Wednesday, January 06, 2010

Why Build Clean Nukes When We'll Pay Them To Build Dirty Ones?

...same design constraints...

Does anyone remember the 6000 SUX from the science fiction movie Robocop? That's right, the futuristic car from an American corporation that was just the same old tired design with a new paint job – and lots of promotion.

Here it is over 20 years after this prophetic movie was made and guess what? Most of us are still driving the equivalent of the 6000 SUX... It was predictable – and not just with cars.

Have you ever stopped to realize that big established industries don't like change? Sure, they'll change to save a buck – even if it means the product will fall apart in half the time. But real innovation, real product improvement, is seen as an inconvenience to established manufacturers, and an impediment to profits – especially if there is no competition pushing them.

Sadly, that's exactly where we're at with the American nuclear industry. They've spent a lot of money on public relations to sell us on a product that hasn't really changed significantly in 50 years. (They're now promising us passive controls against reactor meltdown instead of active controls. Important, but only significant if you ignore all of nuclear power's other pitfalls.)

Just like the auto industry; the nuclear industry touts all the insignificant changes they've made as major improvements – while pretending that true major improvements are only possible in the far distant future. Oh yeah, and all the while manipulating the government to make it as difficult as possible for any competing industry to grow.

We've seen this repression of competition with the wind energy industry. In the 70's, the U.S. had a significant lead in wind technology over the rest of the world. Now, we have to buy our wind generators for big windmill fields from some other country. Ironically, American companies initially developed wind generation technology. But they were financially held back, many were run out of business, and now we've lost our lead.

How was it done? With subsidies. Our tax dollars were used to help the wind industry's competition (coal, etc.) more than they helped the wind industry. Though expensive (for taxpayers), it was a rather ingenious way for politicians to claim they were helping alternative power generation – while helping their competition orders of magnitude more.

You see; it was cheaper and more profitable at the time for energy companies to manipulate the U.S. market than innovate and develop safer and cleaner alternatives. Hence, we now have the power generation equivalents of the 6000SUX – while foreign companies have leapfrogged us in renewable energy. What the hell happened? Simply, nobody with authority in America thought long-term.

In America; electricity is a commodity. One watt is pretty much the same to most customers as the next. So, the primary driving force is to make that watt as cheaply as possible.

We see this at places like New Jersey's Oyster Creek nuclear power plant. The plant's owner, Exelon Corp., won't build cooling towers (to prevent killing of nearby marine life) unless they are forced to by law. And they'll most likely pay good money to influence politicians to see that the law never gets written. Effectively, killing marine life never really plays into the financial equation for them.

In a world where all that matters is money, this makes financial sense. But we don't really live in that world. So it's time to give these companies more to think about. It's time to adjust the bottom line in such a way that they do the right things.

Alert: The worst thing we can do now is give the nuclear industry more money to keep doing the wrong things. In 2005, Congress authorized $18.5 billion for nuclear reactor loan guarantees. It would be the biggest mistake in the history of U.S. nuclear energy to follow through on these subsidies. We should instead use the money to develop what we really want; truly clean and safe nuclear power – without uranium. And it is very likely that this can be done.

From the 50's to the 70's, U.S. scientists developed the technology for far less dangerous thorium reactors. However, the designs never gained favor of the U.S. government because the military/industrial complex was more interested in making nuclear weapons. I guess it sort of makes sense. It was the Cold War. Hence, uranium nuclear reactors got government support.

But now, we're finally more interested in generating clean power at nuclear power plants. So, why not use that $18.5 billion to develop significantly better reactor technology?

A WIRED article, Uranium Is So Last Century, reports that thorium reactors are potentially cheaper, safer, more efficient, and don't leave us with high-level nuclear waste to deal with. Wow! That's really significant. So, why hasn't the nuclear industry jumped on this opportunity? I'll tell you why. Because they can't afford to.

Nobody in the nuclear industry wants to pay to design a new reactor with significantly better technology. OK... I guess that's why we have big Federal science projects. I can deal with that. Let's use our tax money to develop thorium reactors. And let the nuclear industry wait for significantly better designs.

Right now, other countries are dedicating quite a bit of effort on thorium reactors. Yet where is our money headed? For subsidies to a backward industry?

Just like back in the 70's, American politicians want to subsidize the competition to innovation. In the end, at that rate, the American nuclear industry will have antiquated nuclear reactor technology – and other countries will have leap-frogged us in thorium reactors (which American scientists, financed by taxpayer dollars, initially developed).

We're betting on a loser – because they've convinced us that they are the only game in town. The uranium team is not the only game in town.

The greatest weakness of a capitalist democracy is that it gets mired in its own successes – and cannot grow functionally.

But we can learn.

Please...Write the White house.