The Ergosphere
Thursday, May 19, 2011
 

The fundamental problem of the nuclear power industry

I don't know how I missed this gem attributed to Freeman Dyson.  I don't have much time for books these days, but quotes like this usually find their way into my stream of reading rather quickly.  Pithy, and oh so timely (and corrected for spelling and grammar).
The fundamental problem of the nuclear power industry is not reactor safety, not waste disposal, not the dangers of nuclear proliferation, real though all these problems are.  The fundamental problem of the industry is that nobody any longer has any fun building reactors.  It is inconceivable under present conditions that a group of enthusiasts could assemble in a schoolhouse and design, build, test, license and sell a reactor within three years.  Sometime between 1960 and 1970, the fun went out of the business.

The adventurers, the experimenters, the inventors, were driven out, and the accountants and managers took control.  Not only in the private industry but also in the government laboratories, at Los Alamos, Livermore, Oak Ridge and Argonne, the groups of bright young people who used to build and invent and experiment with a great variety of reactors were disbanded.  The accountants and managers decided that it was not cost effective to let bright people play with weird reactors. So the weird reactors disappeared and with them the chance of any radical improvement beyond our existing systems.

We are left with a very small number of reactor types in operation, each of them frozen into a huge bureaucratic organization that makes any substantial change impossible, each of them in various ways technically unsatisfactory, each of them less safe than many possible alternative designs which have been discarded.  Nobody builds reactors for fun anymore.  The spirit of the little red schoolhouse is dead.  That, in my opinion, is what went wrong with nuclear power.
 
Comments:
The irony of course is that public negativity & ignorance, as well as interest group negativity (Greenpeace etc.) has forced a red taped bureaucratic environment that ultimately froze nuclear power development in its most dangerous state.

If all the money spent on lawyers and litigation against nuclear facilities had been spent on advanced passively safe reactors and advanced reprocessing, we would have no long lived dangerous waste and passively safe plants right now.
 
We can't discount the nuclear authorities' "own goals", such as the demise of the MSR program due substantially to the biases of AEC head Milton Shaw.  Absent that one mistake, a large part of the anti-nuclear movement's case would have been moot from early on and the managers and accountants would have had fewer negative pressures to worry about.  The Clean Air Act might even have pushed nuclear power to replace coal.

That said, I suspect that a lot of the fun was due to go out of making reactors anyway.  The closer things get to optimum, the less improvement is possible over the status quo and the less fun there is in finding it.  There aren't that many people interested in the fun of making airliners, either.

I'm all for giving American engineers the fun of making up for lost time, though.
 
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