Meltdown at Three Mile Island
S afety has been an important consideration from the very beginning of the development of nuclear reactors. On December 2, 1942, when the first atomic reactor was brought to criticality, Enrico Fermi had already made safety an important part of the experiment. In addition to a shutoff rod, other emergency procedures for shutting down the pile were prepared in advance. Fermi also considered the safety aspects of reactor operation. Shortly before the reactor was expected to reach criticality, Fermi noted the mounting tension of the crew. To make sure that the operation was carried out in a calm and considered manner, he directed that the experiment be shut down and that all adjourn for lunch. With such leadership in safety at the very beginning, it is no wonder that the operation of reactors to date has such an impressive track record.

The series of WWW pages given here are intended to present a chronology of nuclear safety research and development. Above is a clickable map of a timeline beginning with Fermi's Chicago Pile experiment until today and "beyond." Much of the context does not have the glamour of high profile nuclear industry stories such as the accidents at Three Mile Island and Chernobyl. Instead, the history gives insight into the culture of the scientists, engineers, and technocrats faced with the challenges of a totally new and powerful technology. In the early years, these pioneers wandered into a brave new world of first-of-a-kind research and development. Today, nuclear industry participants must deal with the ramifications of the discussions and actions made by those pioneers.

A synopsis of this chronology might suggest that the first ten years of nuclear power development were devoted to demonstrating that power reactors could be designed, built, and operated; the second ten years were devoted to showing that power reactors might be operated economically; the third decade saw the rise of a viable commercial industry, the fourth decade, punctuated by the accident at Three Mile Island, was a mix of rapid commercial growth coupled with increasing government regulation, the fifth decade, despite the Chernobyl accident, was highlighted by a reaffirmation by the nuclear industry to providing a safe source of electrical generation and serious public skepticism. The nuclear industry is now well into the sixth decade of nuclear power, public skepticism is still a major factor guiding the future of nuclear power both in the United States and internationally. For the industry to survive, nuclear advocates will have to be devoted to restoring the publics faith in the integrity of the industry and be willing to participate in a healthy debate of the issues. Meanwhile, industry technologist are continuing their devotion to operating reactors economically, advancing improvements, and development new system designs. Reactor safety has played a significant role in these developments and will continue to do so.

Click on the timeline at top of this page to learn more about the History of Nuclear Power Plant Safety.

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