Almanac: The 1st self-sustained nuclear reaction

Scientists are shown in a recreation of tests that resulted in the world's first self-sustained nuclear reaction at the University of Chicago.
CBS News

(CBS News) And now a page from our Sunday Morning Almanac: December 2nd, 1942 ... 70 years ago today, the day a new technology was born under a grandstand at the University of Chicago's Stagg Field.

For that was the day Enrico Fermi and his team of scientists achieved the world's first self-sustained nuclear reaction, a breakthrough they later re-enacted for the cameras.

Their success paved the way both for nuclear weapons AND for a civilian industry that promised to transform everyday life for the better.

This 1950s promotional film, "A Is for Atom," foretold everything from nuclear power plants that would light up cities, to new and improved means of transportation:

"Here in fact is the answer to a dream as old as man himself. A giant of limitless power at man's command . . . nuclear power in locomotives, submarines, ships, and even very large airplanes may all but revolutionize future transportation on land, sea, and air."

Though you still can't catch a nuclear train or plane, most of the other uses of nuclear power DID come to pass.

On December 2, 1957, fifteen years to the day after the Chicago chain reaction, America's first commercial nuclear power plant opened in Shippingport, Pa.

Today, with just over 100 plants across the U.S. producing roughly 20 percent of our electricity, the nuclear industry's future stands at a crossroads.

Opponents of new plant construction point to the leak at Pennsylvania's Three Mile Island in 1979, the Soviet reactor meltdown at Chernobyl in 1986, and the Fukushima disaster in Japan after last year's earthquake and tsunami.

Supporters counter that today's modern reactor designs make nuclear power a safe and environmentally green alternative to fossil fuels and greenhouse gases.

However the policy debate turns out, that first nuclear reactor in Chicago is long gone, its site marked since 1967 by a Henry Moore sculpture.

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