Sunday, March 25, 2012

The Beginning Of Atomic Energy

The Manhattan Project subsequently put the world into a new age of energy consumption and production.  This new energy source comes as a result of the discovery of nuclear fission.  Nuclear fission is successfully created through the splitting of the uranium isotope, Uranium-235.  When one successfully splits the isotope, the splitting releases pure energy in the form of heat. or radiation.  During the Manhattan Project though, the project was solely for military use only, which culminated in the production of atomic bombs which were then used on Japan to put an end to World War II. Following the war, the government, industrial contractors, and military personnel began to ponder on the idea of using atomic energy for commercial use.  Atomic Energy overall is a cheaper way to produce and maintain electricity than the former way of using gas products, which are subject to rising prices, to create electric power, but there is one major problem.  Although Atomic energy is cheaper to produce than the former ways of creating energy, it does come with downfalls such that come with nuclear fission.  Throughout the 20th century and now into the 21st century, atomic energy has revolutionized the world by helping with the following ways: help make electricity, using radiation for cancer research and therapy, and fueling submarines.

            In 1946, the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) was passed by means of the Atomic Energy Act, which replaced the Manhattan Project.  The Commission was put in charge of overseeing the use of nuclear technology in the postwar era.  The authors of the Atomic Energy Act establishing the AEC called it radical, observing that, “The Act creates a government monopoly of the sources of atomic energy and buttresses this position with a variety of broad governmental powers and prohibitions on private activity.  The field of atomic energy is made an island of socialism in the midst of a free enterprise economy.”( Hughes, 422)  This new government Commission was headed by Truman appointees such as Lilienthal who headed the TVA project, Sumner a former member of the SE, Lewis Strauss who was a partner in the investment firm Kuhn, Loeb & Co., William Waymack who was the editor of Des Moines newspaper and a public director of the Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago, and the one lone scientist, Robert F. Bacher.  The Truman appointees all show one commonality between them, and that is considerable experience and influence in the world of finance.  This points out that the monopoly of atomic energy would be put in the hands of the corporate world, which its fuel would be regulated by the government.  By the beginning of 1946, the Hanford Reactors were taken over by General Electric and other corporations with interest and disposable capital would promote and execute the change of nuclear power to commercial usage in the form of electrical output, and the same occurred in Oak Ridge plant as well the many university and government owned laboratories across the country.  A man by the name of Admiral Rickover made use of atomic energy for means other than bomb production with the creation of the first nuclear-powered submarine, the Nautilus, which was ready for sea trials in 1955.  The submarine had great reviews and provided the U.S. government and other interested corporations with a prime example of creative system building. He led to the nation into the atomic age in which reactors, and presided over the design and construction of America’s first public-utility nuclear-power plant.  On the civilian side, the AEA provides for both the development and the regulation of the uses on nuclear materials and facilities in the U.S., declaring the policy that the development and utilization of atomic energy shall, “be directed toward improving the public welfare, increasing the standard of living, strengthening free competition in private enterprise, and promoting world peace.”  “In 1953, Eisenhower’s administration called for a non-military power reactor that could be used by utilities throughout the world.”(Hughes, 435)  Because electricity cost more in Europe than it the States, nuclear proponents believed that Europe would have a high demand for these reactors which would be constructed in the U.S., and the foreign allies would come back to the original producer for maintenance work and other issues when needed.  This idea came at the beginning of the Cold War when the U.S. feared that the Soviet’s would introduce their reactor to the neighboring European nations first.  The possibility of selling off the newly constructed reactor plans would be a considered a major triumph or victory over the Soviet Union.  The first non-military reactor was made in Shippingport, Pennsylvania where Rickover was to modify the design for an aircraft carrier reactor into a civilian-reactor project.  Rickover used the help of Westinghouse for addition design, and other additional subcontractors for construction.  “The AEC chose the Duquesne Light Company of Pittsburgh to provide the site, build the turbogenerator plant, assume $5 million of the cost of developing and building the reactor, and operate and maintain the facility, but the AEC would own the reactor and sell the steam to the company.”(Hughes,437)  Other huge corporations were involved in the planning, designing, and construction of the plant such as Stone & Webster, Dravo Company of Pittsburgh, as well as many of the naval officers put in place to monitor and control the temperature within the reactor core itself.  On December 23rd, 1957, after long hours over a course of several years, the reactor reached full power, and operated by Duquesne Light Power Company personnel.  Ten of the next twelve reactors made within the decade were based on the design of the Shippingport with light water as a moderator-coolant along with using slightly enriched uranium.  The AEA passed in 1954  greatly accelerated the growth of the nuclear industry.  “It allowed private corporations to build and own nuclear-power plants, but the government continued to build and control the fuel necessary to run the facilities.  This Act basically enforced the idea of the military-industrial complex.  This new, and possibly evolutionary idea of atomic energy was at the forefront of science and technology, but it was only financially open to the corporations that could afford to construct these plants and hire the people necessary to maintain the facility.    General Electric, Westinghouse, Babock and Wilcox, and Combustion Engineering established reactor-manufacturing facilities.  They were supported and encouraged by government subsidies for domestic research and development, as well as the Eisenhower administration’s offer of subsidies to foreign governments who would buy U.S. experimental reactors.”(Hughes, 439)  By the 1960’s, the reactor business was booming as more and more companies bought into this new field of energy producing systems.  Members of the AEC even went on to say that companies went blindly into this field giving huge investments into exotic and sometimes unsound developments with hope to get government contracts and to advertise their business.  Mark Hertsgaard, author, of Nuclear Inc., refers to an “atomic brotherhood,” which defines as a conglomeration and an interconnection between corporations in the nuclear-energy business and their government sponsors.  By the 1980’s, the brotherhood, involving twenty-four large international corporations, had become a large and powerful complex, perhaps the largest and powerful enterprise in the world.”(Hughes, 441)  Many people in the field saw the global expansion of atomic energy as a way of strengthening ties between allies throughout the world by giving them a new more efficient way of creating energy, as well supplying them with the fuel to do so, but in my opinion it only strengthened the power of the government and the corporate world against the people it says it is there to help. 

            In today’s society, nuclear energy is used in many different ways both good and bad.  In medicine, the radioactive material is used in all different aspects of the medical field.  It is used in helping cancer patients fight their disease with the use of chemo-therapy and radiation treatments which was first started in Oak Ridge in 1948.  It is also used in MRI’s and CT scans as well as in other medical apparatuses.  Atomic Energy, as previously stated, is used in making electricity in the nuclear reactors throughout the world by helping produce steam to run powerful generators.  Other military uses as already explained are nuclear-powered submarines as well as atomic bombs that are powered to travel across the globe in minutes.  None of these options would be possible without the scientific and engineering breakthroughs of the mid-20th century. 

Before one form their opinion on the use of atomic energy, one must look at how it affects the world economy.  Because it is cost effective, where most of the money is poured in to create the facility, the cost to run the plant at full power is self-sustaining once it is up in operation.  Unlike the oil and gas we use to run our cars and other products, atomic energy is a lot more environmentally friendly if experts take the right precautions in ensuring that problems do not occur.  The energy efficiency is much greater than any other product besides helium-3 which is used in nuclear-fusion, the only element in the universe that can provide more energy than nuclear fission within the reactors.  Nuclear Energy supplies nearly 14% of the world’s electricity, more than the world used from all the sources in 1960.  There are now 440 reactors in over thirty countries, with 377,000 MWe of total capacity.  France, for example, gets three-quarters of its power from nuclear energy while many other developed European nations use this energy source for over one-third of their energy needs.  As the world grows as does our energy needs, and with the atomic age now upon us, we are capable of meeting those energy needs with atomic energy, and within the next fifty years, fusion power, which will give us the energy capacity of the stars.   

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