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2050 — The Energy of Evolution
Chapter 2: Nuclear Energy

YOWBOOKS.COM, 17-July-04
Jacco van der Worp

2050 - The Energy of Evolution Chapter 2: Nuclear EnergyNuclear energy has been developing as a source of energy for humankind over roughly the last half century.  With that history, it is one of the youngest forms of energy at our disposal.  Energy from steam was discovered late 18th century, in comparison.  However, at the start of the 21st century, the best days of steam energy are long past.  It has too many disadvantages to remain a viable option.  It just cannot fulfill our needs for increasingly more energy while its environmental problems become too pressing.  Therefore, we need to look around for alternatives to use instead; we will begin here with nuclear energy.

We will start by looking at an overview of how nuclear energy got to where it is today.  Then, we will address a more crucial question: will nuclear energy ever be completely capable to fulfill our needs, or will it also fail and wane away into history?  We will look at the pro's and con's of nuclear energy and discover its path of two steps forward and one step back, as it has followed from its discovery until today.  We will start with an introduction into the history of nuclear energy, to set the framework, in which all of this has its place.

Origin and History of Nuclear Energy

The history of nuclear energy started on the eve of the 20th century.  Creating power from the atom; nobody would have thought of that before Pierre and Marie Curie discovered in 1898 that the elements of Uranium, Thorium, Polonium and Radium emitted some strange radiation; the same type of radiation Henry Becquerel had labeled U-rays only a few years earlier.  This radiation would blacken photographic film right through the body of a man, just like the mysterious X rays did that had been discovered not long before that by Wilhelm Roentgen.  Marie Curie based her PhD thesis on the mysterious radiation.  The research got her and her husband the Nobel Prize of Physics in 1903. 

However, there was a (hidden) downside to their research as well.  After Pierre Curie died in a traffic accident in 1906, Marie continued to research into the mysterious matter alone.  She found a way to use chemicals to isolate metallic Radium, which earned her a second Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1911 .  Yet, the radiation had started to take its toll upon her.  Slowly poisoned by it over the years, from 1920 on, she started suffering from health problems.  As it turned out later, continued overexposure to the ionizing radiation caused her ill health.

She realized the possible connection between the radiation and her health problems, and she made all of her co-workers have their blood tested and use lead shielding after 1925.  In 1934, she died of what was most likely a bone marrow defect caused by prolonged exposure to radiation.

However, physics and mankind had made a big step forward.  Surgeons could now diagnose patients' injuries without having to operate on them to locate the problem, but it came at the price of the lives of the first researchers.  The loss of their lives was the step back that was inevitable to make two steps forward.

During her later years, Marie Curie involved her daughter, Irene, into her research, along with Irene's husband Frederic Joliot.  She was sure to caution them about the effects the radiation could have on the human body.  Irene managed to create artificial radioactivity for the first time by irradiating a sheet of aluminum with alpha particles (Helium atom cores).

World War II and nuclear research

During the years that preceded World War II, research into the possibilities of this radiation technology took off around the world.  However, World War II changed things dramatically.  Fortunately for the world, Hitler did not really believe in atomic power, or he would have started developing a weapon based on the power of the atom sooner than he did in the end.  Eventually though, research for an atomic weapon started even in Nazi Germany.  Yet, the Nazis were defeated before Hitler could ever equip one of his V-1 or V-2 rockets with a nuclear charge.

Albert Einstein reported news of Hitler's research to the allied governments, among others.  He requested that the US government take steps to counter the danger by researching and developing such a weapon before the Nazis could do it.  President Roosevelt listened to Einstein's call and formed the Manhattan Project team, to complete building an atomic weapon before the Nazis would complete their research.  As history would have it, the Allies defeated Nazi Germany just before they could complete their work.  If they had not done so, London would have probably suffered a decisive attack with a nuclear weapon in the same manner that Hiroshima and Nagasaki now did to end the war in Asia.

After the dust in the Nevada desert had settled on July 16, 1945, J. Robert Oppenheimer and his team of the Manhattan Project started to realize the full strength of the new, powerful weapon they had created.  A month later, World War II ended with two of the new weapons obliterating two of Japan's cities, forcing the empire to its knees.  Almost six decades after the two bombings, however, children in the two cities still suffer considerably more from leukemia and bone marrow cancer than comparable populations elsewhere, a lengthy inheritance of the attacks.

Even in this grim application of nuclear technology, one can see a process of steps.  One step forward in this is the abrupt ending of WWII, where otherwise Allied forces might have had to conquer Japan bit by bit in the same way they had to conquer Germany before it finally surrendered.  This would without doubt have cost hundreds of thousands lives, quite likely more than the inhabitants of the two cities that were now killed by the two gruesome bombings.  The significant step backwards is the continuing long-term effect of the radioactivity unleashed in the attacks of August 1945, which we can still see today.  Once again, there are two sides to every story.

Research after the war

As World War II ended, gradually the thought came to try to harness the immense power into something useful in peacetime.  If the unleashed power could destroy a city, it should provide a city with sufficient power if harnessed. 

Simultaneously, the search went on to further enhance the weapon developed in the Manhattan Project; in the back of peoples' minds a Cold War was flaming up to full strength, getting very near to "hot war" at times.  The most notable time of those was the Cuban missile crisis in 1962.

Edward Teller did important work in the development of the hydrogen bomb, first tested in 1952.  The bomb, which works on the principle of hydrogen fusion, turned out to be many times stronger than the previously used fission bombs.  It also showed that the nuclear fusion that produces stars could be recreated on Earth as well, but not under controlled circumstances.  This time, the step back preceded any step forward, as it really ignited the arms race between the US and the USSR, culminating in a 58 megaton (!) explosion of the Czar bomb on Nova Zemlya on October 30, 1961.  To date, that remains the single biggest man-made explosion on Earth.  This test so impressed and frightened both the USSR and the US that they entered into negotiations that led to the decision to stop atmospheric and underwater testing of nuclear weapons completely.

Peaceful application

Besides the application in weapons of atom-splitting there was the application of nuclear force in ways that are more peaceful.  In 1951, the first experimental reactor produced ‘nuclear electricity'.  It was used to power the world's first nuclear-driven submarine Nautilus, which used nuclear power to cross the Arctic Ocean under the ice of the North Pole.  The first merchant ships powered by nuclear energy soon followed this military application.

By 1957, the first electrical power coming out of a full-scale nuclear power plant reached homes in the United States.  Two years before that, the first test reactors had begun supplying power to small communities already.  These reactors used the fission principle to release the energy of the atom.  The main obstacle to overcome to get to this more peaceful application was to keep the reaction under control, to harness the immense power that a nuclear reaction releases.

As the years progressed, the new power source was gradually taken further.  Bigger reactors were built for more power production.  We built reactors to operate in less accessible places.  We ultimately even developed small but efficient reactors for spacecraft.  This was a true step forward for the durability of satellites that have been launched to explore our Solar system since the early sixties.  They could now carry on working for many years longer than they could on conventional batteries.  There is more success to be reported:  a country like France today draws up to 80% of its electricity from nuclear power. 

Again, however there are steps back involved in this process of growth.  A known problem in nuclear energy is the radioactivity of its waste products.  Radioactive waste is difficult to contain and must be stored for a long time to keep people safe from it.  In addition, most people will know about at least one of the nuclear disasters and near-disasters that shook the world, in which power plants were involved.  They were accidents like in the South Ural in 1957, the meltdown of a reactor in Chernobyl in 1986 and near-accidents on Three Mile Island in 1979 and Tokaimura, Japan, as recently as 1999.  They were almost inevitable consequences of humankind trying to master this technology to a level, at which we can use it reliably.

These occasional steps backward, bad and painful as they may be, need not be fatal to the technological progress as long as we learn the lessons that they teach us.  Fortunately, we are doing so.  Reactor concepts today are based on the fail-safe principle.  This means, the moment a reactor fails, it falls back to a safe state instead of running out of control.  The reactor will self-terminate, eliminating risks to the public.  However, regardless of the latest technology design, there will always remain a small possibility of a catastrophe.  That is inherent to humans trying to master any force of nature, not just nuclear energy.

A new age

Recently, a new step back began looming around the corner.  Terrorists are trying to get their hands on nuclear material or waste products to use for their own vile purposes.  Can we stop this trend before entire populations get hurt?  How will we block this new step back, and how will we start to move forward again?

Evaluating nuclear energy

In order to be able to decide whether the path followed thus far in research and application of nuclear energy technology has had more steps forward than back, we need to look at the positive and negative aspects connected to the developments.  We will do this for the two main forms of nuclear energy and variations to them.  Those forms; nuclear fission and nuclear fusion, form the two most successful or promising technologies in the area of nuclear energy.  We will discuss them in more depth in the next two chapters.  We will get into the benefits and drawbacks, the problems like nuclear waste and solutions to those problems and possible future developments in that area.  We will start with fission type reactors.