– The world’s first nuclear power plant for commercial electricity generation, Calder Hall in Sellafield, Great Britain, was completed in 1956 and produced electricity as well as plutonium for defence purposes.
– From 1960 through the late 1970s, the world’s nuclear capacity grew from barely 1 GW to over 100 GW. Reasons behind this massive expansion were the growth of electricity consumption and a political desire to move away from oil dependency following the oil crisis of the 1970s.
– Public opinion grew more critical of nuclear power in the mid-1970s. There was a fear of accidents and an uncertainty as to the handling of radioactive waste.
– Criticism was heightened on 28 March 1979, when the Three Mile Island nuclear power plant near Harrisburg, Pennsylvania in the US suffered a series of technical errors which resulted in a partial meltdown. One reactor was destroyed, but no radioactive material leaked out and no people were injured. Even so, the accident had a major impact on the public debate and policy development.
– A serious nuclear accident occurred at Chernobyl in northern Ukraine in 1986. The uranium fuel became overheated and melted, the surrounding graphite ignited and large portions of the power plant exploded due to the heat and the reaction between graphite and steam. Radioactive material spread over large parts of Europe. One reason for this was that the Chernobyl reactor did not have a leak-proof containment structure surrounding the reactor, something that all existing power plants have today.
– Thirty people were immediately killed in the accident and 134 people received acute radiation injuries. Increased incidents of thyroid cancer have been discovered in nearby areas in the former Soviet Union and have been linked to the Chernobyl accident.
– Pressure around the world to phase out nuclear power increased after the accident, and Italy had closed down all of its four reactors by 1990.
– Conclusions based on both the Three Mile Island and Chernobyl accidents have resulted in additional safety improvements in operating nuclear power plants.
– Public attitudes to nuclear power have become more positive in recent years and several countries have decided to replace old reactors or expand nuclear power capacity.
– In Germany, the government has decided to phase out the use of nuclear power.