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55 Interesting Facts About . . .

Nuclear Power

  1. In 1905, Einstein discovered that mass could be changed into energy and vice versa. In 1918, Sir Ernest Rutherford showed that atoms could be split. By 1942, the world had its first nuclear reactor.g
  2. Today, 104 nuclear plants supply about 20% of the United State’s electricity. The oldest plants have been operating since before 1979. There have been no new sites built since the Three Mile Island disaster (1979).a
  3. While nuclear power plants themselves do not create carbon dioxide, sulfur dioxide, or nitrogen oxides, the mining, enrichment, and transportation of uranium generates harmful fossil fuel byproducts.d
  4. Fossil fuels supply about 90% of the world’s electricity. These fuels emit dangerous gasses such as carbon dioxide, sulfur dioxide, and nitrogen oxide, which create acid rain and may contribute to global warming. Nuclear energy does not directly add harmful gases to the atmosphere, but nuclear plants are expensive to build and create radioactive materials.h
  5. Globally, there are over 430 commercial nuclear power reactors in 31 countries.i
  6. There have been three major nuclear power plant disasters: the Chernobyl disaster (1986), the Three Mile Island accident (1979), and the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster (2011).b
  7. The world’s first nuclear power plant to create electricity for a power grid was USSR’s Obninsk Nuclear Power Plant, which opened on June 27, 1954.d
  8. In the United States, the first commercial nuclear generator was the Shippingport Reactor in Pennsylvania, which opened in 1957.a
  9. Chernobyl Contaminated food was still sold after the Chernobyl disaster
  10. Contaminated food was still sold in the Ukraine after the Chernobyl accident. One worker described the conditions after the accident: “Contaminated meat would come into the factory. The internal organs of the cattle would be black and rotten, but still the meat was sold.”f
  11. In the United States, radioactivity is often measured in rems. However, most countries currently use the sievert (Sv) to measure radioactivity. One sievert is equal to 100 rems. The nuclear waste from an entire reactor gives off about 10,000 rems per hour, even 10 years after it was first used in a nuclear plant. A human who is exposed to 500 rems at one time will die.d
  12. Currently, nuclear waste in the United States is stored in cooling pools of water and in dry storage casks at nuclear power plants. The United States government, however, hopes to bury its waste deep underground at Yucca Mountain, Nevada. Nevadans and surrounding states have protested this proposal.e
  13. The U.S.S. Nautilus was the first nuclear-powered submarine and was put to sea in December 1954. Named after the submarine in Jules Verne’s Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, she was the first vessel to travel submerged under the North Pole, on August 3, 1958. She was decommissioned in 1980 and has been preserved as a National Historic Landmark.a
  14. The United States has 71,862 tons of nuclear waste. Waste can stay dangerous for tens of thousands of years. The industry’s nuclear pile of waste is growing about 2,200 tons a year. Some waste sites contain four times the amount of spent fuel they were designed to handle.e
  15. Waste from the 1979 Three Mile Island accident is stored in Idaho, even though Idaho has never had a commercial reactor. Illinois has the most spent nuclear fuel of any other state in the U.S. at 9,301 tons. It is followed by Pennsylvania (6,446 tons), South Carolina (4,290), and New York and North Carolina (3,780 tons each).a
  16. An estimated 3 million Americans live within 10 miles of a functional nuclear power plant.b
  17. Nuclear power plants use nuclear fission, or the process of splitting an atom into two. Nuclear fusion (the process of combining atoms into one) is thought to be safer; however, nuclear fusion technology has not yet been developed on a wide scale.h
  18. A nuclear power plant must shut down every 18-24 months to remove its used uranium fuel, or radioactive waste.h
  19. The first disastrous impact from nuclear energy occurred in August 1945 when the United States dropped two atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Over 250,000 people, mostly civilians, died from the detonations.f
  20. South Africa developed complete nuclear weapons in the 1980s. However, it became the first country in the world to voluntarily destroy their weapon supply and to stop producing more weapons.c
  21. The USSR tested its first nuclear weapon at Semipalatinsk in Kazakhstan on August 29, 1949. The Russians were able to develop their own nuclear capabilities so soon after the United States did due to extensive nuclear espionage at Los Alamos, California, mainly by Klaus Fuchs (1911-1988).a
  22. anti-nuclear The peace symbol was originally an anti-nuclear emblem
  23. The peace symbol was initially an anti-nuclear weapons symbol.b
  24. Some scientists estimate that a person receives five times as much radiation in a lifetime from sitting in front of the TV or computer as he or she would from living by a nuclear power station.f
  25. The Sun produces an enormous amount of energy from its nuclear reactions that change hydrogen into helium. In the process, the Sun loses over 4 million tons of mass—every second.h
  26. A team from the Manhattan Project led by Enrico Fermi created the first self-sustaining or crucial nuclear reactor at the University of Chicago on December 2, 1942.d
  27. The first nuclear weapon in the world was detonated as a test by the United States at the Trinity site on July 16, 1945. Considered the beginning of the Atomic Age, the denotation took place in New Mexico. The fireball was about 600 feet wide and generated power roughly equivalent to 20 kilotons of TNT. The test director commented after the explosion that: “Now we are all sons of bitches.”a
  28. The most recent nuclear test was done by North Korea on May 25, 2009.c
  29. The United States primarily used the Nevada Test Site and the Marshall Islands (Pacific Proving Grounds) to test their atomic and nuclear weapons.f
  30. The most powerful nuclear device ever detonated by the United States (at 25 megatons) was Castle Bravo at the Bikini Atoll of the Marshall Islands on March 1, 1954. It was also the largest accidental radiological contamination caused by the U.S. It was about 1,000 times more powerful than each of the atomic bombs which were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki during WWII. Castle Bravo was the fifth largest nuclear explosion in the world.c
  31. The most powerful nuclear weapon ever detonated was Russia’s Tsar Bomba. It is also the single most physically powerful device ever created by man. The fireball reached nearly as high as the altitude of the release plan and was seen 620 miles from ground zero. The mushroom cloud was over 40 miles high and the base of the cloud was 25 miles wide. It was test-denotated on October 30, 1961, in the Novaya Zemlya archipelago.c
  32. nuclear weapon test The four types of nuclear testing including atmospheric, underwater, exoatmospheric, and underground
  33. From 1945 to 1980, over 500 nuclear weapons were tested in the atmosphere around the world. The CDC estimates that nuclear fallout from these tests caused over 11,000 excess deaths, mainly caused by thyroid cancer.c
  34. Government regulators in the U.S estimate that there is a 50% chance of a core meltdown in a U.S. reactor within a 20-year period.b
  35. The CIA has noted that chronic India-Pakistan conflict is a “flash point,” or a conflict most likely to lead to nuclear war. A second conflict would be that between the U.S. and the People’s Republic of China over Taiwan.c
  36. J. Robert Oppenheimer, along with Enrico Fermi, is considered the “father of the atomic bomb.” After the Trinity test in the United States in 1945, Oppenheimer quoted a line from the Bhagavad Gita: “Now, I am become death, the destroyer of the world.”b
  37. Some researchers have argued that even a limited nuclear war (a small-scale use of nuclear weapons) would lead to a “global holocaust in slow motion” because once even a small nuclear war started, other nations would follow over decades, resulting in a “full-scale nuclear war.”f
  38. Just removing a person’s outer clothing can remove 90% of the radioactive material after a disaster.f
  39. After Japan’s nuclear disaster in 2011, several countries have rethought the use of nuclear energy. For example, Germany plans to close all of its reactors by 2022. Italy and Switzerland have halted expanding their nuclear power. However, some big markets, such as China and India, are still pushing ahead with new nuclear plants.e
  40. Before the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster in 2011, the International Energy Agency predicted that nuclear plants would add 360 gigawatts of generating capacity by 2035. After Fukushima, the IEA halved those estimates.e
  41. nuclear plant Shearon Harris is considered a highly vulnerable terrorist target
  42. The largest radioactive waste storage pool in the U.S. is in North Carolina at the Shearon Harris nuclear plant. The department of Homeland Security had marked Shearon Harris as one of the most vulnerable terrorist targets in the nation.e
  43. Randall Thompson, a health physics technician who monitored the Three Mile Island disaster, claims that what happened there was “a whole lot worse than what has been reported [. . .] hundreds of times worse.” He claims that radiation leaks from the plant were hundreds if not thousands of times higher than the government or industry ever acknowledged.f
  44. A nuclear war would kill approximately 1 billion people, and hundreds of millions would be injured. The 3-4 billion people left alive would find themselves facing widespread radioactive contamination, a possible nuclear winter, increased levels of damaging ultraviolet rays due to partial destruction of the ozone layer, a global photochemical smog, as well as a multitude of toxic pollutants.f
  45. Between 1945 and 1996, over 2,000 nuclear tests were carried out globally. Between 1945 and 1992, the U.S. held over 1,032 tests. Between 1949 and 1990, the Soviet Union carried out 715 tests. Additionally, between 1952 and 1991, the UK carried out 45 tests. France carried out 210 tests between 1960 and 1996. China carried out 45 tests between 1964 and 1996.f
  46. Of the 2,000 nuclear explosions detonated over the world between 1954 and 1996, 25% (over 500 bombs) were detonated in the atmosphere. The majority has been detonated underground. In fact, 75% of all nuclear tests during the Cold War were detonated underground.c
  47. When the Soviet Union tested its first atomic bomb, Joe 1, on August 29, 1949, it marked the beginning of the Cold War nuclear arms race between the U.S and the Soviet Union. The United Kingdom was the third country to test nuclear weapons, on October 3, 1952.c
  48. Between 1955 and 1989, the average number of nuclear tests every year was 55.c
  49. Physicists Leo Szilard and Albert Einstein drafted a letter (the Einstein-Szilard letter) to President Franklin Roosevelt warning the United States that Nazi Germany had begun a nuclear weapons research project. The letter led to fission research in the United States and spawned the Manhattan Project.g
  50. The average cost of building one new reactor for a new plant in the United States is between $6 and $8 billion.a
  51. The Chernobyl disaster released a hundred times more radiation than the atom bombs dropped on Nagasaki and Hiroshima in WWII. The environmental group Greenpeace says its research shows that the death toll will be near 100,000.a
  52. The first nuclear-powered surface vessel was the Russian icebreaker Lenin. The largest nuclear powered surface ship is the 1,122-foot-long USS Enterprise, which was launched in 1960. It is the longest naval vessel in the world and has eight reactors driving four propellers. It is still active.g
  53. One of NASA’s programs, called Project Prometheus, is investigating nuclear power as the primary power source for long-distance spacecraft. Increased speeds could cut a journey to Mars by two thirds.a
  54. Nuclear medicine uses radioactive isotopes (or radioisotopes) to study, diagnose, and treat diseases. Additionally, radiotherapy is used to treat many medical conditions, especially cancer, by using radiation to destroy targeted cells.a
  55. The Kashiwazaki-Kariwa power plant in Tokyo is the largest nuclear plant in the world. In 2007, it was shut down temporarily after its safety systems failed during an earthquake.h
  56. Radiation in high doses can cause very serious illness or death. Symptoms include sever headaches, vomiting, and internal bleeding. A victim’s hair may fall out and their skin may develop blisters and sores. Some victims of radiation sickness also need to have their limbs amputated. Lower doses of radiation can have long-lasting effects, such as increased likelihood of developing tumors and cancer that may not show up for 30 years or more.f
  57. Uranium is a source of today’s nuclear fuel. During the Middle Ages, craftspeople used it to color glass yellow or certain shades of green.f
  58. It took 14 years and $975 million to clean up after Three Mile Island disaster.b
  59. The fallout from Chernobyl set off alarms at a Swedish nuclear plant 700 miles away. A radioactive cloud reached countries from Turkey to Ireland.b
    Top Uranium Producers in the World (2006) h
    Country Percent
    Canada 25.0%
    Australia 19.3%
    Kazakhstan 13.4%
    Niger 8.7%
    Russia 8.3%
    Namibia 7.8%
    Uzbekistan 5.7%
    United States 4.2%
    Ukraine 2.0%
    China 1.9%
    Total 96.3%

    Number of Nuclear Warheads (2007) h
    Country Number
    Russia 16,000
    United States 10,300
    China 410
    France 350
    United Kingdom 200
    Israel 100-170
    India 75-119
    Pakistan 50-110
    Total 27,485-27,650

    Nuclear Timeline a
    Einstein, Szilard, and other scientists draft a letter to the president warning about Nazi plans to develop nuclear weapons.
    June 1941
    Roosevelt creates the Office of Scientific Research and Development.
    June 1942
    The Manhattan Project begins.
    July 1945
    The test bomb, Trinity, is detonated.
    August 1945
    The United States bombs Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Japan surrenders in WW II.
    The Soviet Union and the United States engage in the Cold War.
    November 1952
    The United States tests the first thermonuclear bomb.
    August 1953
    The Soviet Union detonates its first hydrogen bomb.
    December 1953
    Eisenhower delivers his “Atoms for Peace” speech before the United Nations.
    March 1954
    The Soviet Union opens its first plant to generate electricity from nuclear power.
    The USS Nautalis becomes the world’s first nuclear-powered submarine.
    July 1957
    The International Atomic Energy Agency is established.
    October 1962
    The Cuban Missile Crisis brings the Cold War closest to the American shore.
    March 1970
    The Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty goes into effect.
    January 1975
    The Nuclear Regulatory Commission is formed.
    March 28, 1979
    A reactor core at the Three Mile Island nuclear plant partially melts down.
    April 25, 1986
    Chernobyl melts down.
    March 2011
    Fukushima melts down.

-- Posted August 31, 2012


a Benoit, Peter. 2012. Nuclear Age. New York, NY: Scholastic Inc.

b ----. 2011. Nuclear Meltdowns. New York, NY: Scholastic Inc.

c “Ending Nuclear Testing.” The United Nations. 2011. Accessed: July 22, 2012.

d Ferguson, Charles D. 2011. Nuclear Energy: What Everyone Needs to Know. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.

e Galbraith, Kate. “A New Urgency to the Problem of Storing Nuclear Waste.” The New York Times. November 27, 2011. Accessed: July 22, 2012.

f Johnston, Barbara Rose and Holly M. Barker. 2008. The Consequential Damages of Nuclear War: The Rongelap Report. Walnut Creek, CA: Left Coast Press, Inc.

g Juettner, Bonnie. 2007. Nuclear Power. New York, NY: Thompson Gale.

h Morris, Neil. 2010. Nuclear Power. Mankato, MN: Smart Apple Media.

i “Nuclear Power in the World Today.” World Nuclear Association. Updated April 2012. Accessed: July 22, 2012.