Listening to others

“Still a bad idea”

by Andrew Teller

This is the judgment passed by Jeremy Rifkin, an American consultant, in the 29 September 2006 edition of the Los Angeles Times. The subject of his judgment was, of course, nuclear energy and the subtitle of his article ran “Solar power is a better investment than a dated technology that’s too expensive and dangerous”. Cost and danger are well-known objections of the anti-nuclear crowd. But the reader’s attention should not be monopolised by the last part of the sentence, lest a third criticism go unnoticed. Is nuclear energy really a dated technology? The indictment sounds a bit weird. I’ve never heard anybody assert that the combustion engine is a dated technology. This is despite the fact that the first combustion engines were designed several decades before the first nuclear reactor. Why would nuclear reactors be the embodiment of a dated technology? To use his own words, the above-mentioned columnist concludes that “nuclear power represents the kind of centralized, clunky technology of a bygone era. In an age when distributed technologies are undermining hierarchies, decentralizing power and giving rise to open-source economic models, nuclear power seems strangely old-fashioned and obsolete.” So there we are: nuclear power would be obsolete because it is centralized. If the argument is worth anything, it should also apply to other energy sources, but this does not seem to be the case in practice. Wind machines have a well established tendency to grow bigger and bigger and wind farms also gain from being composed of as many machines as possible. At the turn of this century, 1 MW wind machines were at the forefront of wind technology. Today, the industry’s objective is to build 5 MW units. The trend is so well accepted that, in a Belgian newspaper, a local green politician was looking forward a couple of years ago to seeing wind machines delivering half the power of a nuclear power plant! To those who know that wind machines need twice as much concrete and three times as much steel per kW installed as a nuclear power plant, such statement can only appear ludicrous. The misconception would be funny if it did not betray a total lack of understanding of very serious matters. At any rate, this gentleman’s statement made it clear that centralisation was considered to be neither avoidable nor evil. We have here yet another example of double standards: centralised power generation is not worth mentioning if it comes with renewables and bad due to the use of nuclear power plants.
What is it then that makes a given technology obsolete? We just have to take a few examples from other industries to answer this question:

  • At the beginning of the twentieth century, the British army set out to design the ultimate cavalry sword. The undertaking quickly fell into oblivion because it became apparent that horses were just about to be superseded by armoured vehicles, which represented more than a quantum leap in (military) technology; it was an actual paradigm shift. Not adopting it was a recipe for defeat in the short run and ultimately disappearance or domination in the long run.

  • At about the same time, steam engines were gradually replaced by steam turbines for the generation of electricity. This was because the latter provided direct rotational force and, therefore, did not require a linkage mechanism to convert reciprocating to rotary motion. Furthermore, they produced smoother rotational forces on the output shaft. As a result they required less maintenance and generated less wear on the alternator than a comparable reciprocating engine. In the present case, a similar function was performed more efficiently by a different technology at a comparable cost.

  • Today, digital photography seems to be poised to replace film photography. It allows instant viewing and many operations that are much more difficult or cumbersome with film photography. The price range of digital cameras overlaps to a large extent with the range of film cameras. One can reasonably assume that achieving the same level of picture quality will sound the death knell of the film camera.

The above examples indicate that the relevance of a given technology depends on factors such as fitness for purpose, relative cost, absence of other technologies providing competitive advantages at a similar cost and absence of paradigm shift. I would be tempted to say that all these factors apply to nuclear power generation. It certainly does fulfill its purpose; its cost looks more and more attractive in view of rising fossil fuel costs; each and every power generation technology has its own shortcomings; the paradigm shift many expect to take place with fusion is still some decades away.

At the end of the day, however, the relevance of a technology does not result from any one person’s verdict. It emerges from the combined actions of all the actors who weigh the pros and cons of the different technologies available. So far, nuclear power generation has resisted remarkably well if it was as riddled with defects as its opponents claim. Self-appointed pundits whose judgments reflect more their personal wishes than a dispassionate analysis of facts won’t change anything.

(The author wishes to acknowledge Wikipedia - - as a source of information for the preparation of this article, in particular as regards steam engines and digital photography.)

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