In Nuclear, as in Other Things, the Past Was Glorious
A train hurtles under the English Channel at 200 mph. In Japan, an even faster train levitates above the track. In France the largest passenger aircraft on earth, the Airbus A380, takes to the sky. Two Asian giants, China and India, are involved in a space race.
If you want to build a new nuclear plant you’d better order the largest component, the pressure vessel, from Japan. They aren’t made in America anymore; stagnation killed that business.
All is not lost to the United States, but there are warning signs that our global scientific and technological expertise is under attack. It is not yet vanquished, but we’re showing signs of vulnerability: Technological arrogance ia leading to the blunting our precious cutting edge.
That arrogance, in the way of arrogance, comes from past triumphs rather than present capabilities.
Once, the world waited for U.S. scientific and technological innovations. The U.S. Patent and Trademark Office was stuffed — and still is — with American inventions. But when it comes to applied science, the world no longer waits for us.
When Britain and France built the Concorde supersonic jet, they expected the United States to be right behind them. When the Senate killed the idea of a government-financed, supersonic civilian airliner, the Concorde was doomed.
Likewise with advanced nuclear reactors. When the Clinch River Breeder Reactor was terminated, it was a mortal blow for similar programs in Britain, France, and even Russia.
Those were the days. We were the pacesetter.
Nowhere was this truer than nuclear power. It was our technology, and the world almost demanded our leadership. So much so, it even copied our licensing procedure; and anti-nuclear activists were trained in the American ways. The German pebble bed reactors, British graphite-moderated reactors, and Canadian natural uranium reactors were squeezed in the market, because the Americans, who were known to know about these things, favored the light water reactors. That would make them the world standard. And so it was.
But as the United States faltered, the world went ahead. France built out its nuclear fleet, Japan forged forward, and today reactors are under construction in many places: 25 in China, five in South Korea, and two in tiny Finland.
With this in mind, there’s something sad about the Obama administration’s backing, with loan guarantees, just two new reactors. Gosh.
The industry has calculated that 65 new reactors are needed but two are welcome, even if they’re to be built by Westinghouse, once one of the great industrial names and now a subsidiary of Toshiba.
The master must now play the apprentice.
With sickening predictability, Friends of the Earth President Erich Pica was on the PBS NewsHour to decry the oh-so-modest Obama move. He stopped by the morgue on the way to the studio to get cadavers of arguments about subsidies and waste.
Those technologies favored by Pica, wind and solar, are only known to us because of government subsidies. But he went further and had more disingenuousness up his sleeve. He claimed hydroelectric production from dams built decades ago as part of the “green” bounty. He must know that many members of his own organization want those dams torn down.
Jim Riccio of Greenpeace said that splitting atoms is inherently dangerous and should be treated as such. There’s a vision of pusillanimous policy-making. Columbus, keep those ships in port. John Glenn, stay on Earth; space travel is, er, dangerous.
Worrying about what’s going to happen to nuclear waste in thousands of years is a conceit as well as a stupidity. There’s plenty of it around, which did not come from electric production but from making weapons and driving Navy ships and submarines.
Civilian electric production is the bonus, not the problem, and the solution lies in nuclear evolution — not in unilateral abandonment. –For the Hearst-New York Times Syndicate