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Today we are going to look at a story that has panned out over decades. In fact it has played out over the last 100 years, and began, in what to modern eyes would like a very primitive physics laboratory in Manchester, pictured below.
The gentleman on the right is Ernest Rutherford, and his experiments, conducted between 1914 and 1919, opened up the atomic world to mankind for the first time and created the science of nuclear physics.
Rutherford is credited with splitting the atom. In truth what he and his team showed, was that the power within the atomic nucleus could, in theory, be unlocked.
But it would take another 20 years for that theory to be put into practice.
In December 1938 a team of Austrian and German Scientists bombarded uranium nuclei, with recently discovered neutrons, breaking the uranium atoms into lighter elements accompanied by the release of energy.
One of the team, Lise Meitner, a Jewish woman, had been forced to seek refuge from the Nazis, in Sweden, during the summer of 1938.
The experimenters in Berlin couldn't explain what was happening and they sent Otto Frisch, a fellow physicist, and Meitner's nephew, who was based in Copenhagen, to visit the exile, with a letter from her long time colleague, the chemist Otto Hanh.
Meitner and Frisch went for walk in the snow and considered the contents of Hahn's letter which set out the result of the experiments in Berlin.
Legend has it that the pair stopped at a tree stump to do some calculations and make crude drawings or diagrams.
Meitner suggested that they should consider the uranium atoms to be like water droplets which if squeezed hard enough would split into two.
That analogy spurred the two scientists on, and they soon realised that their rudimentary model, and the release of energy that came about when the nuclei were split, fitted perfectly into the most famous equation in physics.
Einstein’s E=mc2, which defines the conversion of energy into mass and vice versa.
The pair realised that they and Hahn's lab team had uncovered a potentially limitless source of power.
Frisch stayed in Stockholm for Christmas, went briefly back to Copenhagen and then travelled onto the US, via the UK, to share this discovery.
Four years later in Chicago, under the strictest security, the first nuclear reactor, named Pile-1, hosted a self-sustaining nuclear reaction, in an experiment led by Enrico Fermi, the very physicist who had proposed using neutrons as the ideal tool, with which to bombard uranium and other nuclei.
Almost three years later the reactions described by Meitner and Frisch and the technology developed by Fermi and his colleagues in the Manhattan project, would be unleashed on Imperial Japan, decimating the cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and bringing the second world war to its conclusion.
As the second world war finished, a new contest began, as the allied powers jostled for position in the new world order.
The US with its atomic technology and weapons was on top of the tree, but both its current and former allies were keen to catch up.
However, the spirit of cooperation that had existed during the war dried up.
Britain, which had started its own atomic research program ahead of the Americans lost access to vital information and research and had to wait until 1952 before it was able to denote a nuclear device.
The irony here was that Otto Frisch co-authored a paper at the University of Birmingham outlining a process that could excite Uranium 235 into a chain reaction. That paper was written before Frisch moved to the USA.
In the interim, another German physicist, Klaus Fuchs had been helping the Soviet Union to develop its nuclear technology passing on secrets from both the US and UK atomic programs.
Fuchs had studied at the University of Gottingen under Max Born, whose doctoral students and assistants included Enrico Fermi and Robert Oppenheimer, who would become the fathers of nuclear technology.
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With the help of its spies & captured German research and personnel, the Soviets detonated their own atomic bomb in 1949.
The Russians were also the first to harness the power of the atom to produce electricity opening the Obninsk Nuclear Power Plant and connecting it to the nation's power grid in 1954.
It would be 10 years before another Soviet power plant was connected to the grid.
Obninsk remained in service until 2002.
Twenty-three years into its life, another nuclear power plant came online. This one contained 4 nuclear reactors (two further reactors were scheduled for construction at the site) each of which could generate 1000 megawatts of electricity. That energy could power as many as 900,000 homes.
The plant was located in Chernobyl, Ukraine, and was capable of providing 10% of the country's electricity demand.
Chernobyl was ill stared and ill-managed from the off. There were a series of accidents and errors at the plant that culminated in disaster in late April 1986, during what was supposed to be a routine power-down of the number 4 reactor and its steam turbines.
When restarting the reactor the plant’s technicians effectively primed it to overheat and explode, which it did following the meltdown of the reactor core.
The resulting explosions destroyed not only the containment vessel but also the building that housed the reactor, sending radioactive dust and gas into the atmosphere and leaving the reactor core on fire, and open to the elements for 9 days.
In Part 2, we'll discuss Fukushima, and the path to Germany's reliance on Russian gas...
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