History of Nuclear Energy

The history of nuclear power began in Europe, blossomed in the UK and the US. Its development then languished for a few decades before achieving a new growth spurt in East Asia. Major milestones in nuclear power's development as an energy source for power generation are as follows:

  • 1890s
  • 1900s
  • 1910s
  • 1930s
  • 1940s
  • 1950s
  • 1960s
  • 1970s
  • 1980s
  • 1990s
  • 2000s
  • 2010s


Wilhelm Rontgen

Wilhelm Rontgen discovers X-rays.


Henri Becquerel

Henri Becquerel discovers radioactivity.


Marie Curie

Marie Curie discovers the radioactive element radium and names its effect "radioactive".


Albert Einstein

Albert Einstein formulates a theory showing that a very small amount of mass can be converted into a huge amount of energy - (E=mc2).


Ernest Rutherford

Ernest Rutherford proves that the atomic nucleus is concentrated at the very centre of an atom.


James Chadwick

James Chadwick discovers the neutron.


Otto Hahn & Fritz Strassman

Otto Hahn and Fritz Strassman discover nuclear fission – the process of splitting uranium atoms.


Enrico Fermi

Enrico Fermi starts the world’s first fission reactor experiment in Chicago, U.S.



The first nuclear reactor to produce electricity begins operations in Idaho, U.S.



The first nuclear power electricity generator at 5MW commences production in Obninsk, Russia.


Calder Hall Nuclear Power Station

The first commercial-scale power station, at 50MW, comes online at Calder Hall, U.K.

Photo: Magnox Electric Ltd



The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) is established to promote the peaceful use of atom.



The first power station using a Pressurised Water Reactor (PWR), at 60MW, is opened at Shippingport, US.


Yankee Rowe Nuclear Power Station

The first commercial PWR, Yankee Rowe, becomes operational in the US. It has 250MW and is the first in a new generation of nuclear power stations with standard design features built to a commercial scale.

Photo: www.yankeerowe.com
Photo: NRC File Photo


Three Mile Island Accident

A nuclear accident damages a reactor core at Unit 2 of Three Mile Island Nuclear Power Plant in the US.

The US forms the Institute of Nuclear Power Operations to address issues of safety and performance and disseminate good practices among peer utilities.

Learn more about the accident


Chernobyl Accident

A nuclear accident damages reactors in Unit 4 of the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Station in the Ukraine, leading to the widespread of radioactive fallout. The World Association of Nuclear Operators is formed to disseminate good practices among nuclear utilities globally.

Learn more about the accident

Photo: Soviet Authorities


Daya Bay Nuclear Power Station

Mainland China’s first commercial nuclear power station at Daya Bay Nuclear Power Station is commissioned. The 1,968MW PWR facility currently supplies around 80% of its electricity output to Hong Kong.

Photo: TEPCO


Kashiwazaki-Kariwa Nuclear Power Station

The first third-generation boiling water reactor nuclear power station with 1350MW boiling water reactor and passive safety system is commissioned at Kashiwazaki-Kariwa in Japan.


High-temperature Gas-cooled Reactor

A high-temperature gas-cooled 10MW demonstration reactor is commissioned at Tsinghua University in China. The reactor is an emerging technology offering both improved safety and higher performance.

Photo: http://web.mit.edu


Fast Reactor

China’s first experimental Fast Reactor, at 25MW, becomes operational at the China Institute of Atomic Energy and promises to make much more efficient use of nuclear fuel.

Photo: TEPCO


Fukushima Accident

A nuclear accident occurs at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station in Japan after a Richter Scale 9 earthquake and 15m high tsunami disables electric power in five of the plant’s six generating units. Units 1 to 3 of the plant appeared to have automatically scrammed at the earthquake, but the loss of electric power (including back-up supply) for reactors cooling eventually led to the meltdown of the nuclear reactors. Reactors and spent fuel pools lost their cooling capabilities. This in turn led to hydrogen explosions. Radioactivity was subsequently dispersed into both the atmosphere and the sea. Three workers were killed by non-radiation-related causes. Around 100,000 people up to 40km were evacuated.

Learn more about the accident