75 Years Since the Birth
of the Atomic Age
I woke up today to news articles in several sources highlighting the fact that today marks the 75th anniversary since the world's first man-made nuclear reactor began splitting atoms. I'm a little chagrined that I didn't think of this earlier myself, since it holds a major spot in my book, "Nuclear Firsts: Milestones on the Road to Nuclear Power Development." In truth, I've been a bit distracted by other things in recent weeks, and have neglected blogging altogether, so the reminder I got from others about this anniversary has drawn me back to the keyboard.
When I wrote the book on Nuclear Firsts, it was almost a little surprising to me to see how many milestones there were in the development of nuclear power, and how so many milestones were small steps that built on other small steps. This probably shouldn't have been so surprising to me. After all, science and technology have always built upon past developments. In addition, I was well aware of the different types of reactors that were explored in the early days, each of which were steps in different directions. Likewise, I was aware that the other parts of the fuel cycle, and particularly, in the different enrichment technologies that were tested again each constituted steps in different directions.
As I wrote the book, I kept finding more of these small--and maybe some not-so-small--steps, and the book kept getting longer. But through it all, it occurred to me that there were really layers of importance, and some of the firsts were definitely more significant than others. I didn't try to explore this dimension in the book, perhaps because it was too subjective and too dependent on which end-points one looked at (after all, the Canadians might have a different perspective than the US on which technological developments were most important).
But if any one event stands out as being a truly pivotal event to almost all subsequent developments, the first demonstration of a controlled fission reaction at Chicago Pile 1 (CP-1) on December 2, 1942, would have to be a leading candidate. Not only was it a giant scientific step beyond anything that had been done before, but given world events at the time, it very quickly launched a major development effort that led to transformative applications on both the military and civilian side.
It is certainly true that CP-1 didn't develop in isolation. It was built on a number of scientific experiments and theories that preceded it. And it is true that it might have been forgotten if nothing else had followed. But given that so much did follow this historic day, it is appropriate to celebrate this milestone anniversary in the development of nuclear power.