it was possible to create a chain reaction leading to global interest in fission. Fermi and Szilard emigrated to the United States and managed to build the first nuclear reactor, Chicago Pile – 1, which achieved criticality in 1942 as part of the infamous Manhattan Project. Electricity wasn’t generated until 1951 in an experimental plant, and in 1954 the USSR became the first country to generate power for the grid using a nuclear power plant capable of generating 5 Megawatts of power. Today’s plants generate over 300 Gigawatts of energy.
Despite the energy potential of nuclear power, it has lost popularity as an endless source of usable energy. Accidents such as those at Three Mile Island and Chernobyl have left people with serious concerns over the possibility of a complete meltdown of a nuclear core. Disposal issues also complicate the matter. Since the spent core remains dangerously radioactive for thousands of years, storage facilities have been built underground to contain them. France, the world’s largest user of nuclear power, has recently admitted that if it can’t find a better way to deal with its nuclear waste it will need to stop its nuclear program.
Nuclear proponents argue that nuclear power is a highly sustainable energy source that reduces carbon emissions and dependence upon foreign oil. Detractors voice concerns over the dangers inherent in meltdowns and radioactive waste. For now though, nuclear power remains an important source of electrical generation.