Friday, April 24, 2009

How Three Mile Island informs us about our current economy

For this post, I muzzle myself and let a real pro take over. This is a good read. Engineering-minded types reading ought to get excited. Robert X. Cringely reminisces about personally witnessing the TMI incident thirty years ex post facto; steps through why it was all to likely to happen; how we dodged a bullet while struggling to regain control, and how all this seems to mirror and serve as an instructive model for our present economic situation and our handling of it.

I, for one, haven't feared nuclear energy, but have been fascinated by it. Chernobyl is a favorite subject of mine.

In the end, it's all about risk management. Example: we fly in the sky. We weren't designed for that. Technology enabled it, and disregarding the limits and risks associated with the technology has led to fantastic disaster, but we've never turned away from human flight. We strive to absorb as much as we can from tragedy and let it inform us on how to improve and manage the technology and risk, to make the process ever safer.

Today, it's the safest form of human transport. Failure still occur, and sometimes that means a sizable cluster of deaths, but on average, it's the least deadly mode. Hardly any of us seriously considers not flying, even in the face of news of air disasters. We see the benefit, it outweighs the risk. We also see management improving the odds. Disaster incidents are far less numerous now, and when disaster does strike, it tends to be ever less deadly. Reference the recent US Airways water ditching after bird strike. Not a single life lost!

For nuclear energy, we can manage the risk and develop the technology. We don't even have to repeat the mistakes of other industries first if we just look toward them and absorb the lessons they have learned.

Development of very-high-voltage DC transmission links will enable future nuke plants to be located further away from the rest of the populated grid, diminishing the NIMBY effect. Development of advanced breeder reactors like the Advanced Liquid Metal Reactor concept will enable re-use of current spent fuel to extract the remaining 95% of presently unrecoverable energy contained therein, as well as consuming our dangerous Pu from decommissioned weapons.

Developed as fully as air travel has been, this sort of nuclear energy could get very close to the ideal conceived in the 1950s, of nuclear power becoming plentiful, cheap, and ubiquitous. Replacing coal-generated electricity and used to charge up future electric vehicles, this would be very green indeed. I don't subscribe to the Gorey idea that global warming/climate change is anthropogenic, or that we even have the present capacity to influence climate much even if we really wanted to, one way or the other. However, if human-generated CO2 is something you want to minimize, this is the way. It may be the only way.

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