The origins of nuclear power can be traced back to the work of Ernest Rutherford, often referred to as the father of nuclear physics. Rutherford is credited with having split the atom in 1917, after which his research team made attempts to split atom nuclei artificially, using a particle accelerator.
Development sped up after 1932 after James Chadwick’s discovery of the neutron in 1932, and it was Enrico Fermi who first achieved success with nuclear fission in laboratory conditions. Fermi and his team achieved this by bombarding uranium with neutrons.
After further work in 1938 by German chemists and Austrian physicists experimenting with he products of neutron-bombarded uranium. Their work showed that the massive uranium atoms were split into two practically equal pieces by the tiny neutron. This discovery led step by step to investigations into self-sustaining nuclear chain reactions. As a result, scientists in many different countries presented cases to their respective governments for funds to support further research into nuclear fission.
The first man-made reactor was created in the United States in 1942, which was dubbed “Chicago Pile-1”. It later became part of the Manhattan Project, which bred plutonium intended for use in the first nuclear weapons,later to be used in the attacks on Nagasaki and Hiroshima.
Post World War 2 and the both literally and figuratively earth-shattering events thereof there was wide-spread concern that nuclear weapons technology would proliferate, and coupled with memories of the horrors of Japan this led many in the US government and other countries with access to the technology to keep all nuclear-related research under strict governmental classification.
In an effort to put nuclear energy to better use the first electricity generated by a nuclear reactor was produced on December 20th, 1951 at an experimental reactor in Idaho. Despite this relative success the reactor was also the first to witness a partial meltdown, and President Harry Truman at that time opted to shift further research into solar energy, expressing a somewhat pessimistic view as to the future of nuclear energy.
It was President Eisenhower, however, who spelled out his dictum of “Atoms for Peace” in a speech on December 1953, and it was at this point that government backing for the use of international nuclear power grew. Further reactors were built after then, notably in Sellafield in the UK, and the US Navy was the first organisation to harness nuclear power for actual operational use on their ships.
The final decades of the 20th century, however, saw increased opposition to the use of nuclear power with the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND) prominent among many protest groups. There were increased concerns with regard to the effects nuclear power had on human health and safety as well as growing Cold War fears regarding the possible use of nuclear weapons militarily. Health issues and concerns were exacerbated by the accidents at Three Mile Island in 1979 and the 1986 Chernobyl disaster. This led to the wide-spread re-assessment of nuclear energy and investigations into alternative energy sources that continue to this day.