In 2018, 10.3% of the world’s electricity needs were covered by nuclear power. The International Energy Agency has forecast that nuclear energy production will increase by around 50% between now and 2050. There are 450 nuclear reactors in operation today, but just 70 years ago there were no civilian reactors at all. So what are the origins of nuclear energy? And how has it developed over time? Read on to find out.
The history of nuclear energy is recent and it owes its initial development to scientists. It all began in 1896 when the French physicist Henri Becquerel accidently discovered the phenomenon of radioactivity. He didn’t call it that, though, referring to it as the emission of uranic rays. It was Marie Curie who invented the term “radioactivity” in 1900 when she discovered that radium could issue the same rays as described by Becquerel.
At that time, however, no-one imagined that radioactivity could have the potential to generate energy, and it wasn’t until the mid-1930s that the idea started to emerge. It was then that Irène and Frédéric Joliot-Curie discovered artificial radioactivity by bombarding a sheet of aluminium with particles, which created radioactive nuclei. Then in 1938, the German chemists Strassmann and Otto Hahn provided proof of nuclear fission by demonstrating that a neutron can break a uranium nucleus into two smaller nuclei.
The following year, Frédéric Joliot-Curie, Hans Halban and Lew Kowarski went further and discovered that the fission of uranium can produce highly energy-charged neutrons. They then envisaged the possibility of a chain reaction, generating a large amount of energy. Three patents were filed with the CNRS (French National Center for Scientific Research), notably describing how to make a nuclear reactor.
But then World War II broke out and any thoughts about the civilian uses of nuclear properties were put on the back burner.
The United States – the early leader in the nuclear energy race
So it wasn’t until after 1945 that the world started taking an interest in nuclear power production. Whereas France and the rest of Europe were the scientific pioneers in the field, it was in the United States that a nuclear reactor produced a small quantity of electricity for the first time – in 1951 in Idaho Falls. Then in 1957, the first pressurised water reactor was commissioned in Shippingport, in Pennsylvania, marking the birth of the technology that forms the basis of most of the world’s nuclear power plants today.
In France, General De Gaulle was also confident that nuclear reactors could be deployed for civilian use, setting up the government-funded French Atomic Energy Agency (Commissariat à l’Énergie Atomique, or CEA) in 1945. As from 1948, the CEA oversaw the build of France’s first experimental nuclear reactor – the Zoé pile at Fontenay-aux-Roses.
Then in the 1950s, at Marcoule, the CEA tested and improved Uranium Naturel Graphite Gaz (UNGG) technology, which was France’s and EDF’s initial choice for supplying electricity to the French population. So in 1957, work began at the Chinon site on the build of EDF 1, France’s first electronuclear reactor for civilian use, which generated its first kilowatt hours of electricity in June 1963.
Between 1963 and 1972, six UNGG reactors were built and commissioned in France (at the Chinon, Saint-Laurent and Bugey sites).
However, this technology was subsequently abandoned and France opted instead for the pressurised water reactors patented by the US company, Westinghouse, which were more profitable, more effective and safer. “So it was the Americans who took the lead in the beginning, thanks to PWR technology. They sold this technology to France, which paid royalties for it for ten years. But then Framatome developed a French technology based on an improved version of PWR”, says Bernard Blanc, Nuclear Development Director at Assystem.
The first oil crisis and industrialisation of the nuclear sector
Although the nuclear industry began in the 1950s and grew in the 1960s in the United States, Russia, France and the United Kingdom, it was not until after the first oil crisis that it really took off.
In France, “The impact of the 1973 oil crisis led the Messmer government to launch a construction programme for 16 reactors with an output of 900 Megawatts electric (MWe), followed, as from 1976, by 20 additional reactors with an output of 1,300 MWe“, explains the SFEN (France’s nuclear energy association).
“The hike in oil prices pushed nations into increasing their energy sovereignty” adds Bernard Blanc. “Not only in France, but also in the UK, Japan and Germany. As for the USA, itself an oil-producing country, the sovereign instinct became intertwined with aims for international power”.
The nuclear sector’s price competition and industrial excellence enabled it to grow and extend its reach to other countries across the globe. Especially in Asia, where countries such as China and India began to build nuclear power plants to meet the needs of their growing economies and populations.
Where is nuclear heading now?
Today, over 10% of the world’s electricity is nuclear-generated and the figure is set to increase in the future. Notably because, like renewable energies, nuclear energy does not emit any CO2, but unlike renewables, it doesn’t have the problem of intermittence. This is a real asset in the fight against climate change.
The new generation of nuclear reactors – which are known as EPRs and are the outcome of Franco-German research – have started to be deployed across the globe. At the same time, SMRs (small modular reactors) are attracting particular interest in emerging countries, as are reactors using fast neutron technologies, called Generation IV reactors.
The new generation of nuclear reactors – which are known as Generation III reactors, (such as the EPRs in France, Finland or China) – have started to be deployed across the globe and will form the backbone of the nuclear power plants in operation around the world until the end of the 21st century.
For the long term, new technologies are currently subject of significant research:
Sodium-cooled fast neutron reactors that are capable of producing the fuel they need (plutonium) themselves and can therefore provide a long-term response to the depletion of natural uranium resources.
Also, nuclear fusion, a phenomenon identified in the early 20th century, is currently the subject of international research (ITER project) to provide a first experimental demonstration of the industrial interest in fusion.
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