Nuclear energy is one of the largest contributors to electricity production across the world, and its importance is not set to diminish in the near future, despite the controversy that has always surrounded it.
The glorious nuclear future envisioned in the mid-20th century, with bountiful, cheap and safe energy supplies, is not exactly the reality of today. However, humanity’s continuous need for safe and affordable energy means that the search to unlock the power of the atom remains relevant to this day.
In the period following the Second World War, this promise of the peaceful use of nuclear technology was epitomised by the Atomium, the centrepiece of World Expo 1958 in Brussels, the capital of Belgium.
Belgium, a founding member of the European Atomic Energy Community, was at the time of Expo 1958 in the early stages of its own nuclear era. As early as 1952, the Belgian government had established a research centre for nuclear energy applications - SCK.CEN. By 1956, it had commissioned the BR1 (Belgian Reactor 1), followed by BR2 a few years later. Therefore, it came as no surprise that the organisers of Expo 1958 in Brussels considered using BR3 (a pressurised water reactor) to power the Expo site.
With the theme “A World View: A New Humanism”, Expo 1958 quite literally placed the atom at the heart of its site through the iconic Atomium structure. The immense 102-metre high metal structure, purpose-built for the Expo, has eight interconnected spheres at its extremities and one at the centre, representing the arrangement of atoms in an “iron crystal” blown up 165 billion times its actual size. Although the Atomium was the Expo’s icon, atomic energy and its potential was largely relegated to the background during the event.
The United States’ section of the International Science Pavilion was a notable exception, featuring Nobel Prize winner Ernest O. Lawrence and other top scientists, who illustrated the capacity of nuclear technology to provide an endless supply of energy. The display included a small cube of uranium and informed visitors that this could provide as much power as three million tonnes of coal.
The peaceful use of atomic energy for scientific purposes, as promoted by the Expo, embodied the democratic will to maintain peace among all nations and to make use of modern technology to improve living standards for all. Almost 60 years later, many hurdles remain in the development of safe, reliable and sustainable nuclear energy. Despite ongoing debate, nuclear fission technology remains one of the largest contributors to electricity production, while nuclear fusion technology – with its promise of sustainability and zero-waste – continues to be a focal point of research.