Back in 1904, Albert Einstein came up with E=mc2.
It was immediately obvious that there was a lot of energy (E) tied up in mass (m), because (c) was the speed of light (jolly fast). How this energy might be released was less obvious. It was a problem much vexing scientists worldwide in the 1930s.
In 1939, Leó Szilárd, a Hungarian scientist living in the USA, sent a letter signed by himself and Einstein to US president Franklin Roosevelt that in his view, by the use of uranium in a nuclear fission process, the energy could be released as heat and a nuclear bomb was theoretically possible. Also, the Germans might be developing such a device (see here).
Consequently, the Manhattan Project was set up to produce an American bomb if it were possible.
This project was transferred to the USA for fear that it could fall into the hands of the Nazis in the event of a successful invasion of the UK.
Efficiency of a nuclear bomb.
Less than 0.01% of the uranium/plutonium in a nuclear bomb is converted to energy. The rest is just dissipated.
After the war, the USA had an atomic bomb, and we in the UK didn’t. The UK government decided to rectify this situation and the lies began.
In 1956 the world’s first nuclear power station, Calder Hall at Windscale (Cumberland), was connected to the grid. We were all told that the electricity generated would be so cheap as to be not worth metering. This was the first lie, the primary purpose of Calder Hall was the production of plutonium (better than uranium for atomic bombs) for nuclear weapons. Plutonium only exists naturally in minute amounts and thus must be made from uranium in an intrinsically dangerous process. Calder Hall ran for nearly half a century. Several other reactors were built on the same site plus other nuclear facilities including the reprocessing of nuclear fuel. The site name was changed to Sellafield after Britain’s first nuclear accident when an atomic “pile” set up to convert uranium to plutonium caught fire. Radioactive material was spread over a wide area. There have been further less devastating nuclear incidents plus a continual “leakage” of radioactive material into the environment ever since. Always hushed up and only discovered years later. (Sources are here and here, also here and here, and finally here and here.)
Efficiency of nuclear power.
The efficiency of a nuclear power station is about the same as a coal-fired station. Around two-thirds of the heat generated is dumped. Less than 5% of the fissile material in the fuel rods is used before the rods have to be removed and processed to separate waste material from the useable fuel. The rods are replaced in rotation in an 18 to 24-month cycle (depending on reactor design). There is an optimum power output from a reactor to maximise fuel life. Any deviation from this reduces the life of the fuel rods. Much thought is going into the design of reactors that can be “modulated”. (i.e., Turned up and down).
Processing nuclear waste.
Nuclear waste and spent fuel are processed to separate remaining useable fuel from waste products.
Always the problem was and still is, how to dispose of the nuclear waste generated by the manufacture of fissile materials and disposal of unwanted waste. Some bizarre (by today’s standards) solutions have been proposed/adopted in the past.
One was oceanic disposal, i.e., chuck it in the sea and forget about it.
Additionally, we have day to day radioactive material routinely washed down drains in the past, which often ended up in the sea (here).
Vast quantities of nuclear waste are held in decaying and leaking ponds at Sellafield, dating right back to the 1950s. Only quite recently has the problem been addressed. The solutions adopted are not permanent for the reason that no-one knows how to dispose of long lived nuclear waste permanently. Some of it is still dangerous after 100,000 years. The costs of storing and dealing with legacy nuclear waste run into many £billions annually just for the Sellafield site alone.
[to be continued with Part 2]