Nuclear history of the United States

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Nuclear history of the United States describes the history of nuclear affairs in the United States whether civilian or military.


Manhattan Project[edit]

The pre-Hiroshima nuclear history of the United States began with the Manhattan Project. This Manhattan Project was the nuclear program for warfare.

Even before the first nuclear weapons had been developed, scientists involved with the Manhattan Project were divided over the use of the weapon. The role of the two atomic bombings of the country in Japan's surrender and the U.S.'s ethical justification for them has been the subject of scholarly and popular debate for decades. The question of whether nations should have nuclear weapons, or test them, has been continually and nearly universally controversial.[1]

Hiroshima and Nagasaki[edit]

The atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki (August 1945) heralded the beginning of the Cold War and the prosperity by nuclear of the United States. After the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the United States began nuclear weapons tests, Hydrogen bombs were also developed.

In 1945, the pocketbook The Atomic Age heralded the untapped atomic power in everyday objects and depicted a future where fossil fuels would go unused. Glenn T. Seaborg, who chaired the Atomic Energy Commission, wrote "there will be nuclear powered earth-to-moon shuttles, nuclear powered artificial hearts, plutonium heated swimming pools for SCUBA divers, and much more".

During the 1950s, civilian use of the nuclear was also developed. This period was characterized by the phrase "Atoms for peace" (by Dwight Eisenhower).

Development of nuclear-powered matters[edit]

Unexpectedly high costs in the nuclear weapons program, along with competition with the Soviet Union and a desire to spread democracy through the world, created "...pressure on federal officials to develop a civilian nuclear power industry that could help justify the government's considerable expenditures."[2] The Atomic Energy Act of 1954 encouraged private corporations to build nuclear reactors and a significant learning phase followed with many early partial core meltdowns and accidents at experimental reactors and research facilities.[3]

The Cold War reached the climax in the 1960s, especially the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962. During the 1960s and 1970s, nuclear weapons were spread to many countries in addition to the United States and the Soviet Union. Many nuclear-powered matters such as nuclear-powered ships and nuclear-powered submarines are manufactured during this period.

1970s and 1980s[edit]

On 28 March 1979, the nuclear disaster occurred in the Three Mile Island Nuclear Generating Station. This was the first disaster in civilian nuclear power plants. By the Three Mile disaster, "China syndrome" became a vogue word, anti-nuclear movements occurred in the United States.

Following the Three Mile Island accident, changing economics, increasing regulation, and public opposition many planned nuclear power projects were canceled. More than a hundred orders for nuclear power reactors, many already under construction, were canceled in the 1970s and 1980s, bankrupting some companies. A cover story in the 1985 issue of Forbes magazine criticized the overall management of the nuclear power program in the United States.[4]

During the second half of the 1980s, the reduction of nuclear weapons was carried out initiated by the perestroika of the Soviet Union. This reduction of nuclear weapons was characterized such as the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty (1987) and the START I (1991).

After the Cold War[edit]

After the Cold War, dramatic changes of the nuclear affairs of the United States are small. Nuclear equipments whether civilian or military are the same scale as the 1980s.

Civilian nuclear matters[edit]

A clean-up crew working to remove radioactive contamination after the Three Mile Island accident.

Nuclear safety and security in the U.S. is governed by federal regulations issued by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC). The NRC regulates all nuclear plants and materials in the U.S. except for of nuclear plants and materials controlled by the U.S. government, as well those powering naval vessels.[5][6]

The 1979 Three Mile Island accident was a pivotal event that led to questions about U.S. nuclear safety.[7] Earlier events had a similar effect, including a 1975 fire at Browns Ferry, the 1976 testimonials of three concerned GE nuclear engineers, the GE Three. In 1981, workers inadvertently reversed pipe restraints at the Diablo Canyon Power Plant reactors, compromising seismic protection systems, which further undermined confidence in nuclear safety. All of these well-publicised events, undermined public support for the U.S. nuclear industry in the 1970s and the 1980s.[7]

The national U.S. movement against nuclear power had its roots in New England in the 1970s. In 1974, activist Sam Lovejoy toppled a weather tower at the site of the proposed Montague Nuclear Power Plant in Western Massachusetts.[8] The movement "reached critical mass" with the arrests at Seabrook Station Nuclear Power Plant on May 1, 1977, when 1,414 anti-nuclear activists from the Clamshell Alliance were arrested at the Seabrook site. Harvey Wasserman, Howard Morland, Paul Gunter and Frances Crowe played key roles in the movement.[8]

In 2002, the USA had what former NRC Commissioner Victor Gilinsky termed "its closest brush with disaster" since Three Mile Island's 1979 meltdown; a workman at the Davis-Besse reactor found a large rust hole in the top of the reactor pressure vessel.[9] Recent concerns have been expressed about safety issues affecting a large part of the nuclear fleet of reactors. In 2012, the Union of Concerned Scientists, which tracks ongoing safety issues at operating nuclear plants, found that "leakage of radioactive materials is a pervasive problem at almost 90 percent of all reactors, as are issues that pose a risk of nuclear accidents".[10]

Following the Japanese 2011 Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster, according to Black & Veatch’s annual utility survey that took place after the disaster, of the 700 executives from the US electric utility industry that were surveyed, nuclear safety was the top concern.[11] There are likely to be increased requirements for on-site spent fuel management and elevated design basis threats at nuclear power plants.[12][13] License extensions for existing reactors will face additional scrutiny, with outcomes depending on the degree to which plants can meet new requirements, and some of the extensions already granted for more than 60 of the 104 operating U.S. reactors could be revisited. On-site storage, consolidated long-term storage, and geological disposal of spent fuel is "likely to be reevaluated in a new light because of the Fukushima storage pool experience".[12]

In October 2011, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission instructed agency staff to move forward with seven of the 12 safety recommendations put forward by the federal task force in July. The recommendations include "new standards aimed at strengthening operators’ ability to deal with a complete loss of power, ensuring plants can withstand floods and earthquakes and improving emergency response capabilities". The new safety standards will take up to five years to fully implement.[14]

Nuclear power plant accidents in the U.S. with more than US$140 million in property damage[15][16]
Date Plant Location Description Cost
(in millions
$2006 )
March 28, 1979 Three Mile Island Londonderry Township, Pennsylvania Loss of coolant and partial core meltdown, see Three Mile Island accident and Three Mile Island accident health effects US$2,400
March 9, 1985 Browns Ferry Athens, Alabama Instrumentation systems malfunction during startup, which led to suspension of operations at all three Units US$1,830
April 11, 1986 Pilgrim Plymouth, Massachusetts Recurring equipment problems force emergency shutdown of Boston Edison's plant US$1,001
March 31, 1987 Peach Bottom Delta, Pennsylvania Units 2 and 3 shutdown due to cooling malfunctions and unexplained equipment problems US$400
December 19, 1987 Nine Mile Point Scriba, New York Malfunctions force Niagara Mohawk Power Corporation to shut down Unit 1 US$150
February 20, 1996 Millstone Waterford, Connecticut Leaking valve forces shutdown of Units 1 and 2, multiple equipment failures found US$254
September 2, 1996 Crystal River Crystal River, Florida Balance-of-plant equipment malfunction forces shutdown and extensive repairs US$384
February 1, 2010 Vermont Yankee Vernon, Vermont Deteriorating underground pipes leak radioactive tritium into groundwater supplies US$700

Military nuclear matters[edit]

The airburst nuclear explosion of July 1, 1946. Photo taken from a tower on Bikini Island, 3.5 miles (5.6 km) away.
Operation Crossroads Test Able, a 23-kiloton air-deployed nuclear weapon detonated on July 1, 1946. This bomb used, and consumed, the infamous Demon core that took the lives of two scientists in two separate criticality accidents.
The U.S. conducted hundreds of nuclear tests at the Nevada Test Site.

Between 1940 and 1996, the U.S. spent at least $10.1 trillion in present-day terms[17] on nuclear weapons development, including platforms development (aircraft, rockets and facilities), command and control, maintenance, waste management and administrative costs.[18] It is estimated that, since 1945, the United States produced more than 70,000 nuclear warheads, which is more than all other nuclear weapon states combined. The Soviet Union/Russia has built approximately 55,000 nuclear warheads since 1949, France built 1110 warheads since 1960, the United Kingdom built 835 warheads since 1952, China built about 600 warheads since 1964, and other nuclear powers built less than 500 warheads all together since they developed their first nuclear weapons.[19] Until November 1962, the vast majority of U.S. nuclear tests were aboveground. After the acceptance of the Partial Test Ban Treaty, all testing was regulated underground, in order to prevent the dispersion of nuclear fallout.

As of February 2006, over $1.2 billion in compensation was paid to U.S. citizens exposed to nuclear hazards as a result of the U.S. nuclear weapons program, and by 1998, at least $759 million was paid to the Marshall Islanders in compensation for their exposure to U.S. nuclear testing.[20][21]

In 2010, the United States maintained an arsenal of 5,113 warheads[22] and facilities for their construction and design, though many of the Cold War facilities have since been deactivated and are sites for environmental remediation. On December 5, 2012, the National Nuclear Security Administration announced that the U.S. conducted its 27th subcritical underground nuclear test since 1992, when the U.S. ended test nuclear explosions.[23]


  1. ^ Jerry Brown and Rinaldo Brutoco (1997). Profiles in Power: The Anti-nuclear Movement and the Dawn of the Solar Age, Twayne Publishers, pp. 191–192.
  2. ^ John Byrne and Steven M. Hoffman (1996). Governing the Atom: The Politics of Risk, Transaction Publishers, p. 136.
  3. ^ Benjamin K. Sovacool. The costs of failure: A preliminary assessment of major energy accidents, 1907–2007, Energy Policy 36 (2008), p. 1808.
  4. ^ "Nuclear Follies", a February 11, 1985 cover story in Forbes magazine.
  5. ^ About NRC, U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission. Retrieved 2007-6-1.
  6. ^ Our Governing Legislation, U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission. Retrieved 2007-6-1.
  7. ^ a b Nathan Hultman & Jonathan Koomey (1 May 2013). "Three Mile Island: The driver of US nuclear power's decline?". Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists.
  8. ^ a b Michael Kenney. Tracking the protest movements that had roots in New England The Boston Globe, December 30, 2009.
  9. ^ Stephanie Cooke (March 19, 2011). "Nuclear power is on trial". CNN. Retrieved April 29, 2011.
  10. ^ Mark Cooper (2012). "Nuclear safety and affordable reactors: Can we have both?" (PDF). Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists.
  11. ^ Eric Wesoff, Greentechmedia. "Black & Veatch’s 2011 Electric Utility Survey." June 16, 2011. Retrieved October 11, 2011.
  12. ^ a b Massachusetts Institute of Technology (2011). "The Future of the Nuclear Fuel Cycle" (PDF). p. xv.
  13. ^ Mark Cooper (July 2011). "The implications of Fukushima: The US perspective". Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists. p. 9.
  14. ^ Andrew Restuccia (2011-10-20). "Nuke regulators toughen safety rules". The Hill. Archived from the original on 2012-01-14.
  15. ^ Benjamin K. Sovacool. A Critical Evaluation of Nuclear Power and Renewable Electricity in Asia, Journal of Contemporary Asia, Vol. 40, No. 3, August 2010, pp. 393–400.
  16. ^ Benjamin K. Sovacool (2009). The Accidental Century – Prominent Energy Accidents in the Last 100 Years Archived 2012-08-21 at the Wayback Machine
  17. ^ 1634–1699: McCusker, J. J. (1997). How Much Is That in Real Money? A Historical Price Index for Use as a Deflator of Money Values in the Economy of the United States: Addenda et Corrigenda (PDF). American Antiquarian Society. 1700–1799: McCusker, J. J. (1992). How Much Is That in Real Money? A Historical Price Index for Use as a Deflator of Money Values in the Economy of the United States (PDF). American Antiquarian Society. 1800–present: Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis. "Consumer Price Index (estimate) 1800–". Retrieved April 16, 2022.
  18. ^ "Estimated Minimum Incurred Costs of U.S. Nuclear Weapons Programs, 1940–1996". Brookings Institution. Archived from the original on 2013-10-04. Retrieved 2013-08-18.
  19. ^ Paine, Christopher E.; Cochran, Thomas B.; Norris, Robert S. (4 January 1996). "The Arsenals of the Nuclear Weapons Powers: An Overview" (PDF). Natural Resources Defense Council. Archived from the original (PDF) on 3 March 2016. Retrieved 11 May 2014.
  20. ^ "50 Facts About U.S. Nuclear Weapons". Brookings Institution. 1998. Archived from the original on 2016-03-13.
  21. ^ "Radiation Exposure Compensation System Claims to Date Summary of Claims Received by 08/15/2013 All Claims" (PDF). United States Department of Justice. 16 August 2013. – updated regularly
  22. ^ Mohammed, Arshad; Stewart, Phil (3 May 2010). "U.S. says nuclear arsenal includes 5,113 warheads". Reuters.
  23. ^ Frank von Hippel, Subcritical experiments, Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists (December 14, 2012).