In the 1960s, the realities of the nuclear age were new to everyone. At the end of the Second World War, it seemed that only the Japanese population living in Hiroshima and Nagasaki had suffered the terrible fate of an atomic bomb that annihilated two cities in a mushroom-like cloud. Despite the immense destruction that materialised during WWII, the world remained seduced by the promise of the atomic age. Nuclear power, it seemed, could transform our lives and produce electricity that was cost-effective. In 2011, around 15 percent of the world’s electricity was generated by nuclear power plants.
However you view nuclear technology, it seems clear the world changed forever with the detonation of the first atomic bomb. The realisation of the sheer magnitude of the potential power of the atom redefined the modus operandi of international politics. Despite all the moral pitfalls associated with nuclear energy, the production–but not the detonation–of the two atomic bombs is still viewed by many as a triumph of twentieth-century science.
The steam-powered industrial revolution that had characterised the pre-WWII era was rendered obsolete; and new, never-before-seen industries emerged on the horizon.
The Origin of Atomic Research
In 1917, New Zealand physicist Ernest Rutherford, split the atom for the very first time. Close to a decade and a half later, in 1933, Hungarian physicist Leo Szilard suggested that it would be possible to set off an explosive chain reaction; in which every split atom released many more neutrons that smashed into yet more atoms. At every step in this nuclear chain, huge amounts of energy would be produced. Szilard believed that the best chain reaction would come from splitting uranium, a metal with a large nucleus that would produce the most neutrons at each step.
In their lab in Cambridge, Austrian Hans von Halban and Russian Lew Kowarski, had been investigating how to generate useable electricity from the energy released by chain reactions. They figured that rather than setting off a runaway fission explosion, it was possible to control the chain reactions inside what they called a nuclear reactor. While investigating this, they realised that the splitting uranium atoms resulted in a new element, which they named plutonium.
Producing plutonium was a major aspect of The Manhattan Project during World War II which led to the creation of the very first atomic bombs. The Fat Man bombs used in the Trinity nuclear test in July 1945, and in the bombing of Nagasaki in August 1945, had plutonium cores.
A nuclear explosion creates a huge fireball. It thrusts into the atmosphere everything that is present within it—from soil to water to the remains of the land where it was detonated. This cloud of destruction eventually loses its upward momentum and spreads out, creating a mushroom cloud in its aftermath. The cloud then disperses and gradually returns to Earth. Some of the debris reaches the ground within a few minutes, while other material that is thrusted high into the atmosphere stays afloat like driftwood in the air for many months.
The larger the explosion, the higher the cloud takes the debris. The further up it goes, the longer it takes to return to the ground and the further away it falls. The destructive cloud that ensued in the wake of the first atomic bombs returned to the land within seventy days.
Hiroshima’s leaders say they want the city to be regarded by the world in two ways: as a cautionary tale—a warning about the horrors of nuclear warfare—and as a phoenix that survived those horrors and resurrected itself, a triumph of the human spirit.
For the first time in recorded history, humanity recognised that its ability to self-destruct had reached a never-before-seen scale in our short-lived stint on planet earth. Nature’s resilience in the face of radiation, however, remained sacrosanct. The grass grew, the leaves sprouted and the Earth regenerated herself.
Nuclear Energy Today
The fuel most widely used to produce nuclear energy today is uranium, an atom that splits apart relatively easily. The element of uranium is commonly found in rocks all over the world, but the specific type of uranium which is used to produce nuclear energy is called U-235, which makes up less than one percent of the uranium in the world.
Nuclear energy is the world’s second largest source of low-carbon power, providing about 10% of the world’s electricity. Statistics from 2019, which included data from twelve countries, found that these countries collectively produced at least one-quarter of their electricity needs from nuclear power.
France, which gets around three-quarters of its electricity from nuclear energy, has a history with nuclear power that runs deep. The country runs 58 nuclear power plants, which were built as a response to the oil crisis of the 1970s. Over the next few decades, France installed numerous nuclear reactors, satisfying its power needs and becoming a net exporter of electricity to other European countries. In 2020, however, France began shutting down its older nuclear plants as part of a broad energy strategy to rely more on renewable energy sources in response to the 2011 Fukushima disaster.
A major environmental concern related to nuclear power are radioactive wastes which can remain dangerous to human health for thousands of years. Radioactive wastes are subject to local and international regulations that govern their handling, transportation, storage and disposal in order to protect human health and the environment. With regards to the Tohoku Earthquake and Tsunami, research from the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute registered radiation levels in the ocean near the Fukushima reactors as ’50 million times higher than before the accident’ and described it as ‘a threat to marine life.’
In April 2021, a decade after the Fukushima disaster, the Japanese government approved a plan to release more than one million tonnes of contaminated water from the destroyed Fukushima nuclear plant into the sea. The water will be treated and diluted so radiation levels are below those set for drinking water. The local fishing industry has strongly opposed the move and the decision has prompted criticism from Japan’s neighbours.
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In nature, as in life, everything has a cost–a duality.