Department of Energy

Top 6 Things You Didn't Know About Nuclear Power

December 12, 2014

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These are the first lightbulbs lit by nuclear fission at Argonne's EBR or Experimental Breeder Reactor.| Energy Department photo.

These are the first lightbulbs lit by nuclear fission at Argonne's EBR or Experimental Breeder Reactor.| Energy Department photo.

This article is part of the Energy.gov series highlighting the “Top Things You Didn’t Know About…” Be sure to check back for more entries soon.

Historically, some key advancements in nuclear energy happened during the month of December. On December 2, 1942, Enrico Fermi created the first self-sustaining nuclear reaction at Stagg Field in Chicago. Eight years later, on December 20, 1951, the first nuclear electricity was produced at an Argonne facility in Idaho -- now the Idaho National Lab.

Here are some other facts you might not know about nuclear energy.

  1. Nuclear power is one of the two ways to produce electricity for multi-year space missions. The other is solar power. Check out the history of nuclear power in space to learn more.

  2. Small Modular Reactors -- or SMRs -- are one of the latest nuclear innovations. Check out our handy SMR infographic on how they’re designed, how they work and why they’re important.

  3. The Energy Department offers scholarships and fellowships for undergraduate and graduate research in nuclear science. In May we awarded over $5 million for 42 undergraduate scholarships and 33 graduate fellowships. Learn more about these programs on the Nuclear Energy University Programs website.

  4. The world’s first full-scale nuclear power plant was opened December 23, 1957 in Shippingport, PA. This is six years -- almost to the day -- after the first nuclear electricity was produced at an Argonne lab site in Idaho.

  5. Illinois is by far the largest producer of nuclear energy in the United States, followed by Pennsylvania and South Carolina. Illinois produced 1,010.2 trillion British Thermal Units or BTU in 2012. Pennsylvania produced 787.8 trillion BTU and South Carolina produced 536 trillion BTU. You can find more information on our map of energy production by state.

  6. The Department of Energy has a middle school curriculum that centers on nuclear energy available on our website. It’s called The Harnessed Atom.

To learn more about nuclear energy and the Energy Department’s research, check out our nuclear energy page.

Editors Note: This blog has been updated to reflect the fact that the first self-sustaining nuclear reaction was in 1942 not 1943.