Introduction

The discovery and application of nuclear power were among the most profound scientific accomplishments of the 20th century, beginning with tentative explorations of the structure of matter, expanding into a rapid succession of unexpected discoveries, and finally settling into a seamless transition from theoretical science to applied engineering. In that century everything changed, as follows:

^ Science changed from an academic pursuit to an industry.

^ The scale of mathematical modeling changed from predicting the action of a bouncing ball to predicting the actions of tril­lions of simultaneously bouncing neutrons.

^ The use of uranium changed from an occasional orange or green dye in ceramics to a major power fuel.

^ The concerns of public safety changed from boiler explosions on steamboats to nuclear reactor explosions on continents.

^ The concept of warfare changed from endangering soldiers on battlefields to endangering populations in cities.

The History of Nuclear Power describes the sequence of these changes, as science and technology rapidly matured more than 100 years and as the scale of civilization and its energy needs expanded. Sidebars supple­ment the historical narrative, providing interesting notes on many of the pioneering scientists involved in the development of nuclear science and technology, as well as notes on spin-off ideas and branching technologies. The narrative follows the pace of nuclear development, surging ahead faster than civilization could keep up with it, stumbling occasionally, finally pausing to assess and contemplate all that had been accomplished, and never looking back.

Nuclear power in the United States was in a quiescent state for three decades, neither developing forward nor shutting down, and delivering about 20 percent of the nations electrical power. Other technologies, such as electronics, computers, and communications systems, rushed ahead in this period, improving and innovating. The art of generating power by nuclear means stood stagnant, trying only to make electricity while

remaining out of the public eye. The situation is now changing in complex ways. There is a heightened awareness of global climate shifts, the chemi­cal composition of air, and the finite nature of burnable fuels. These new concerns would seem to favor a renewed push for nuclear power produc­tion, among other nonpolluting methods, but there are multiple layers of public anxiety. We are worried about future weather patterns and a lack of gasoline, but we are also worried about long-lived radioactive contami­nation and the safety of nuclear reactor operations. As these issues are pondered, a heightened level of understanding of nuclear science and its applications will be important enough to affect career paths and college majors.

The History of Nuclear Power provides a fundamental introduction to this complicated subject. It follows a straight line down the middle of the larger subject of nuclear technology, concentrating on the development of light-water fission reactors as the dominant power source design, skirting other interesting technologies, such as hydrogen fusion reactors or space propulsion reactors. These and other important topics are covered in fur­ther volumes in the Nuclear Power multivolume set.

I have been taught the history of nuclear power by its participants. My graduate school professors in nuclear engineering worked on the atomic bomb project during World War II, the nuclear-powered strategic bomber, the nuclear rocket engines, and the space-borne power reactors. I entered the workplace just as these projects were disappearing over the horizon, but I found a new set of frontiers and participated in the second phase of the history of nuclear power. I bring my experience and the knowl­edge passed from my elders to this work, and I hope that you will find it fascinating.

Nuclear technology must be approached with an enhanced sense of industrial safety, unprecedented in the history of mechanical systems, and the issue of nuclear hazards will be present in any discussion or debate on nuclear subjects. The History of Nuclear Power demonstrates the speed with which it was necessary to adjust industrial mind-sets to this new level of safety consciousness, and specifically dangerous aspects of the technology will be treated in detail in further volumes of the series. The History of Nuclear Power also reveals the sudden shift in the center of gravity of the body of nuclear science to the United States immediately before World War II, as the world’s top scientists fled their homelands and universities in Europe to escape troubling political developments. This fortuitous concentration of genius in the United States, which was seen as an island of freedom and safety in an unsafe world, led to an unusually rapid development of nuclear technology. Unique aspects of this develop­ment were the military takeover of all nuclear science during World War II and the smooth transition from fanciful theories to working industrial systems and weapons of immense power. After the war, through creative engineering, important legislation, and political arm-twisting, this new weapons technology was transformed into a peaceful, civilian-controlled energy source. Such is the first century of nuclear power development. The second century may require a similar quantity of groundbreaking science, advanced engineering, statesmanship, global diplomacy, and an ability to plan for the future.

The History of Nuclear Power has been written as a stirring account of the genius, the hard work, and the pure luck needed to unlock the atomic nucleus and turn matter into energy for the student or the teacher who is interested in seeing the future through a study of the past. Techni­cal details of the nuclear process are made understandable through clear explanations of terms and expressions used almost exclusively in nuclear science. Much of nuclear technology still uses the traditional, American system of units, with some archaic terms remaining in use. The cross­sectional area of a nucleus, for example, is still universally and officially expressed in barns, and not in square centimeters, due to a purely histori­cal fluke. An American scientist, upon first measuring the cross section of a uranium nucleus, exclaimed, “That’s as big as a barn!” Where appropri­ate, units are expressed in the international system, or SI, along with the American system. A glossary, chronology, and a list of current sources for further reading and research are included in the back matter.

Добавить комментарий

Ваш e-mail не будет опубликован. Обязательные поля помечены *