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What is the Nuclear Industry?

By Alan Rankin
Updated May 17, 2024
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The nuclear industry is the worldwide business that creates electricity through controlled nuclear reactions. State-owned and private organizations around the world employ nuclear reactors to generate power. The process is controversial because of the risk of accidents and unresolved issues over the disposal of nuclear waste. The debate over safety is ongoing, partially because of incidents such as the Chernobyl accident in Russia in the 1980s. There has also been concern that some nations could use by-products of the nuclear industry to create weapons.

During the early 20th century, scientists around the world discovered how to create energy through the use of highly radioactive elements such as uranium. This led to the development of nuclear weapons and a subsequent multinational arms race in the years after World War II. At the same time, a different process was created that could generate electricity through controlled rather than explosive nuclear reactions. By the 1950s, the nascent nuclear industry had formed as an alternative to traditional power generation using coal and fossil fuels.

Nuclear power has been controversial throughout its history. Radioactive material of any kind is dangerous to humans and other organisms, as it can cause radiation poisoning and long-term medical problems such as cancer. The waste from such power plants is also controversial, as it maintains dangerous levels of radiation for centuries, and disposal methods have often been imperfect. Many activist groups around the world have mobilized protests against the nuclear industry. Despite this, in the early 21st century, almost 15 percent of the world’s electricity was generated by nuclear power.

Accidents at nuclear facilities have actually been rare. In 1979, an incident at Pennsylvania’s Three Mile Island nuclear facility caused the release of some radioactive material, but there were no fatalities. In 1986, however, an accident at Russia’s Chernobyl power plant resulted in an explosion that released nuclear material into the atmosphere. More than 50 people died in the event, and as many as 4,000 may have subsequently died from the long-term effects of radioactivity in the region. In the 21st century, there were increasing concerns that developing countries could use the by-products of their nuclear power plants to create nuclear weapons.

References to the nuclear industry and its controversies appear in novels like Stephen King’s Tommyknockers and films such as 1979’s The China Syndrome, released mere weeks before the Three Mile Island incident. One of the most famous cartoon characters in history is employed by the nuclear industry, Homer Simpson, of television’s The Simpsons. A running joke on the show is that Homer, whose laziness and ineptitude are legendary, is the safety inspector for his town’s nuclear power plant. A more sober view of nuclear safety is provided by the critically acclaimed 1983 film Silkwood, based on real events at an Oklahoma nuclear plant.

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