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Topic section: The peaceful atom
The peaceful atom
Following on from the development of the first nuclear weapons in the United States during the Second World War, t
Picture: 10414787_S1_embed.jpg
Scientist taking readings from the BEPO reactor rod loading site.
Credit: Science Museum/Science & Society Picture Library
he British government established its own nuclear weapons programme. This required the construction of nuclear reactors in Britain to produce plutonium for warheads.

As well as plutonium, these reactors produced heat, which could be used to convert water into steam to drive electricity generators. Because the government wanted reactors for weapons-grade plutonium, the extra cost of using the heat for electricity production was small. This was the thinking behind the first two nuclear power stations in Britain, Calder Hall and Chapel Cross. These produced both plutonium and electricity. Consequently, a lot of the research and development costs of the early nuclear power stations were underwritten by military budgets.

In the United States, the navy developed a small and powerful reactor to propel submarines. This reactor, the Pressurised Water Reactor (PWR), became the standard nuclear reactor design used around the world.

In the early days, nuclear power was seen as a benefit, producing cheap electricity

The development of these nuclear power plants showed that nuclear power was technologically possible. But would the public accept it?

In the early days, nuclear power was seen as a benefit, producing cheap electricity and reducing Britain’s dependency on oil from the Middle East (in the days before North Sea oil). But the downside of nuclear power became apparent with accidents at Three Mile Island in the US and, even more significantly, at Chernobyl, which was then in the USSR.

Alongside the growing the unease of the public about the safety of nuclear power, another issue became prominent: how to deal with nuclear waste. Up to now the nuclear industry and government have been unable to find a solution that the public are willing to accept. Despite assurances from the scientists, the public’s fears over safety and toxic waste may halt further development of nuclear power, a technology once favoured by government.

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Topic section: Foot and mouth disease
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The foot-and-mouth disease outbreak of 2001 raised questions of science versus compensation culture. Would vaccination favoured by scientists be acceptable to farmers worried about public resistance to eating vaccinated meat?  > more

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Topic section: GM – to modify or not to modify?
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Genetic modification (GM) technology is good for suppliers. But what benefits are there for consumers? Until these are clearly established, the public is not going to buy GM food.  > more
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