Effective government involvement essential for many innovations

The Breakthrough Institute has published a thought-provoking piece titled Reinventing Libertarianism: Jim Manzi and the New Conservative Case for Innovation It is highly recommended reading.

Here is a comment that I left on the piece, focusing on my particular interest area of clean nuclear energy development.

Interesting observations. I agree with just about everything other than the following statement:

“Nuclear energy came out of the Manhattan Project. No private company could ever have taken a weapon and made it an energy source.”

My deep research into the history of nuclear energy reveals that the order should be differently phrased.

Nuclear energy is a natural part of our physical world. God – or nature, if you prefer – put densely packed energy into the atomic nucleus and gave human discoverers the key for unlocking that energy.

Fission itself occurred in natural rock formations in a place called Oklo in Gabon, Africa. No private company could have turned this gift into a weapon capable of mass destruction, but an enormous, government-funded, world war-inspired effort against a nation led by a madman could.

Nuclear energy could have been easily harnessed for good by a small group of scientists and engineers. Without the Manhattan project and its resulting installation of deep nuclear and radiation fears, peaceful nuclear energy development could have progressed along the same lines as the taming of fire.

Rod Adams
Publisher, Atomic Insights

Of course, it is impossible to reverse time and to start all over again. Since governments around the world have already seized strong control over nuclear energy innovation, actions to free the atom and allow it to better serve human masters must involve effective government decision-making.

Though most governments have not been terribly successful in their approach to atomic energy — with a few notable exceptions — it is time for citizens to put pressure on their representatives to learn more about the incredible gift of massive stores of energy-dense, emission-free fuels like uranium and thorium provide to humanity.

About Rod Adams

20 Responses to “Effective government involvement essential for many innovations”

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  1. Marcel F. Williams says:

    Government research and development and private research and development are mutually beneficial to each other.

    Government utilities like the TVA should set a good example for private utilities by becoming a carbon neutral electricity producer by selling off all of its fossil fuel plants and using the revenue to build more nuclear power plants for base-load production and carbon neutral methanol power plants for peak load electricity production.

    Methanol could come from urban and rural biowaste (garbage, sewage, and farm waste). Adding hydrogen produced during off-peak hours by nuclear power plants could increase bio-methanol production five fold. Methanol can also be easily converted into carbon neutral gasoline.

    Marcel

  2. Eino says:

    From the article:

    “Energy innovation is an area that has some and would benefit from more not less international cooperation. China is currently building at least three different kinds of advanced nuclear reactors, partly with help from the US DOE and universities. The US should both invest far more in our own advanced nuclear demonstration projects, and re-double our collaboration with the Chinese, too, even if this results in a short-term advantage to the Chinese. US-Chinese collaboration on technology could hasten the creation of safer, cheaper reactors – some based on designs from Oak Ridge in the ‘50s and ‘60s – that might one day be imported into the US perhaps as a joint venture with the Chinese.”

    Perhaps governments that are dissatisfied with the status quo achieve great things by working in concert with the abilities of their citizens. I certainly think so.

    I wouldn’t be at all surprised if the efforts of the Chinese bear fruit that will benefit the whole world.

  3. Smiling Joe Fission says:

    One comment I would make is that as soon as someone realized the weapons capability of the atom, a private company would most certainly have built one to sell. Likely to a government.

    I often wonder how fission would have developed without WW2 and the Manhattan Project surrounding its discovery.

    • Rod Adams says:

      @Smiling Joe Fission

      One comment I would make is that as soon as someone realized the weapons capability of the atom, a private company would most certainly have built one to sell.

      Have you ever read about the incredible resources devoted to making the materials for just three bombs? How could any private enterprise have ever gathered anything close to the required human, financial, and physical capital for such an effort?

      • Engineer-Poet says:

        Having read through the first half of “The Age of Radiance” (I had to put it down to read another book that I have to return in a week), I’m struck by how relatively easy it was to get CP-1 operating.

        The RMBK design is just CP-1 writ large.  In a peacetime discovery of fission scenario, would we have had a profusion of RMBK-ish machines busily boiling water for electric generation?

        • Rod Adams says:

          @E-P

          There was not much conceptual difference between the RBMK and the N-reactor at Hanford. The one at Chernobyl was under the control of fairly inexperienced operators supervised by an aggressive “git her done” electrical engineer. (Alternatively, I think there is a case to be made that he might have known more than he let on about the effects of the conditions that he established, but that is a topic for an alternative history project I am working on.)

          There were RBMKs in Lithuania, for example, that were well run and well maintained and should have never been shutdown. There are still a dozen RBMKs operating in Russia. Much of what you have read about the inherent problems with the basic design is essentially GE-Westinghouse-B&W-Combustion Engineering marketing material.

      • JohnGalt says:

        If you talk numbers, they are not “incredible,” but are less than Bill Gates’ accumulated wealth. If wikipedia is believable, it was around 25 billion in 2014 dollar$ for the Manhattan project.

        • Rod Adams says:

          Dollars are not the only measure of the resources required. Two large tracks of land were condemned by “eminent domain.” The services of about 130,000 people, including a large segment of the research science community were drafted into the project.

          Some of the materials were conscripted – when there was not enough copper for the enrichment facility, silver out of the Treasury was put to use.

          http://melpor.hubpages.com/hub/The-Manhattan-Project-and-The-Borrowed-Silver

          No private citizen group or corporation could have put those resources together for a product that had no commercial value.

          Heck, even with all of his accumulated wealth, Gates has not even put together the resources required to build a new reactor – the Manhattan project built and operated three large reactors.

          • JohnGalt says:

            Dollars bought the land and paid the people. It’s not a perfect measure, but it’s better than nothing.

            Those who believe they can’t and those who believe they can are both right (Ford paraphrase).

            With recent history, do we still underestimate groups doing things for no commercial value? That said, if the bomb could be sold, it would have high value.

            Who knows Gates’ motivation? Maybe he only wanted a hobby or a tax deduction. If he wanted power plants, he would have bought available models (and thrown away even more dollars).

          • Rod Adams says:

            @JohnGalt

            If the land and the people had actually been purchased instead of condemned and conscripted, I might agree with you. However, only a government fighting a war against an existential threat like Hitler could have obtained the specific resources that enabled the production of the three Manhattan Project gadgets.

            At any other time, development of nuclear energy would have been by way of useful energy WAY before the production of the purified materials and very specialized manufacturing techniques required to form a useful explosive.

      • Smiling Joe Fission says:

        Rod, it would have taken longer (same with a fission power plant) but there is no way it would not have happened by current times. The power of the atom would have been realized and some sort of defense contractor would have started to sell the government on it if the government had not already figure it out and contracted said company.

        I agree that power plants would have cropped up before bombs, but bombs would have come to exist either way. A government doesn’t pass on that sort of weapon when it has the resources to attain it.

        • Rod Adams says:

          @Smiling Joe Fission

          I agree that bombs would have eventually been produced, but by the time that they were, there would have been plenty of people depending on the useful energy and protective of its continues use.

          It is also somehow less scary to have something that you are familiar with converted into weapons use (think airplane, ship or napalm) than to be first introduced to a technology by a massive, world changing explosion.

  4. robjoh says:

    @OT/Rod Adams
    Found this statement interesting, I am not sure if you already have it. But I think it clearly shows how correct you are when it comes to be to reliant on natural gas as a primary energy source:


    In New England during the polar vortex, it became clear that we are having to make a
    choice in the winter between committing natural gas resources to generating electricity or to
    heating homes.24 Right now, we cannot do both. Given the number of additional base load
    generating units that will be retired in the next 14 months, we face a very real possibility that we
    will have to make that choice more often in the future

    http://www.energy.senate.gov/public/index.cfm/files/serve?File_id=366e6685-92f5-4878-a90f-253efa4495e8

  5. John T Tucker says:

    Trying to put my thoughts in words here, something I am obviously not very good at, but;

    I dont think “Libertarianism” in itself was ever really a thing or valid alternate economic philosophy. It seemed more of a response to social and academic concepts created at and before the turn of the (last) century that was itself in response to various entrenched monarchies and aristocracies.

    All societies are full of collective agreement and pursue extensive collective endeavors not suitable to entrust to whatever market conditions exist. Its always been that way, from fighting wars to eminent domain, to sanitation, to monetary policy, to collective property and mineral rights to transportation infrastructure.

    Certainly civil libertarianism is a thing and a important one at that. And from that perspective it is of course possible to gauge whether a collective endeavor, reasonably enacted, has benefits for most or infringes on individual liberties unacceptably.

    I dont care for the political views of many that associate with the so called “economic libertarianism” of today. It invariably involves overlooking significant realties, collective agreements, invisible hands, what have you to push a partial, hodgepodge philosophy for perceived economic prosperity, that in its truest form has never really even existed, has never been proven successful and really has nothing to do with how America started or what it is.

  6. PissedOffAmerican says:

    Its interesting seeing government involvement in the development of nuclear energy being so strongly advocated here, when the government’s involvement in the subsidation of wind and solar energy is often decried by many here.

    Personally, I believe all three technologies are bound to evolve and become important technologies in man’s inevitable weaning off of fossil fuels. Its a shame that there seems to be this overt animous between advocates of one energy source or the other.

  7. Eric_G says:

    Government involvement often will move a technology along much faster than normally possible. However, cherry picking tech goes both ways. Civil air transport was intentionally held back for decades because of unnecessary regulation that benefited a few at the expense of everyone else. Until MCI fought AT&T it was illegal for anyone other than T to provide long distance phone service, no matter how innovative their products might be, and until the Carterphone court case, it was illegal to connect anything to AT&T’s precious network that wasn’t built by Western Electric (or one of their affiliates) -interesting that the article mentions Hayes modems, BTW. And even though we live in a nation with one of the largest land masses of any nation, it is illegal for an United States licensed short-wave broadcaster to target the continental US with their signal (short wave signals can easily travel for hundreds of miles with a few thousand Watts).

    • Eino says:

      “Government involvement often will move a technology along much faster than normally possible.”

      DARPANET became the internet. DARAPNET was a government military thing. Just one more example of government research producing something very good.

      With an investment of some tax dollars, Thorium fueled power plants could be the next big thing, like the internet.