Nuclear Science



One of the most spectacular - and controversial - accomplishments of U.S. technology has been the harnessing of nuclear energy. The concepts that led to the splitting of the atom were developed by the scientists of many countries, but the conversion of these ideas into the reality of nuclear fission was the achievement of U.S. scientists in the early 1940s.

After German physicists split a uranium nucleus in 1938, Albert Einstein, Enrico Fermi, and Leo Szilard concluded that a nuclear chain reaction was feasible. In a letter to President Franklin Roosevelt, Einstein warned that this breakthrough would permit the construction of "extremely powerful bombs." His warning inspired the Manhattan Project, the U.S. effort to be the first to build an atomic bomb. The project bore fruit when the first such bomb was exploded in New Mexico on July 16, 1945.

The development of the bomb and its use against Japan in August of 1945 initiated the Atomic Age, a time of anxiety over weapons of mass destruction that has lasted through the Cold War and down to the antiproliferation efforts of today. But the Atomic Age has also been characterized by peaceful uses of atomic energy, as in nuclear power and nuclear medicine.

The first U.S. commercial nuclear power plant started operation in Illinois in 1956. A 1979 accident at Three Mile Island in Pennsylvania turned many Americans against nuclear power. The cost of building a nuclear power plant escalated, and other, more economical sources of power began to look more appealing. During the 1970s and 1980s, plans for several nuclear plants were cancelled, and the future of nuclear power remains in a state of uncertainty in the United States.

Nuclear power plants generate 20 percent of the electricity produced in the U.S.However, all current plans to expand electricity-generating capacity rely primarily on natural gas. To help meet the growing demand for new baseload electricity generation, the Nuclear Energy Program has recommended expanding the role of nuclear energy as a major component of the U.S. energy picture.

- Abridged from State Dept. Publications and other U.S. government materials
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[Last Updated: 9/16/2010]
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