Nuclear Era Beginnings

Nuclear Era Beginnings

Prior to the atomic age, 1940s and prior, Uranium had little use in society. Its most common use was in plates, bowls, and other table service items from a company called Fiestaware. They used natural uranium to give their dishes the red-orange appearance. In the early 1940s, during WW2, the government seized the uranium supply and the Fiestaware stock. The company did not understand why the government had taken these steps. But, they soon would.

In 1942–1946, the United States government started the Manhattan project. Uranium now had a purpose. The primary goal of the Manhattan Project was to develop nuclear weapons. The United States, United Kingdom, and Canada all participated.

By US Army Corps of Engineers — Image #N1D0029562 at, Public Domain,

In 1945, the United States was up to it’s ears with WW2. President Truman was not sure that the Japanese would surrender unconditionally. Rather than losing thousands more soldiers, Truman authorized the use of nuclear weapons — Little Boy was dropped on August 6, 1945 and then Fat Man on August 9, 1945. After dropping these two bombs on Japan, the United States had used up their entire stockpile of nuclear bomb materials.

The early 50s saw huge strides in the military’s exploration of nuclear technologies, especially as a war time transportation option. In 1954, the Army started their Army Nuclear Power Program, or ANPP. The Army wanted to equip their logistics support machinery with nuclear, replacing the need for gas or diesel. During wartime, petroleum, oil, and lubricants comprise 60–75% of all logistics — it still does today.

By Rb88guy — Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,

Concurrently, the Navy was trying their hand at the first nuclear submarine called the USS Nautilus. They tasked Hyman Rickover to manage the project. Rickover is know as the father of the nuclear Navy. The USS Nautilus was the first submarine to go under the northern ice cap. This had previously been a fantasy, as traditional diesel submarines needs to surface often for air. This new capability was a game changer for the military. The Russians were not far behind.

By Victor-ny — Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,

The Air Force also explored using nuclear to power their large planes. They experimented with a previously damaged B-36 bomber. Its new nomenclature was the NB-36H. It completed 47 test flights and 215 hours of flight time with a nuclear reactor on board. While it never powered the plane, the Air Force wanted to understand how nuclear radiation would affect the components. Unfortunately, the reactor and needed shielding weighed too much for practical purposes.

USAF — U.S. photo no. DF-SC-83–09332

Many of the small reactor concepts the United States military tried in the 1950’s helped stretch our understanding of the nuclear age and its limitations for practical use. As we launch into the 2000’s, we have started down the micro-reactor path again. New nuclear fuel pellets are meltdown proof, with intended uses to power small military bases and small home subdivisions. All of the three letter government agencies, DoD, DOE, and others, have experimental reactors in development or up for contract.



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Mark Moore

Mark Moore

Letourneau Overland Trains, Arctic history, nuclear