Nuclear power born of the research which made the first atomic bomb-1s now being harnessed for peaceful uses and will change man’s whole pattern of living. But what is nuclear power, and how do we make it work for us?
It was a New Zealand scientist working in Britain, Lord Rutherford, who did much of the pioneer research which revealed the enormous power dormant in the nucleus of the atom-power enough to provide the world with unlimited resources, power which could heat every house and factory in
the world, pump water to every desert on the globe and turn every machine-wheel man can create. His problem was how to
release that power and how to do so safely.
What is an atom? The nuclear theory of the atom, which was put forward by Rutherford and his colleague Sir Joseph Thomson, was published as long ago as 1911. The atom consists of a minutely small but very heavy nucleus containing a positive electric charge: round this circulate much lighter electrons having a total negative electric charge which exactly equals the positive charge of the nucleus. In 1932 Sir James Chadwick discovered that the nucleus consists of protons, which are electrically positive, and neutrons, which are neutral.
How does power come into all this? All matter is made up of atoms of elements, and certain elements have atoms which are known as ‘unstable-meaning that the nucleus can be upset, giving off a tremendous amount of power. Once started, this process can be continued in what is known as a controlled chain reaction, providing a steady supply of power in the form of heat.
An atomic pile, or power unit, is made up of carbon blocks in which are placed rods of the unstable clement, uranium.
Control of the heat is maintained by means of other rods, of boron or cadmium, either of which has the cffect of slowing
down nuclear reaction. These rods can be raised or lowered in the pile to regulate its output as the temperature drops or increases.
Putting the heat to practical use is done by forcing carbon dioxide through the pile by means of pumps. The gas emerges
at high temperature and operates steam turbine generators which supply electricity to the National Grid.
The world’s first economically practical atomic generator was put into use in Britain at Calder Hall, in 1956, and since
then generators of various patterns, but operating on the same basic principles, have been working in the United States and
Russia. Countries with less money and smaller industrial resources have formed groups such as the European Organisa-
tion for Nuclear Research, to provide themselves with the equipment to carry out their own experiments towards more
advanced systems of developing atomic power. But the story of nuclear power does not end with the setting up of hundreds
of generators throughout the world to make us independent of coal and oil. Generators which depend on uranium to provide
the active heart of the pile are expensive, as uranium is a rare metal. The next step is cheap nuclear power, and this seems
likely to come from a hydrogen reactor. As the atomic reactor depends on the principle of the atomic bomb-fission-the hydrogen reactor depends on that of the hydrogen bomb, which is fusion. It is actually the fusion of light elements into heavier ones which produces the power in this case. The principle is the one which provides the sun’s energy. Scientists hope to produce hydrogen reactors costing little to run and yielding electric power direct, without turbines and generators.
If they succeed, man will truly have achieved a limitless source of useful power.