NUCLEAR POWER: FROM MARIE CURIE TO ANGELA MERKEL

The Fukushima disaster in 2011 turned the German people against nuclear energy, and chancellor Angela Merkel immediately announced the shuttering of all the reactors by about 2022 or 2023 (quite before their life expectancy). In any case, Germany is ending its nuclear era and changing deeply a structure that has developed over more than 100 years.

It all began February 26, 1896. French physicist Antoine Henri Becquerel was interested in the phenomenon of fluorescence, in which some materials glow when exposed to sunlight. Physicist Wilhelm Röntgen had recently discovered X-rays; He found that, when exposing a fluorescing material (an uranium compound called potassium uranyl sulfate) to the sun, it emitted invisible spontaneous radiation, capable of passing through opaque objects, the same as X-rays. He called this radiation radioactivity. The mechanism of this phenomenon was studied more profoundly between 1898 and 1902 by Pierre Curie and Marie Slodovska, a Polish and naturalized-French physicist and chemist that took up her husband’s name. In 1903, for their work, Marie Curie, her husband Pierre, and Henry Becquerel, were awarded the Nobel Prize for Physics. However, the work of Marie Curie with radioactivity was done in ignorance of its effect on human health. She and her daughter Irene died from leukaemia induced by exposure to high levels of radioactivity.

Ernest Rutherford established in 1911 that radioactivity depended on the atomic nucleus. Two years later, Niels Bohr proposed the atomic model that nowadays seems to us so intuitive: The negatively charged electrons confined to an atomic shell that encircles a positively charged atomic nucleus (made of protons and neutrons). Meanwhile Max Planck, Albert Einstein and Wolfgang Pauli formulated the theory (quantum mechanics) that would cast some light on these stunning breakthroughs. In the 1930s, Enrico Fermi and Otto Hahn carried out experiments where heavy elements, such as uranium, were bombarded with neutrons and split into lighter atoms, realizing huge amounts of energy. By 1935 the two men had already discovered slow neutrons, which have properties important to the operation of nuclear reactors. The artificially induced nuclear fission was born.  

In the beginning of the 40s, Hitler criticized what he called the “Jewish physics”. He drove Fermi, Einstein, Pauli Bohr and many other scientists into exile. They ended up participating, directly or indirectly, in the invention of the atomic bomb, in the so-called Manhattan Project, headed by Robert Oppenheimer. Planck and Hahn rested in Germany and fell under suspicion. And others, such as Werner Heisenberg, collaborated in the failed development of a German nuclear reactor. Electricity generation from nuclear power was finally achieved in 1951.

How did Einstein, Bohr, Heisenberg or Oppenheimer see the role of the emerging technoscientific knowledge? What would have been their opinion nowadays on the nuclear “affair”? More important, which is our position concerning atomic power? Critics argue Merkel’s decision was emotional, not practical. I agree. However, it might be true that the nuclear fission era has finally come to an end. It’s time to direct our efforts towards the establishment of nuclear fusionImatge

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