Editor’s note: Today, Choose Energy reporter Jenna Careri begins a series of articles on nuclear power, where it stands in the U.S. and where it’s going. Up first: What no one told you about nuclear power.
The history of nuclear
A German chemist named Martin Klaproth first identified uranium in 1789. But the concept of nuclear energy didn’t truly take off until the 1930s, when physicist Enrico Fermi succeeded in splitting neutrons into different types of atoms. German and Austrian scientists then confirmed that uranium, when split, releases energy. This is called nuclear fission.
The first nuclear reactor was developed by Fermi and other scientists in 1942 in Chicago. Much of nuclear development from that point on was focused on creating an atomic weapon for use in World War II. The secretive – and ultimately successful – effort was known as the Manhattan Project.
After the war, nuclear science switched gears towards commercial electricity production. Scientists first produced a small amount of electricity at a nuclear reactor site in Idaho. President Eisenhower’s 1953 “Atoms for Peace” program further kickstarted the industry, and the first commercial electricity nuclear reactor was launched in 1957 at the Shippingport Atomic Power Station in Pennsylvania.
How does nuclear power work?
Nuclear power plants are another type of steam-electric power station. Similar to coal and gas-fired plants, steam powers the turbines which generate the electricity. Unlike coal and gas-fired plants, a nuclear reactor uses uranium to create steam. When uranium undergoes nuclear fission, it splits into two lighter atoms and releases the difference in energy as heat. In the reactor that heat is used to boil water.
Uranium nuclear fission is self-sustaining, but the fuel is changed every few years to make the reactor as efficient as possible.
World nuclear power
The U.S. is the leader in nuclear power generation, followed by France and China. France is also the country that gets the most of its electricity from nuclear power (71.6 percent). Behind France is Ukraine at 55 percent and Slovakia at 54 percent nuclear-powered electricity.