When did the concept of "Nuclear Power Safety" first arise? While the world would have to what until 1957 for the first commercial nuclear power plant, the ground work for nuclear safety began with the first major investigation into a controlled nuclear fission chain reaction. That was performed by Enrico Fermi at the University of Chicago in 1942.

Key to unleashing this new source of energy was emphasis on the "controlled" part. Just like the early New World explorers, these pioneer scientists had to prepare for the unknown. The experiment, shown at right, was an array of uranium-oxide rods embedded in graphite blocks. There plan initiated the "defense-in-depth" philosophy to safety; however this terminology was not established at the time. This concept conceded the possibility of a single failure.

To address the possibility of a failure, multiple safeguard were designed into the experiment. In the "pile" were three sets of control rods. The primary set was not used for safety at all, it was designed for fine control of the nuclear chain reaction. The other two control rods served the safety functions. One set was automatic and could be controlled by manual interaction and the other was an emergency safety rod. The automatic control rod was operated by an electric motor and responded to a "high" instrument reading from a radiation counter. Attached to one end of the emergency rod was a rope running through the pile and weighted heavily on the opposite end. During testing, this rod was withdrawn from the pile and tied down by another rope. It was the job of the "Safety Control Rod Axe Man" to stand-by ready to cut this rope with an axe should something unexpected happen, or in case the automatic safety rods failed. The acronym SCRAM from "Safety Control Rod Axe Man" is still used today in reference to the rapid shutdown of a nuclear reaction.

The safety measures did not stop with the control rods. Not wanting to rely completely on mechanical devices, Fermi organized a "liquid-control squad." They were to stand on a platform above the pile and respond to mechanical failure of the control rods by pouring a Cadmium-salt solution over the experiment. Cadmium is a strong absorber of the neutrons required to fission the uranium.

Fortunately, Fermi and there team had done their homework. The experiment went off without any problems and at 3:25pm on December 2, 1942, the nuclear age was born. The first man-made self-sustaining nuclear reaction had been achieved.

Following the success of that day, nuclear power research focused on the development of the atomic bomb as part of the "Manhattan Project." This work was performed primarily at the Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico. While there is a broad difference between nuclear weapons and nuclear power plants, a great deal of nuclear theory was generated for the war effort. We know from Edward Teller that this work was managed in a safe manner. He says, "Fortunately, [a nuclear accident] did not happen. Car accidents occurred on the road winding up the mesa; people were injured while riding horses. But the atomic materials were handled with great care and with complete safety."

The Peaceful Applications of Nuclear Power?

To many people the awesome destruction of the atomic bombs over Japan suggested more than just a new modern-age weapon of mass destruction. Nuclear physicist Alvin Weinberg told the Senate's Special Committee on Atomic Energy in December 1945: "Atomic power can cure as well as kill. It can fertilize and enrich a region as well as devastate it. It can widen man's horizons as well as force him back into the cave." Despite these calls from prominent technical leaders such as Weinberg, the U.S. government maintained strict control over atomic technology and focused research on military purposes. The Atomic Energy Act of 1946 established the five-member Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) in 1946 and acknowledged in passing the potential peaceful benefits of atomic power. The 1946 law did not permit the privatization of nuclear power applications; rather, the government would hold a monopoly of the technology.

Today, with the Department of Energy's release of formerly classified information, it is generally believed that researchers sponsored by AEC at times breached the boundaries of ethics in regard to "studying the atom." Much of this work was performed to "understand" weapons effects and potential medical responses and had very little to do with nuclear power or the industry that came latter. This behavior continues to haunt the nuclear power industry today. In this regard, the government has forsaken the trust of it's constituents and it will take a long time before the American constituents will forgive it's government. Meanwhile, the industry developed under that veil of secrecy will suffer from the sins of it creators.

Despite the news stories of renegade scientists breaching ethical standards in the name of science, some safety issues were on the minds of the government that was supporting this new discover. Two of the biggest issues that remain with the nuclear industry today, siting and containment, were issues from the start. In the earliest large reactors, the plutonium production reactors at Hanford, the role of geographic isolation in protecting the safety of the general public was emphasized. At its first meeting in 1947, the Reactor Safeguards Committee of theAtomic Energy Commission considered the first proposal for a contained reactor, the SIR, which was to be enclosed in a large spherical shell at West Milton, New York. From that time on, containment for protection of the general public has played an important role in reactor safety in the United States.

Regardless of the nuclear power's "association" with the weapons program, a substantial amount of fine power reactor research was performed under the U.S. government's veil of secrecy. The AEC got off to a rough start in the area of power reactors. Such projects as the sodium graphite, organic-moderated, homogeneous, and gas-cooled reactors eventually fell short of expectations. The AEC did initiate some eventual successes including the Experimental Breeder Reactor-I near Arco, Idaho and other projects for materials testing and nuclear materials production. However, the greatest success would come out of the Department of the Navy, lead by Admiral Hyman Rickover. Rickover's vision is today's Nuclear Navy. Person's trained in that program relied on the experienced gained from the Nuclear Navy to build the nuclear industry in the U.S. and eventual overseas. Nonetheless, Rickover's dream required a high regard for safety. Afterall, "America's finest" were risking it all to insure America's freedom.

The AEC By the end of this decade, the U.S. Navy had recruited Westinghouse into providing technical expertise and establishing a laboratory for developing a nuclear engine for navel vessel propulsion. The laboratory would eventually become the Bettis Atomic Power Laboratory. Their goal was to be the first ever to build a high-temperature nuclear power plant - to harness the tremendous power of nuclear fission and turn it into a steady, well-regulated release of energy to run an engine - safely.


1) J. W. Simpson, Nuclear Power from Underseas to Outer Space, American Nuclear Society, La Grange Park, Illinois, 1995.

2) 40 Years of Nuclear Fission, A Publication of the American Nuclear Society, La Grange Park, Illinois, 1980.


3a) "Controlling the Atom: The Beginnings of Nuclear Regulation, 1946-1962, University of California Press, 1984.