Celebrating 75 Years of Nuclear Fission

75 years ago, fission was an idea that was thought only to exist in theory. At the time it was thought impossible to split an atom without causing some kind of detonation. The 1930s had many scientists exploring this idea. Many attempted to split the atom by bombarding it with protons. In 1938, Enrico Fermi, an Italian physicist, began using heavier elements and bombarding them with neutrons. Then in December, Otto Hahn and Fritz Strassmann observed that the by-products of splitting Uranium were roughly half the mass of Uranium, which demonstrated that atomic fission had occurred, releasing roughly 200 million electron volts in the process. The world would never be the same.

Enrico Fermi moved to the University of Chicago shortly after. There, he and his team found a way to insert neutron-absorbing material to slow down and absorb excess energy to create a self-sustaining and controlled reaction. Chicago Pile, as it is now know, was the first such nuclear reaction.

"In those 75 years since Enrico Fermi, Otto Hahn, and Fritz Strassmann opened our eyes to nuclear fission, not much has changed in terms of what we understand fission to be," said Donald R. Hoffman, President of the American Nuclear Society. "What has changed are the seemingly limitless numbers of applications and how much we have been able to utilize them to serve human kind. We have greatly increased our understanding of its uses such as radiation, what it does and does not do."

The American Nuclear Society will celebrate the 75th anniversary of the discovery of nuclear fission at its 2013 Winter Meeting in Washington, D.C. Fermi's discovery will be illustrated by the ways in which nuclear fission has become an everyday occurrence in our world, including how communities and homes across the globe receive energy every day from nuclear reactors. The discovery brought developments in food irradiation to remove disease-causing microorganisms and keep what we eat safe. But one of the most significant has been the innovations in nuclear medicine and how it is used in nearly one-third of all procedures through radiation or radioactivity.

Hoffman, who is also President and CEO of EXCEL Services Corporation, has spent much time traveling the globe and sharing the benefits that nuclear science has bestowed. "There are a number of nations and parts of the world where we didn't believe we'd see a significant impact and use of fission. However, southeast Asia, Africa, and other countries are developing applications alongside more traditionally known nuclear developed countries such as the United States, Russia, and Japan in finding new technologies and uses."

"For the vast majority of individuals across the globe, nuclear science has improved their quality of life. The applications used due to the discovery of fission include numerous agricultural and even extend to industries such as mining. However, I recognize that the vast majority of the public think of fission as either a weapon or energy, and not necessarily think of its importance to innovations in medicine," said Hoffman.

And younger generations understand the role nuclear fission can continue to play in our world. At 19, Taylor Wilson has been a new voice in nuclear science, jumping on the scene with nearly 3 million views on his first March 2012 TEDTalk. Many have watched Taylor Wilson lecture on the future role that nuclear fission can have within reactors. Just this past February at a TEDTalk in Long Beach, California, he outlined the benefits of small modular reactors, and how ultimately, they could be used to solve global energy needs.

"The applications that fission has brought us will continue to bring rewards for human kind over many decades and generations," noted Hoffman. "I believe we have only scratched the surface of the uses for both large and small scale reactors, limitless potential in our food safety standards to bring better process controls, and the possibilities of long term space travel that will be made possible with continued application development through nuclear fission."