After the discovery of nuclear energy, nuclear power plants were an obvious industrial development to meet the world's increasing demand for energy, especially electric power. Nuclear power plants use the heat of nuclear reactions to make steam to drive turbines that generate electricity. In the United States, about 20% of electricity needs are met in this way. Worldwide the proportion is about 15% and rising, for instance in China. Enthusiasm for this source of “clean” (nonpolluting) energy ran high in 1950 when the first nuclear power plants were built, but it has waned in the light of accidents, e.g., at Three Mile Island, Pennsylvania, in 1979 and Chernobyl, near Kiev, in what was then the USSR, in 1986. There has been an increasingly serious, so far insolvable problem of disposing of “spent” nuclear fuel, much of which is highly radioactive and has a half-life of as long as several thousand years. There have also been persistent concerns about leakage of radiation from some plants, e.g., at Sellafield, United Kingdom. See also fast breeder reactor.
Subjects: Public Health and Epidemiology.