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Nuclear Engineers

History

Nuclear engineering as a formal science is quite young. However, part of its theoretical foundation rests with the ancient Greeks. In the fifth century B.C., Greek philosophers postulated that the building blocks of all matter were indestructible elements, which they named atomos, meaning "indivisible." This atomic theory was accepted for centuries, until the British chemist and physicist John Dalton revised it in the early 1800s. In the following century, scientific and mathematical experimentation led to the formation of modern atomic and nuclear theory.

Today, it is known that the atom is far from indivisible and that its dense center, the nucleus, can be split to create tremendous energy. The first occurrence of this splitting process was inadvertently induced in 1938 by German chemists Fritz Strassmann and Otto Hahn. Further studies confirmed this process and established that the fragments resulting from the fission in turn strike the nuclei of other atoms, resulting in a chain reaction that produces constant energy.

The discipline of modern nuclear engineering is traced to 1942, when physicist Enrico Fermi and his colleagues produced the first self-sustained nuclear chain reaction in the first nuclear reactor ever built. In 1950, North Carolina State College offered the first accredited nuclear engineering program. By 1965, nuclear engineering programs had become widely available at universities and colleges throughout the country and worldwide. These programs provided engineers with a background in reactor physics and control, heat transfer, radiation effects, and shielding.

Current applications in the discipline of nuclear engineering include the use of reactors to propel naval vessels and the production of radioisotopes for medical purposes. Most of the growth in the nuclear industry, however, has focused on the production of electric energy.

Despite the controversy over the risks involved with atomic power, particularly in the aftermath of the Fukushima power station disaster, it continues to be used around the world for a variety of purposes. The Nuclear Energy Institute reports that as of March 2020, there were 442 nuclear energy plants operating in other countries to produce electricity, and 52 new nuclear power plants were under construction in other countries. In December 2019, the U.S. had 96 operating commercial nuclear reactors at 58 nuclear power plants in 29 states. Nearly 20 percent of the electricity in the U.S. is supplied by nuclear plants. In 2016 the United States' largest nuclear plant, with three reactors, was located in Palo Verde, Arizona, with a collective output of 3,937 megawatts. Medicine, manufacturing, and agriculture have also benefited from nuclear research. Such use requires the continued development of nuclear waste management. Low-level wastes, which result from power plants as well as hospitals and research facilities, must be reduced in volume, packed in leak-proof containers, and buried, and waste sites must be continually monitored.

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