Nuclear Power Is Getting Ready for a Comeback

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Nuclear Power Is Getting Ready for a Comeback

On December 8, 1953, President Dwight D. Eisenhower gave a speech before the General Assembly of the United Nations.  In that speech, he publicly worried about the dangers of nuclear proliferation and the fact that both the Soviet Union and the United States had atomic bombs.  As a solution to this problem, he proposed the creation of an international Atomic Energy Agency that would include the major nations of the world, especially the United States and the Soviet Union. 

He said, "The more important responsibility of this Atomic Energy Agency would be to devise methods where by this fissionable material would be allocated to serve the peaceful pursuits of mankind.  Experts would be mobilized to apply atomic energy to the needs of agriculture, medicine, and other peaceful activities.  A special purpose would be to provide abundant electrical energy in the power-starved areas of the world.  Thus the contributing powers would be dedicating some of their strength to serve the needs rather than the fears of mankind."

This speech gave rise to the much-touted concept of "meterless power."  It was said that electricity from a nuclear reactor would be so cheap that there would be no point in charging for it.  And even as Eisenhower addressed the United Nations, the first nuclear power plants were under construction.  By 1955, the Oak Ridge National Laboratory was able to deliver a small-scale working nuclear reactor to Geneva, Switzerland, for the first United Nations Conference on Peaceful Uses of the Atom.  The atomic reactor stole the show.

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In 1956, England opened the first nuclear power plant for large-scale production of electricity.  The United States followed in 1957 with the Shippingport Reactor in Pennsylvania.  Westinghouse built the first commercial nuclear power plant near Charlemont, Massachusetts.  Started in 1960, it operated until 1992.

From that point on, orders poured in for large-scale nuclear reactors to meet the expected surge in demand for electrical power.  But in the 1970s, a number of developments began to disrupt progress in nuclear power, especially in the United States. 

The first was that the expected demand for electricity did not materialize.  While orders poured in for new reactors in the early '70s, a wave of cancellations followed as people realized that they weren't needed. 

A second factor was that the projected cost of building reactors was badly underestimated.  In part, this was caused by the third factor — public fear of nuclear power...

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