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Nuclear energy is produced during reactions in the nucleus of an atom. Atoms can be thought of as miniature solar systems with the nucleus at the center like a sun and electrons orbiting around it like planets. Densely packed neutrons and protons make up the nucleus, which is held together with great force, the "strongest force in nature." When the nucleus is bombarded with a neutron, it can be split apart, a process called fission. Uranium is the heaviest natural element and has ninety-two protons. Because uranium atoms are so large, the atomic force that binds it together is relatively weak, so fission is more likely with uranium than other elements.

Fusion, another type of nuclear reaction, is the joining of atoms and can occur with elements of low atomic number, such as hydrogen, the lightest element, which has one proton. The first time physicists achieved fusion was in the 1950s with the hydrogen bomb. Fusion releases a tremendous amount



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of energy, but the energy is released so quickly and uncontrollably that fusion has not yet been harnessed as a usable source of energy.

Physicists formulated the principles of nuclear power in the early twentieth century. In 1939 German scientists discovered the process of nuclear fission, triggering a race with American scientists to use the massive energy release of fission to create a bomb. The atomic bomb was created by the United States in 1945; it was used to destroy Hiroshima and Nagasaki in Japan at the end of World War II.

After World War II, atomic power was seen as a potential new energy source. The U.S. government thought atomic explosions would be a labor-saving way to dig canals and reservoirs and to mine for gas and oil. As late as



the 1960s, bombs were being set off above and below ground to test different ideas, resulting in radionuclide contamination of the soil that is still being addressed today.

A more successful use of atomic power was nuclear reactors that controlled the release of energy. Admiral Hyman G. Rickover guided the development of small reactors to power submarines, greatly extending their range and power. By the late 1950s, nuclear power was being developed for commercial electric power, initially in England. Morris, Illinois, was the site of the first U.S. commercial reactor. Nuclear weapons research was advanced by Russia and the United States during the Cold War, and a number of other countries, including China and India, have now developed nuclear weapons.

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