A century of technology

Fission and friction

Mushroom-shaped cloud in the ocean from a test of an atomic bomb

To a large extent, technological change in the 20th century has been driven by innovations from the two World Wars and by subsequent efforts to prevent global conflicts from erupting ever again. The first nuclear explosion was a pivotal point: on July 16, 1945, the plutonium device ‘Trinity’ was detonated at the Alamogordo Bombing Range near Los Alamos, New Mexico.

A drawing in washed ink of four men carrying a stretcher. They walk through the still-burning ruins of the atomic bomb-destroyed Nagasaki net.

In August of the same year, the uranium-235 bomb ‘Little Boy’ and plutonium bomb ‘Fat Man’ were used against Hiroshima and Nagasaki in Japan. Despite the devastating effects of their deployment, the further development of nuclear fission in the post-war period was unstoppable. Scientists such as John Cockroft - the British physicist who won the Nobel Prize in 1951 for splitting the atomic nucleus - took the technology to new levels by applying it to civil and commercial domains.

Sir John Cockroft about ‘Scientific and Technical Problems in the Development of Nuclear Power’ at the Lindau Nobel Prize Meeting in 1956, TIB - German National Library of Science and Technology, CC BY-NC-ND

Turning the perspective from destruction to production, the worldwide dissemination of reactor technology continued, supported by policy makers such as President Dwight Eisenhower whose Atoms for Peace speech to the UN General Assembly (1953) was a milestone event.

Stamp from the USA with two globes surrounded by electron orbits: "Atoms for peace"

The first nuclear power plant built for civil purposes was the AM-1 Obninsk in the Soviet Union dating from 1954. The first built for commercial use was in the UK, with the Calder Hall power plant opening in Sellafield in 1956.

General de Gaulle visits the Marcoule nuclear power plant, 1958, INA, In copyright

The use of nuclear power became a concern for the anti-nuclear movement, which in preceding years had focused on disarmament and demanded a ban on nuclear weapons testing. In the late 1960s and throughout the next decades, pacifist and environmentalist considerations would increasingly penetrate politics: the establishment of green parties often was a direct result of anti-nuclear activism.

One of the most famous cases was the protest against the power plant in Wyhl, West Germany. The plans for its construction met large protests in the early 1970s the plans were eventually cancelled in 1975. The iconic victory would remain an inspiration for activists for decades to come.

Poster with the words 'The nuclear plant in Wyhl will not be built'
Activist poster commemorating the Wyhl victory 15 years earlier, 1990

The symbol of the anti-nuclear movement would turn into an icon of the 20th century: the logo made by British designer Gerald Holtom in 1958 became an internationally recognised peace sign.

Poster with a peace symbol (a super-imposition of the semaphore signals for the letters "N" and "D", taken to stand for 'nuclear disarmament') designed by Gerald Holtom as the logo for the British Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND)

Despite powerful protests, intensifying after the disastrous accidents at Three Mile Island (1979) and Chernobyl (1986), a total of 438 nuclear power plants were operating around the world by 2000.

With the immense risks connected with the production and use of nuclear energy has come the realisation that extraordinary protection strategies are needed. But the analysis of the issue is complex and touches upon a variety of expertise information. For the time being, the nuclear industry is here to stay. But the debate continues as well.

A man speaking vigorously to a microphone. Behind him gathering of people.