Anyone who knows anything about railroads knows pulling is better than pushing. If you want to change the world, pull, don't push. This is especially true in the introduction of new technology.
Sadly, we are politically better at pushing than pulling. Congress, in particular, feels it is well-equipped to push and poorly equipped to pull. Its favored tool for pushing is the tax incentive. This is a subsidy in disguise, designed to propel a technology into the market.
It is the driving dynamic behind today's world of ethanol, solar, wind and the much-anticipated, smart electric grid. Pushing is good, if you understand that it is also inefficient. It hears the market imperfectly and, as a result, begs for unending government indulgence.
If the government is to have a role in the market of inventions, and in today's world it is obliged to, make it the customer not the inventor, hatchery manager or midwife. Let it pull and reward the winner not the wannabes.
A random sampling of technology that the government pulled into the market place:
· The supercomputer. In 1955 Edward Teller, father of the hydrogen bomb, railed in now declassified documents about the inadequacy of “computing machines.” To achieve this goal, the national weapons labs bought computers, the bigger the better, sight unseen.
· The Internet. This was invented to safeguard communications, not because it was a good idea that might find a market. Classic pull over push.
· The aeroderivative turbine. This machine has revolutionized the burning of natural gas by electric utilities; but its genesis–its pull–came from the need for higher temperatures in fighter jet engines.
The pattern, of course, is clear. When the military is the customer, the puller, all the parts of the chain of invention come into play: private industry, academia and suppliers of components.
A new opportunity is at hand for the government to pull a technology into the market and strengthen the national defense, in military and civilian dimensions. The product is the small modular reactor. There is wide agreement that it is a good idea, but it looks set to be taken over by the push people, with all the known waste and inefficiency. Already, the designs are circulating along with calculations of how much government push is needed. Heaven forbid.
On the shelf there already exist many small reactor designs, some military and some civilian. In 1959 the government built a nuclear-powered, civilian ship called the NS Savannah. It used a safe, small reactor that has been decommissioned long since, but which is a starting point.
Another reactor was designed and built for a West German, nuclear-powered, trade and research ship called the Otto Hahn. The contractor was the American nuclear company Babcock & Wilcox.
Babcock has emerged and is a contender for the small reactor. Problem is that civilian nuclear culture is now mired in push, i.e. money from the government. Money for investigating, not delivering.
Yet there is a military need here and now that becomes more urgent all the time. The military needs a reactor that can provide power on forward bases: Diesel is expensive and depends on long, vulnerable supply lines.
We know how to make small nuclear reactors already, both civilian and military. Why don't we do it?
The USS Enterprise–one of the greatest examples of naval engineering ever–has eight small reactors on board. Other ships and submarines of the nuclear Navy have two reactors each.
We should shelve the idea of loan guarantees and build a small reactor, initially for new military use on bases, forward and otherwise.
For 40 years I've been asking why haven't we learned more from the Navy about small reactors? They work so well.
When James R. Schlesinger was chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission, he said it was an excellent question. So I took it to the legendary Adm. Hyman G. Rickover, whose attitude was that the Navy had disclosed enough in handing over the light water technology in the Shippingport reactor in Pennsylvania.
The truth is the Navy is reluctant to get embroiled in what it sees as the civilian nuclear swamp, where their derivative reactors would be examined in licensing proceedings and subjected to scrutiny by anti-nuclear groups like the Union of Concerned Scientists. – For the Hearst-New York Times Syndicate