In May 1947, Popular Science looked back on 75 years of scientific progress. Though fewer than two years had passed since the world witnessed the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, scientists foresaw a new era of clean, reliable energy from the same destructive source: nuclear power. In 1951, the Experimental Breeder Reactor I near Arco, Idaho, became the first nuclear plant to generate electricity, powering lights in the testing area. More recently, disasters at the Chernobyl and Fukushima plants triggered backlashes that stifled the expansion of nuclear power in Western countries. Nowadays, Western countries are decomissioning more reactors than they’re building. China and Russia, by contrast, are investing heavily in nuclear power.

We have entered the lair of the atom, God help us, and the door is locked behind us. There is only one way to go.

Milestones in Nuclear Power

100 kW First usable amount of electricity produced by a nuclear power plant near Arco, Idaho, in 1951

10 MW Capacity of the USS Nautilus, the world’s first nuclear-powered submarine, in 1955

20 MW Power output of Calder Hall A in England, the first reactor for large-scale commercial production, in 1956

8,212 MW Net electricity produced by the world’s most powerful nuclear-power plant, in Japan, since 1997

This article originally appeared in the September 2014 issue of Popular Science.