Nuclear energy refers to the use of nuclear reactions such as nuclear fission, nuclear fusion, and nuclear decay in order to produce power. The controversy over nuclear energy concerns both its perceived impact on the environment and its capacity for weaponization. This history of nuclear energy centers on the expansion of war-making capabilities and, specifically, the creation of weapons capable of mass casualty and mass destruction. But over time, nuclear energy has also become at once an ingrained part of the power grid in the United States and the world. Today, the global debate over nuclear energy concerns its safety, environmental impact, capacity for civil energy production, and its global proliferation as a source of potentially catastrophic weaponry.
Today, there is widespread disagreement about the role of nuclear energy in a civil society, both in terms of its military implications and its potential for energy production. Among the key positions taken in the debate:
Nuclear energy is an issue which is only further clouded by the complex state of geopolitical relationships and global alliances, which often dictate which nations are viewed as qualified to possess nuclear power and which are viewed as unqualified to possess nuclear power. Nations in the developing sphere are typically more likely to fall into this latter category due to their presumed governmental instability, their unwillingness to adhere to global treaties, and the threat they are perceived to represent to neighbors or the global community. Further, the threat of nuclear conflict is a defining feature of numerous regional and global disputes such as those that persist between North and South Korea, India and Pakistan, or Israel and Iran. The persistence of such tensions, the proliferation of nuclear capability, and the precarious state of world affairs all must factor into any debate over the implications of nuclear energy.
In 1896, a French physicist named Henri Becquerel discovered radioactivity while examining the trait of phosphorescence in uranium salts. One year later, British physicist J.J. Thomson discovered the electron, and therefore became the first person to identify a subatomic particle. These two watershed moments initiated the field of nuclear physics, which consequently launched four decades of experimentation on the way to nuclear fission.
Over time, this experimentation became increasingly dedicated to producing energy. Among the landmark moments on the way to true nuclear energy:
*Marie Curie, Irene Joliot-Curie, and Frederic Joliot-Curie would all ultimately die of illness related to radioactive exposure. Though Pierre Curie was killed suddenly when he inadvertently stepped in front of a streetcar in 1906, it is believed that his level of exposure would also have eventually claimed his life.
As the timeline above demonstrates, the pursuit of nuclear energy was only made possible by the work of chemists, physicists and scientists the world over. Ironically, the following decade of nuclear experimentation would be stimulated by fracturing global relations and the growing ambition of nations to make war on one another.
When the escalation of global tensions unfolded into war in 1939, the respective powers of the world petitioned their governments to fund further experimentation into nuclear fission, especially for the purposes of weaponization. In the United States, this marked the initiation of the so-called Manhattan Project. In fact, when Hitler rose to power in Germany, scores of the best and brightest scientists working in Germany, many of them Jewish, fled the country, including Max Born, Albert Einstein, Gerhard Herzberg, Enrico Fermi, and Robert Oppenheimer. Many of those who departed Germany would become central to nuclear programs in both the United States and the United Kingdom.
The Manhattan Project, conducted with support from the United Kingdom, was overseen by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, weapons design was overseen by the above-noted nuclear physicist Robert Oppenheimer, who presided over the Los Alamos Laboratory in New Mexico. Production and experimentation was conducted across an additional 30+ sites across the U.S. and would, in total, cost the U.S. roughly $2 billion.
Among the key developments of this program were the production of plutonium by University of California, Berkeley researchers in 1940 and the construction of the first man-made nuclear reactor, Chicago Pile-1, in December 2, 1942.
In between these two events, the Japanese bombed the Pearl Harbor naval base in Hawaii, thus drawing the United States directly into the global conflict. America’s commitment to creating viable nuclear weaponry accelerated dramatically as the U.S. sent soldiers to fight in both the Pacific and European theaters of World War II.
Four years after America entered the war, on May 8, 1945, Germany surrendered. In July of 1945, the United States conducted the Trinity Test in a New Mexico desert. This was the world’s first nuclear detonation, and amply demonstrated both the functionality of the new weapon and its capacity for mass destruction.
With its attention now fully dedicated to the war in the Pacific, and with its new weaponry tested, the United States issued the Potsdam Declaration demanding unconditional Japanese surrender. Refusal, said the declaration, would bring about “prompt and utter destruction.”
The Japanese refused surrender. With consent from the United Kingdom, on August 6th, the U.S. detonated a nuclear weapon over the Japanese city of Hiroshima. On August 9th, a second nuclear weapon was detonated over the city of Nagasaki. The devastation was enormous, claiming the lives of an estimated 129,000 to 226,000 people. The casualties were largely civilian, with roughly half perishing in the bombings and the other half dying from injuries and illness over the next several months.
To the present day, Hiroshima and Nagasaki are the only instances in which a nuclear weapon has been deployed as a tactic of war.
Japan surrendered to the Allies on August 15th, bringing about the end of World War II. But it was only the beginning of the Atomic Age. As the Allied powers divided the spoils of their victory, the United States and the Soviet Union squared off for influence over the known world. In a protracted conflict known as the Cold War, the two superpowers vied to control global spheres of influence on every populated continent.
Part of this conflict involved a rapid and massive development of nuclear capability on both sides. The United States viewed its massing of nuclear weapons as a crucial deterrent against Russia, one that might either prevent full-scale war between the two powers or provide the opportunity for a sizable response to a major act of aggression. Between 1946 and 1958, the United States would detonate 23 nuclear weapons on its test site on Bikini Atoll in the Marshall Islands.
As American and Russian interests came to blows on the Korean peninsula in the early 1950s, the promise of civilian nuclear energy came into direct conflict with the heightened danger of weaponization. When President Dwight D. Eisenhower announced his Atoms for Peace program in 1953, characterized by a growing emphasis on the privatization of nuclear energy for civilian purposes, the United States entered into an increasingly complex relationship with nuclear power.
The promise and peril of this technology became hard to separate, prompting deep philosophical exploration of the opportunities made possible by nuclear power (including medical innovation and energy production) and the terrifying possibilities opened up by this same scientific frontier (including nuclear proliferation, nuclear warfare, accidental nuclear environmental disasters, and the looming threat of mutual assured destruction).
Growth in the use of nuclear energy dovetailed with heightened anxiety in ways that infiltrated the American psyche of the time.
1961 marked the first major accident at an American nuclear reactor, when an uncontrolled chain reaction created a steam explosion, killing three crew members and causing a meltdown at a nuclear power reactor maintained by the U.S. Army at the Idaho National Laboratory. Events like this, combined with growing anxiety over the potentially catastrophic human and ecological costs of nuclear testing, coalesced into the Partial Nuclear Test Ban Treaty in 1963. Entered into first by the United States, the United Kingdom and the Soviet Union, the Test Ban Treaty did not stop nuclear proliferation but it did slow the process. While the world’s powers continued to either pursue or expand their nuclear capabilities, the enactment of the ban “did coincide with a substantial decline in the concentration of radioactive particles in the atmosphere.”
At present day, there are 123 states who are a party to this treaty. Though adherence has generally been strong, there is evidence that both the United States and Soviet Union, as well as other parties such as Israel and South Africa, may have occasionally violated this treaty by conducting secret underground tests.
And even with the weapon’s test ban in place, public concern over the environmental risks of private nuclear energy surged through the 1970s. Indeed, “By the mid-1970s anti-nuclear activism gained a wider appeal and influence, and nuclear power began to become an issue of major public protest. In some countries, the nuclear power conflict ‘reached an intensity unprecedented in the history of technology controversies.’”
As the decade wore on, American nuclear armament generated increasingly vocal opposition from within the United States. An anti-nuclear movement formed around a set of intersecting concerns about the humanitarian impact, environmental danger, and existential threat constituted by nuclear weaponry.
On March 28, 1979, a partial meltdown of a reactor at the Three Mile Island Nuclear Generating Station outside of Harrisburg, Pennsylvania resulted in a radiation leak which consequently released radioactive gases and radioactive iodine into the environment. The most significant accident in the history of U.S. commercial nuclear power, Three Mile Island was a consequence of both poor computational design and human error. Opponents of nuclear power viewed this event as evidence that their concerns were well-founded.
In the aftermath, it was found that both poor design and poor training contributed to the accident. Though there were no immediate human casualties, fears persisted that the release of radioactive materials into the environment would have negative health consequences for those in the vicinity of the power plant. Today, there is no clear evidence that occurrences of cancer are any higher in this region, and therefore, no causal connection between the meltdown and this particular health consequence can be ascertained.
However, the anti-nuclear movement galvanized around indisputable evidence that such an accident could occur. Amazingly, Three Mile Island transpired just under two weeks after the cinematic release of a film entitled The China Syndrome. The film, starring Hollywood notables Jane Fonda, Michael Douglas and Jack Lemmon, captures the growing public anxiety over the possibility of a nuclear accident. In the film, a television reporter (Fonda) and her cameraman (Douglas), capture a major accident at a nuclear power plant.
At the time of its release, the movie was derided as unrealistic by members of the nuclear industry. However, in reflection, the events in the prescient film are eerily similar to those which would take place in real life just twelve days later. Indeed, at one point in the film, Fonda expresses fear that an explosion “could render an area the size of the state of Pennsylvania permanently uninhabitable.”
Three Mile Island would bring that exact possibility into public consideration. Fonda would, herself, become a highly visible activist against nuclear power in the immediate aftermath of both the film and the Three Mile Island meltdown.
After two decades of steady growth in the commercial nuclear sector, the 1970s had already signaled a slowdown in the industry. Three Mile Island marked a complete turning point in both public perception and commercial ventures. This was seen as a major contributing factor to a broad-based decline in the construction of nuclear reactors throughout the United States.
On April 26, 1986, a combination of human errors and ongoing testing issues resulted in a pair of explosions and, consequently, a nuclear chain reaction, at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant near Pripyat in Russian-controlled Ukraine. The result was the worst disaster in the history of commercial nuclear power, and, at the time, the only such event to score 7 of 7 on the International Nuclear Event Scale (INES), which rates the severity of nuclear accidents.
Two crew members were killed in the explosion, and 28 workers would die from exposure to radiation in the immediate aftermath of the incident. (Another 10 of these workers died from cancer-related deaths in the next decade). For a full eight days after the accident, the plant spewed radioactive materials into the environment with significant exposure to Russia, the Ukraine, Belarus, and parts of Western Europe.
Authorities were forced to establish a 10 kilometer exclusion zone, which was subsequently expanded to 30 kilometers. An estimated 107,000 people were evacuated, most from the Pripyat area. As containment efforts persisted, the total number of displaced peoples ultimately topped 335,000. The consequences for the surrounding populations and environment were disastrous. Estimates for how many casualties occurred in the ensuing years from radiation exposure range from 4,000 in the impacted Soviet states and up to as high as 16,000 when accounting for the full European content.
By the end of 1986, the facility had been contained within a “sarcophagus,” aimed at enclosing the damaged reactor, and preventing the escape of radioactive materials. However, nuclear clean-up continues at the Chernobyl site even to present day. Cleanup is slated for completion in 2065.
However, the exclusion zone surrounding Chernobyl remains largely uninhabited (with the exception of a few dozen residents). This area has been reclaimed by forest, and scientific estimates hold that this forest would not be considered safe for inhabitance any sooner than 300 years from now. Less conservative estimates hold that the timeline could in fact be thousands of years.
On March 11, 2011, an earthquake and subsequent tsunami caused a shutdown of the Fukushima Dailchi Nuclear Power Plant in the Fukushima Prefecture of Japan. First knocked offline by the earthquake, and subsequently flooded by the tsunami, the plant’s reactor cores lost power and failed to provide the coolant necessary to reduce decay heat. As a consequence, the plant suffered three nuclear meltdowns, three hydrogen explosions, and a subsequent release of radioactive contamination into the environment.
Operators struggled for days to contain the escape of radioactive materials into the environment. An evacuation zone would ultimately encompass 20 kilometers and displace an estimated 154,000 residents. Moreover, a significant amount of radioactive contamination spilled into the Pacific Ocean in the period following the incident. That said, fast response time by emergency workers and the consequential evacuation of citizens helped to prevent significant loss of life.
The Fukushima disaster is the only other nuclear accident, alongside Chernobyl, to score a 7 of 7 on the INES Scale.
The health hazards and environmental consequences of this disaster are under ongoing investigation, but as of a decade later, also remain unclear. Cleanup of the site continues to present day and is expected to continue for the next 30 to 40 years.
Some experts anticipated that the 2000s would bring about something of a nuclear renaissance. The need for updates and safety improvements in many facilities merged with hope that nuclear energy could serve as one solution to offsetting the carbon emissions caused by fossil fuels. Many in the energy sector anticipated major growth and new construction in the commercial nuclear industry.
But the Fukushima nuclear disaster impeded significantly on this optimism, and rendered a new wave of fears over the human and environmental hazards of nuclear energy. As a result, this expected surge in nuclear construction did not occur, at least not immediately. In fact, Japan, recognizing that significant lapses in safety standards helped precipitate Fukushima, would consequently shut down every one of its nuclear plants for evaluation. Some plants have come back online while others have been permanently shuttered in favor of new facilities.
Using our own backstage Ranking Analytics tools, we’ve compiled a list of the most influential figures concerning the issue of nuclear energy in the U.S. between 1900 and 2020. Our Rankings produced a list that included both recent officers in key global organizations and alliances and some of the best-known innovators from the field of nuclear physics.
|9||Henry L. Stimson|
Using our own backstage Ranking Analytics tools, we’ve compiled a list of the most influential books on the topic of nuclear energy in the U.S. between 1900 and 2020. This list is composed both of texts that explore the benefits of nuclear power and those that explore its dangers. The collection of books here illustrates the unique duality of this topic, in which environmental concerns can be seen as both an argument in favor of, and against, the use of civilian nuclear energy.
|1||The Revenge of Gaia|
|2||World Nuclear Industry Status Report|
|3||Contesting the Future of Nuclear Power|
|4||Nuclear or Not?|
|6||Greenhouse Solutions with Sustainable Energy|
|7||Deploying Renewables 2011|
|8||The Truth About Chernobyl|
The last few years have seen some uptick in nuclear energy production, though in most cases, this production is matched with the process of shuttering and replacing outdated facilities. Accordingly, “as of 2018, there are over 150 nuclear reactors planned including 50 under construction. In January 2019, China had 45 reactors in operation, 13 under construction, and plans to build 43 more, which would make it the world’s largest generator of nuclear electricity.”
That said, as of today, the United States retains the largest fleet of nuclear reactors. These reactors supply 20% of America’s overall energy, and 50% of its carbon-free electricity. Such is to say that a significant portion of America’s energy production is dependent upon nuclear power.
Globally, civilian nuclear power accounts for roughly 10% of the world’s power, and is second only to hydroelectricity as the world’s largest source of carbon-free power. As of January 2021, there were 442 civilian fission reactors around the world, with an additional 53 reactors under construction and 98 more planned.
While nuclear power has become ingrained in much of the world’s energy supply, fears persist over the weaponization of nuclear power. Global alliances such as the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) are designed to provide collective regulatory oversight on the stockpiles and production efforts of all nation states. This oversight is particularly important in the face of countless potential flashpoints across the globe.
As the materials and technology for the production of nuclear weapons have become more accessible, an increasing number of nations have acquired access to weapons capable of mass destruction. In some instances, those nations are viewed as “rogue states,” those who frequently run afoul of international laws and alliances, and therefore are seen as capable of nuclear escalation.
Relations between states like North and South Korea, Israel and Iran, or India and Pakistan, for instance, continue to be sources of tensions and concern given the nuclear ambitions and/or capabilities of the nations in question. These concerns are only further magnified by fears that rogue non-state actors might also be capable of harnessing and deploying nuclear attacks, including those affiliated with terror or militia groups.
So even as the prospect of nuclear warfare between the United States or one of its adversarial powers such as China or Russia remains generally low, the threat of nuclear warfare in one of these regional contexts does loom within the scope of possibility.Back to Top
Our goal in presenting subjects that generate controversy is to provide you with a sense of some of the figures both past and present who have driven debate, produced widely-recognized works of research, literature or art, proliferated their ideas widely, or who are identified directly and publicly with some aspect of this debate. By identifying the researchers, activists, journalists, educators, academics, and other individuals connected with this debate—and by taking a closer look at their work and contributions—we can get a clear but nuanced look at the subject matter. Rather than framing the issue as one side versus the other, we bring various dimensions of the issue into discussion with one another. This will likely include dimensions of the debate that resonate with you, some dimensions that you find repulsive, and some dimensions that might simply reveal a perspective you hadn’t previously considered.
On the subject of nuclear energy, this requires us to consider the topic as both a civilian and military matter. Therefore key terms include “nuclear energy,” “nuclear power,” and “nuclear safety” as well as “nuclear weapons,” “nuclear security,” and “nuclear testing.” We also considered influencers from the “anti-nuclear” movement.
Our InfluenceRanking engine gives us the power to scan the academic and public landscape surrounding the nuclear energy issue using key terminology to identify consequential influencers. As with any topic that generates public debate and disagreement, this is a subject of great depth and breadth. We do not claim to probe either the bottom of this depth or the borders of this breadth. Instead, we offer you one way to enter into this debate, to identify key players, and through their contributions to the debate, to develop a fuller understanding of the issue and perhaps even a better sense of where you stand.
For a closer look at how our InfluenceRankings work, check out our methodology.
Otherwise get started with a look at the key words we used to explore this subject:
Nuclear energy is the catch-all for the global use of nuclear reactions to create electricity for civilian use. The influencers identified here are a combination of experts and officials that have both consulted on and carried out policies around the globe and within the American nuclear energy sector.
Nuclear power is a keyword that carries something of a double meaning in this topic area. While it generally refers to the generation of power using nuclear reactions, it can be used to refer either to power such as that which drives an electrical grid or to power such as that demonstrated by the detonation of a hydrogen bomb. Therefore, selected influencers include physicists and engineers who have explored and advised on the implications of both dimensions.
As nuclear power rose in stature and visibility, it began to attract a backlash from those who feared both the dangers of an accidental environmental catastrophe and the possibility of nuclear warfare. This movement reached a fever pitch in the 1960s and ’70s, especially in the wake of the Three Mile Island disaster in 1979. Influencers include environmentalists, activists, and survivors of nuclear warfare.
This keyword refers to the specific use of nuclear power to create and stockpile weapons. The first nuclear weapons developed, and to date the only used in actual warfare, are those deployed by the United States against the Japanese during World War II. The influencers cited here are weapons designers, scientists, and researchers who have opposed the proliferation of such weapons.
Nuclear security refers to both the domestic and global agencies and groups entrusted to regulate and monitor nuclear ambitions, capabilities, and stockpiles throughout the world. Many of these influencers are regulators and security officers in the United States.
Nuclear testing refers to the process of detonating nuclear weaponry in a test setting. While this is done ostensibly to determine functionality, such testing has also historically functioned as a demonstration to others of nuclear capability and a show of power that might even function as a deterrent to would-be aggressors. Many of the influencers cited here have participated in the creation or enforcement of the Test Ban Treaty that went into effect in 1963.
Nuclear safety is a topic of importance in light of the fact that most nuclear disasters in recent history have been both accidental and accompanied by evidence of safety and training lapses. Influencers here are regulators and scientists charged with the responsibility of shaping and enforcing safety procedures in both civilian and military contexts.
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Interested in building toward a career on the front lines of the nuclear energy debate? As you can see, there are many different avenues into this far-reaching issue. Use our Custom College Ranking to find:
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