Nuclear fission was first experimentally achieved by Enrico Fermi in 1934 when his team bombarded uranium with neutrons. In 1938, German chemists Otto Hahn and Fritz Strassmann, along with Austrian physicists Lise Meitner and Meitner's nephew, Otto Robert Frisch, conducted experiments with the products of neutron-bombarded uranium. They determined that the relatively tiny neutron split the nucleus of the massive uranium atoms into two roughly equal pieces, which was a surprising result. Numerous scientists, including Leo Szilard who was one of the first, recognized that if fission reactions released additional neutrons, a self-sustaining nuclear chain reaction could result. This spurred scientists in many countries (including the United States, the United Kingdom, France, Germany, and the Soviet Union) to petition their government for support of nuclear fission research.
In the United States, where Fermi and Szilard had both emigrated, this led to the creation of the first man-made reactor, known as Chicago Pile-1, which achieved criticality on December 2, 1942. This work became part of the Manhattan Project, which built large reactors at the Hanford Site (formerly the town of Hanford, Washington) to breed plutonium for use in the first nuclear weapons. A parallel uranium enrichment effort also was pursued.
After World War II, the fear that reactor research would encourage the rapid spread of nuclear weapons and technology, combined with what many scientists thought would be a long road of development, created a situation in which reactor research was kept under strict government control and classification. In addition, most reactor research centered on purely military purposes.
Electricity was generated for the first time by a nuclear reactor on December 20, 1951 at the EBR-I experimental station near Arco, Idaho, which initially produced about 100 kW (the Arco Reactor was also the first to experience partial meltdown, in 1955). In 1952,...