From the beginning, nuclear energy had its controversies. Sold to the public as a miracle energy fuel, its roots were in the destruction of WWII. After the war, several countries had enough stockpiles of atomic weapons to destroy entire civilizations. In 1953, President Eisenhower’s “Atoms for Peace” speech highlighted ways to reverse the atomic military build-up by taking the destructive atomic power out of the hands of soldiers and adapting it to peaceful means — from demon technology to miracle technology.
Nuclear power was sold to the public as a miracle energy fuel in an intense public relations campaign. Theoretically, nuclear reactors could produce more fissionable fuel than they used. It took a lot of testing, a lot of money and several failures before we could harness nuclear power. However the miracle of cheap, safe energy never happened.
Before going mainstream, the general public had to be sold on the idea of nuclear energy. Many people were not convinced that it was safe — that all the engineering skill in the world could not prevent a nuclear reactor from turning into a small-scale atomic bomb. In the 1950s there was an unlimited supply of cheap fossil fuel, and the electric companies did not want to underwrite this expensive, controversial new power source. However experiments went ahead and the first reactor was built which could power four light bulbs. Since then over 400 nuclear power plants have been built, supplying over 20% of the world’s energy needs.
Like all new technology, things went wrong from the beginning. Unfortunately this technology’s mistakes were deadly — and accidents were more frequent than they should have been. An explosion in Idaho caused a meltdown and killed all three workers. A Canadian reactor released over a million gallons of radioactive water in an attempt to prevent a meltdown. At Windscale, England the core caught fire when testing went wrong, releasing large amounts of radioactive contamination into the surrounding area. South of Detroit, a malfunction with a safety device at the Fermi I reactor led to a partial meltdown.
Then came Three Mile Island where 13 million curies of radioactive gases were leaked into the environment, forcing the evacuation of the area and stalling the nuclear program in the United States.
Then Chernobyl exploded and caught fire, poisoning over 100,000 km2 and sending radioactive fallout to parts of Western Europe. But these accidents faded from memory. Many people still believed in nuclear power, including high officials in the current White House Administration. The United States has again been examining nuclear energy’s capability to power a nation.
Then came Fukushima Daiichi in Japan. Germany, the country that gave us Einstein and the intelligence to develop the bomb, has recently announced its plans on closing all of its nuclear power plants by 2022 and replacing them with renewable energy. German Chancellor Angela Merkel wants Germany to be the first “big industrial country to shift to highly efficient and renewable energy, with all the opportunities that offers.” Switzerland soon followed with their own plan to discontinue its nuclear energy program.
Nuclear energy came to us through the destruction of a world war. It was sold as a cheap, safe source of energy, but its benefits never materialized. After all the disasters, many people have had enough of nuclear energy and its unknown factors. Could Germany and Switzerland be leaders in the end of the atomic age?