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Figure 1 This 12-foot bronze sculpture by Henry Moore marks the site at the University of Chicago where the first sustained nuclear reaction was achieved.
Figure 1 This 12-foot bronze sculpture by Henry Moore marks the site at the University of Chicago where the first sustained nuclear reaction was achieved.

On December 2, 1942, the world’s first nuclear reactor went critical on the floor of an abandoned squash court at the University of Chicago. At 3:26 p.m. that afternoon, scientists achieved the first self-sustaining nuclear chain reaction inside what was known as Chicago Pile-1, initiating the atomic age. This opened the possibility of providing power from the energy locked safely inside the atom (Figure 1). To promote nuclear energy, electric companies assured the public of a source that provided power so cheap that there would be no need to even meter it. This optimism and excitement was soon tarnished as the hazards, environmental costs, and the dangers associated with the accidental release of radiation became apparent.

Today, the same optimism exists toward the future development of controlled fusion - that all our energy needs will be satisfied and this source of clean, renewable energy will substitute for all other forms of energy.



The entire physical world is made of atoms. The word atom is derived from the Greek word atomos which means “indivisible.” It was coined by ancient Greek philosophers, who thought of the atom as the smallest possible constituent of a substance. We have since learned that atoms are not indivisible, but are rather made of even smaller particles. Different elements have atoms that contain different numbers of these smaller particles. Today, the idea of the atom has been modified to specify the smallest particle of a chemical element that still exhibits all the chemical properties unique to that element. The atoms of these elements react with one another and combine in different ways, forming a virtually unlimited number of chemical compounds. When two or more atoms combine, they form a molecule. For example, two atoms of hydrogen combine with one atom of oxygen to form a molecule of water. In other instances, atoms of one element can change their entity and form new elements. In these reactions, called nuclear reactions, the elementary particles within the nucleus of the atom are rearranged. Nuclear reactors and our sun rely on such reactions to produce energy.


(1) Toossi Reza, "Energy and the Environment:Sources, technologies, and impacts", Verve Publishers, 2005

Further Reading

Bodansky, Nuclear Energy Principles, Practices, and Prospects, Second Ed., Springer, 2004.

Seaborg, G., T., Peaceful Uses of Nuclear Energy, University Press of the Pacific, 2005.

International Journal of Nuclear Engineering and Design, Direct Science Elsevier Publishing Company, devoted to the Thermal, Mechanical, Material and Structural Aspects of Nuclear Fission.

Journal of Fusion Energy, Springer Netherlands. It features articles pertinent to development of thermonuclear fusion.

External Links

Federation of American Scientists (

International Atomic Energy Agency (

DoE Office of Nuclear Energy, Science & Technology (

American Nuclear Society, (

World Association of Nuclear Operator (WANO) (