I just received my copy of Plentiful Energy: The Story of the Integral Fast Reactor. The complex history of a simple reactor technology with emphasis on its scientific basis for non-specialists by Charles Till and Yoon Il Chang. There is no doubt that it is going to be a fascinating read, but I had to take a quick break to jot down and share an initial impression.
Nuclear fission energy competes now because it is vastly superior, but it could provide ever greater benefits if people who recognize its superiority stop separating into isolated islands of thinkers.
The early section of the book includes a description of the idyllic, carefully isolated setting of the Argonne National Laboratory and a glowing description of the competent, highly-educated people who worked there. The authors both spent most of their scientific careers at that Lab. Here is how they describe the people that they worked with every day. I suspect that they also socialized with the same people, perhaps spending between 50-70 hours per week with them over long careers.
It may strike the reader that “integrity” is a strong word – too strong- and perhaps overly dramatic. But remember, scientific integrity is natural, the norm in national laboratories like Argonne, who in the main hire the most highly qualified of scientists and engineers, PH.D level people – often brilliant, always competent. The laboratories attract such people because of the scientific freedom they offer to them. Advanced degrees are expected, generally, and many come out of the best and most prestigious colleges and universities. People who have pursued scientific knowledge this far have scientific goals themselves; they have scientific ideals and they have scientific integrity. They do not regard their careers, their life in science, as “just a job.”
Though living and working in a fenced campus surrounded by people who meet the above description might be a recipe for a satisfying life spent pursuing goals that are pure and untainted, it is not a place where one can experience the real world. It is not a place where there are hungry people, greedy people, social climbers, or people who just want to get by so that they can relax in a recliner at the end of the day with a cold beer and a college football game.
It is not a place where there are hardworking, but not academically gifted people, where there are people who put raising their families at the top of their priority list or where there is a daily recognition that there are bad people who need to be controlled or brought to justice. In short, it is a place where complacency can develop and where groupthink is a real risk. Here is a useful description of that mode of decision making:
Groupthink, a term coined by social psychologist Irving Janis (1972), occurs when a group makes faulty decisions because group pressures lead to a deterioration of “mental efficiency, reality testing, and moral judgment” (p. 9). Groups affected by groupthink ignore alternatives and tend to take irrational actions that dehumanize other groups. A group is especially vulnerable to groupthink when its members are similar in background, when the group is insulated from outside opinions, and when there are no clear rules for decision making.
It might be unfair to Till and Chang and to their colleagues, but I believe that is helps to explain why their brilliant technological innovation, the Integral Fast Reactor (IFR), was killed (or at least put into deep hibernation for nearly 20 years) just at the time they were getting close to success.
They needed a few real world people to help them recognize that the state of unlimited energy abundance they were approaching was not universally desired, even if it would make life better for nearly every person on the planet. The opposition to nuclear energy grew rapidly outside of the gates of the Argonne National Laboratory; I think that the scientists were taken by surprise when the they heard President Clinton make the following statement on national television.
(Clip is from a 1996 episode of The New Explorers with Bill Kurtis.)
Here is how Till and Change describe the opposition to nuclear energy development that allowed the President of the United States to call nuclear energy research unnecessary and to characterize it as a wasteful spending program that needed to be eliminated entirely.
Organized opposition had begun, arguing environmentalism initially, and then joined by proliferation-related attacks. In the last year or two of the sixties the attacks had begun and with growing influence, by the mid-seventies the anti-nuclear groups had had their way. Their strategy focused on driving up the cost of nuclear power plant construction, so far up that the plants would be uneconomic, if possible. To do so, they attacked every issue that could be used to insert the legal system into interference with construction decisions, blocking construction progress by any means possible. In so doing they introduced very lengthy construction delays. Success in delaying nuclear construction while interest on the borrowed construction funding kept increasing and increasing eventually made their argument self-fulfilling. They had made their assertion a reality; nuclear construction was now expensive. Every possible facet of the legal system was used. Plant after plant with financing in place for billions of dollars, and interest charges running up, had construction held up month after month, year after year, by one legal challenge after another, as a rule related in some way to environmental permits. Nuclear opponents could congratulate themselves; they had destroyed an industry. Their strategy had been a brilliant success. To what purpose, though, may one ask? It stopped orderly progression of nuclear power development and implementation by the U. S., and, indeed, led to similarly destructive movements in other countries too. The world then went back to fossil energy and hundreds, more probably thousands, of new fossil fuel plants have gone into operation in the years since then.
That last line is the one that made me put down my book and pick up my keyboard. The end result described benefitted a wealthy, politically powerful, media savvy group of people. I have spent too many hours in strategy and planning meetings in too many different venues to believe that a shift from nuclear energy to fossil fuel energy was accidental.
We might have had a completely different result if the brilliant engineers and scientists had not isolated themselves away from the real world. They might have learned how to counter strike and effectively sell their technology. They might have learned how many bright people there are who are not nuclear scientists and engineers. They might have even learned that the nuclear scientists and engineers at other laboratories were not their real competitors.
National laboratory bred nuclear scientists and engineers have not fully recognized the financial and political strength behind the antinuclear activists, so they have not yet developed ways to protect their valuable developments from the inevitable sniping by the people who stand to lose the most when the world gains access to unlimited energy.
If Till and Chang though about competition at all, it was with regard to the scientific and technical competition among other national laboratories for limited quantities of federal research dollars. As cloistered specialists in a particular type of technology that could produce reliable energy, they did not recognize that the established energy industry is immense, wealthy almost beyond imagination, extremely powerful and highly motivated to protect its existing markets.
The energy business is not, however, monolithic. There are a variety of interests and competitors within the large, diverse industry. Many segments of the established energy industry could gain a significant advantage if they were able to take advantage of the reliable, abundant, affordable energy provided by atomic fission.
Nuclear fission energy competes now because it is vastly superior, but it could provide ever greater benefits if people who recognize its superiority stop separating into isolated islands of thinkers. We must recognize that we have powerful opponents that must be either overcome or brought into more productive alliances.
Idaho Samizdat – Plentiful Energy – the book on the Integral Fast Reactor
Brave New Climate –
Plentiful Energy – The book that tells the story of the Integral Fast Reactor
ANS Nuclear Cafe – Greetings from a proud member of “the nuclear party”