The process of nuclear fission was discovered in 1938 by Otto Hahn and Fritz Strassmann and was explained in early 1939 by Lise Meitner and Otto Frisch. The fissionable isotope of uranium, U-235, can be split by bombarding it with a slow, or thermal, neutron. (Slow neutrons are called "thermal" because their average kinetic energies are about the same as those of the molecules of air at ordinary temperatures.) The atomic numbers of the nuclei resulting from the fission add up to 92, which is the atomic number of uranium. A number of pairs of product nuclei are possible, with the most frequently produced fragments being krypton and barium.
Since this reaction also releases an average of 2.5 neutrons, a chain reaction is possible, provided at least one neutron per fission is captured by another nucleus and causes a second fission. In an atomic bomb, the number is greater than 1 and the reaction increases rapidly to an explosion. In a nuclear reactor, where the chain reaction is controlled, the number of neutrons producing additional fission must be exactly 1.0 in order to maintain a steady flow of energy.
Uranium-235, which occurs naturally as one part in 140 in a natural mixture of uranium isotopes, is not the only material fissionable by thermal neutrons. Uranium-233 and plutonium-239 can also be used but must be produced artificially. Uranium-233 is produced from thorium-232, which absorbs a neutron and then undergoes beta decay (the loss of an electron). Plutonium-239 is produced in a similar manner from uranium-238, which is the most common isotope of natural uranium. The average energy released by the fission of uranium-235 is 200 million electron volts, and that released by uranium-233 and plutonium-239 is comparable. Fission can also occur spontaneously, but the time required for a heavy nucleus to decay spontaneously by fission (10 million billion years in the case of uranium-238) is so long that induced fission by thermal neutrons is the only practical application of nuclear fission. However, spontaneous fission of uranium can be used in the dating of very old rock samples.
The development of nuclear energy from fission reactions began with the program to produce atomic weapons in the United States. Early work was carried out at several universities, and the first sustained nuclear chain reaction was achieved at the Univ. of Chicago in 1942 by a group under Enrico Fermi. Later the weapons themselves were developed at Los Alamos, N.Mex., under the direction of J. Robert Oppenheimer (see Manhattan Project).