Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Seventy Years of Controlled Fission:

Another CP-1 Milestone

The December 2, 2012 seventieth anniversary of the first controlled chain reaction in the Chicago Pile 1 reactor passed with very little comment.  That is perhaps a sign of the passing of time, or of the familiarity of the technology.  Just as people today find it hard to remember a time before cell phones or the Internet, perhaps they feel that nuclear power has been around forever.

But indeed, this month marks a very important anniversary.  When I researched the milestones of nuclear power for my book a couple of years ago, the events at CP-1 were probably among the few that were truly unambiguous.  Even the other milestones most of us take for granted turned out to have challengers:  The first electricity production at EBR-I on December 20, 1951?  Well, yes, but there was a some electricity produced at Oak Ridge (albeit much less) on September 3, 1948.  "First city in the world to be lit by atomic power" in Arco, Idaho July 17, 1955?  Well, maybe first city briefly powered entirely by the atom, but the first electricity supplied to the grid was on June 27, 1954 at Obninsk, Soviet Union.

All these claims and counterclaims do not take away from any of the achievements, and all of them were important stepping stones to the nuclear power we enjoy today.  However, the first controlled fission chain reaction seems to stand alone.  To recall the words of Neil Armstrong when he landed on the moon, it was a "giant step for mankind."


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