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Nuclear power is any nuclear technology designed to extract usable energy from atomic nuclei via controlled nuclear reactions. The most common method today is through nuclear fission, though other methods include nuclear fusion and radioactive decay. All utility-scale reactors heat water to produce steam, which is then converted into mechanical work for the purpose of generating electricity or propulsion. In 2007, 14% of the world's electricity came from nuclear power. More than 150 nuclear-powered naval vessels have been built, and a few radioisotope rockets have been produced.
As of 2005, nuclear power provided 6.3% of the world's energy and 15% of the world's electricity, with the U.S., France, and Japan together accounting for 56.5% of nuclear generated electricity. As of 2007, the IAEA reported there are 439 nuclear power reactors in operation in the world, operating in 31 countries.
In 2007, nuclear´s share of global electricity generation dropped to 14%. According to the International Atomic Energy Agency, the main reason for this was an earthquake in western Japan on 16 July 2007, which shut down all seven reactors at the Kashiwazaki-Kariwa Nuclear Power Plant. There were also several other reductions and "unusual outages" experienced in Korea and Germany. Also, increases in the load factor for the current fleet of reactors appear to have plateaued.
The United States produces the most nuclear energy, with nuclear power providing 19% of the electricity it consumes, while France produces the highest percentage of its electrical energy from nuclear reactors—78% as of 2006. In the European Union as a whole, nuclear energy provides 30% of the electricity. Nuclear energy policy differs between European Union countries, and some, such as Austria, Estonia, and Ireland, have no active nuclear power stations. In comparison, France has a large number of these plants, with 16 multi-unit stations in current use.
In the US, while the Coal and Gas Electricity industry is projected to be worth $85 billion by 2013, Nuclear Power generators are forecast to be worth $18 billion.
Many military and some civilian (such as some icebreaker) ships use nuclear marine propulsion, a form of nuclear propulsion. A few space vehicles have been launched using full-fledged nuclear reactors: the Soviet RORSAT series and the American SNAP-10A.
International research is continuing into safety improvements such as passively safe plants, the use of nuclear fusion, and additional uses of process heat such as hydrogen production (in support of a hydrogen economy), for desalinating sea water, and for use in district heating systems.
Nuclear fission was first experimentally achieved by Enrico Fermi in 1934 when his team bombarded uranium with neutrons. In 1938, German chemists Otto Hahn and Fritz Strassmann, along with Austrian physicists Lise Meitner and Meitner's nephew, Otto Robert Frisch, conducted experiments with the products of neutron-bombarded uranium. They determined that the relatively tiny neutron split the nucleus of the massive uranium atoms into two roughly equal pieces, which was a surprising result. Numerous scientists, including Leo Szilard who was one of the first, recognized that if fission reactions released additional neutrons, a self-sustaining nuclear chain reaction could result. This spurred scientists in many countries (including the United States, the United Kingdom, France, Germany, and the Soviet Union) to petition their government for support of nuclear fission research.
In the United States, where Fermi and Szilard had both emigrated, this led to the creation of the first man-made reactor, known as Chicago Pile-1, which achieved criticality on December 2, 1942. This work became part of the Manhattan Project, which built large reactors at the Hanford Site (formerly the town of Hanford, Washington) to breed plutonium for use in the first nuclear weapons. A parallel uranium enrichment effort also was pursued.
After World War II, the fear that reactor research would encourage the rapid spread of nuclear weapons and technology, combined with what many scientists thought would be a long road of development, created a situation in which reactor research was kept under strict government control and classification. In addition, most reactor research centered on purely military purposes.
Electricity was generated for the first time by a nuclear reactor on December 20, 1951 at the EBR-I experimental station near Arco, Idaho, which initially produced about 100 kW (the Arco Reactor was also the first to experience partial meltdown, in 1955). In 1952, a report by the Paley Commission (The President's Materials Policy Commission) for President Harry Truman made a "relatively pessimistic" assessment of nuclear power, and called for "aggressive research in the whole field of solar energy." A December 1953 speech by President Dwight Eisenhower, "Atoms for Peace," emphasized the useful harnessing of the atom and set the U.S. on a course of strong government support for international use of nuclear power.
 Early years
On June 27, 1954, the USSRs Obninsk Nuclear Power Plant became the world's first nuclear power plant to generate electricity for a power grid, and produced around 5 megawatts of electric power.
Later in 1954, Lewis Strauss, then chairman of the United States Atomic Energy Commission (U.S. AEC, forerunner of the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission and the United States Department of Energy) spoke of electricity in the future being "too cheap to meter." The U.S. AEC itself had issued far more conservative testimony regarding nuclear fission to the U.S. Congress only months before, projecting that "costs can be brought down... [to] ... about the same as the cost of electricity from conventional sources..." Strauss may have been making vague reference to hydrogen fusion - which was secret at the time - rather than uranium fission, but whatever his intent Strauss's statement was interpreted by much of the public as a promise of very cheap energy from nuclear fission. Significant disappointment would develop later on, when the new nuclear plants did not provide energy "too cheap to meter." 
In 1955 the United Nations' "First Geneva Conference", then the world's largest gathering of scientists and engineers, met to explore the technology. In 1957 EURATOM was launched alongside the European Economic Community (the latter is now the European Union). The same year also saw the launch of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).
The world's first commercial nuclear power station, Calder Hall in Sellafield, England was opened in 1956 with an initial capacity of 50 MW (later 200 MW). The first commercial nuclear generator to become operational in the United States was the Shippingport Reactor (Pennsylvania, December, 1957).
One of the first organizations to develop nuclear power was the U.S. Navy, for the purpose of propelling submarines and aircraft carriers. It has a good record in nuclear safety, perhaps because of the stringent demands of Admiral Hyman G. Rickover, who was the driving force behind nuclear marine propulsion as well as the Shippingport Reactor. The U.S. Navy has operated more nuclear reactors than any other entity, including the Soviet Navy,[dubious ] with no publicly known major incidents. The first nuclear-powered submarine, USS Nautilus (SSN-571), was put to sea in December 1954. Two U.S. nuclear submarines, USS Scorpion and USS Thresher, have been lost at sea. These vessels were both lost due to malfunctions in systems not related to the reactor plants. Also, the sites are monitored and no known leakage has occurred from the onboard reactors.
Enrico Fermi and Leó Szilárd in 1955 shared for the nuclear reactor, belatedly granted for the work they had done during the Manhattan Project.
Installed nuclear capacity initially rose relatively quickly, rising from less than 1 gigawatt (GW) in 1960 to 100 GW in the late 1970s, and 300 GW in the late 1980s. Since the late 1980s worldwide capacity has risen much more slowly, reaching 366 GW in 2005. Between around 1970 and 1990, more than 50 GW of capacity was under construction (peaking at over 150 GW in the late 70s and early 80s) — in 2005, around 25 GW of new capacity was planned. More than two-thirds of all nuclear plants ordered after January 1970 were eventually cancelled.
During the 1970s and 1980s rising economic costs (related to extended construction times largely due to regulatory changes and pressure-group litigation) and falling fossil fuel prices made nuclear power plants then under construction less attractive. In the 1980s (U.S.) and 1990s (Europe), flat load growth and electricity liberalization also made the addition of large new baseload capacity unattractive.
The 1973 oil crisis had a significant effect on countries, such as France and Japan, which had relied more heavily on oil for electric generation (39% and 73% respectively) to invest in nuclear power. Today, nuclear power supplies about 80% and 30% of the electricity in those countries, respectively.
A general movement against nuclear power arose during the last third of the 20th century, based on the fear of a possible nuclear accident, fears of radiation, nuclear proliferation, and on the opposition to nuclear waste production, transport and final storage. Perceived risks on the citizens' health and safety, the 1979 accident at Three Mile Island and the 1986 Chernobyl disaster played a part in stopping new plant construction in many countries, although the public policy organization Brookings Institution suggests that new nuclear units have not been ordered in the U.S. because the Institution's research concludes they cost 15–30% more over their lifetime than conventional coal and natural gas fired plants.
Unlike the Three Mile Island accident, the much more serious Chernobyl accident did not increase regulations affecting Western reactors since the Chernobyl reactors were of the problematic RBMK design only used in the Soviet Union, for example lacking "robust" containment buildings. Many of these reactors are still in use today. However, changes were made in both the reactors themselves (use of low enriched uranium) and in the control system (prevention of disabling safety systems) to prevent the possibility of a duplicate accident.
An international organization to promote safety awareness and professional development on operators in nuclear facilities was created: WANO; World Association of Nuclear Operators.
Opposition in Ireland, New Zealand and Poland prevented nuclear programs there, while Austria (1978), Sweden (1980) and Italy (1987) (influenced by Chernobyl) voted in referendums to oppose or phase out nuclear power.