One of the reasons that I am a strong advocate of smaller nuclear energy plants is that I resist the notion of the inevitability of greater interconnectedness and dependence. I like systems that have firewalls, circuit breakers, and air gaps to ensure that a failure in one location can be isolated. I do not like tightly integrated systems that have little margin for error. I dislike electronic systems that easily communicate with each other without the need for human decision making – it is too easy for them to pass bad information or viruses too rapidly to halt the spread.
Based on my personal experiences during the past couple of decades on the Internet (I sent my first email in 1985), the talk of smart grids with appliances and generators exchanging two way communications with “the grid” scares me. Being on the Internet is a lot of fun and hugely informative – as long as you have taken the proper precautions and as long as downtime is not fatal. The risk of infection or lack of access is low enough to make it worth taking in order to allow connection and communications.
I cannot make the same statement about electricity. I cannot see any real advantage to being tightly connected. I do not have to be connected to anyone in order to use electricity if I have a generator or a battery. My car’s systems work great on electricity without any connectivity to any other object; so did my submarine’s power systems. If I have a generator AND a battery, the backup provided by tight connections to others is worth even less if the battery lasts long enough to get the generator running again.
I am not the only one for whom tightly integrated, wide spread “smart” grids is a matter of concern. Nick Rosen, the author of How To Live Off-Grid: Journeys Outside the System, gave a talk on October 22, 2009 at an event sponsored by Mondo Energy titled: The Truth About Nuclear Energy.
Rosen has been an anti-nuclear activist for his whole life, starting off with participation as a child alongside his parents in protests against the Bomb. Later, he transitioned that active opposition to nuclear weapons to active opposition to the construction of nuclear power plants; people who know him might have been surprised by his participation at the event.
However, Rosen resisted nuclear power plant construction not because he did not understand that producing power was different from producing weapons, but because he thought that the plants being built were simply too large, too centralized, and too scary. (His comment is that any mistake would be a big mistake. Of course, we know from experience at Three Mile Island that the health consequences of even an extensive failure at a nuclear plant can be minimized, but we also know that the financial consequences are just what Rosen predicted – BIG.)
In recent years, however, Rosen has started to think about the possibilities of building smaller nuclear plants for those people who do not want to be completely connected to everyone else. He sees community sized plants as something entirely different from the large, central station plants that he resisted. In comparison to most anti-nuclear activists, Rosen had an advantage in making that kind of leap in his thinking. His father, though a protester against the development of the British bomb program, was a nuclear physicist who helped him understand the concept and the attraction of making reliable power from tiny amounts of material.
I like imagining how the world would be different if there were nuclear fission energy systems available in as wide a size variety as the combustion systems available today. (Note: I actually like humanity and do not immediately believe that they would turn useful tools into deadly weapons. I never worry that my local hardware store has a whole row of axes, wondering if one of my neighbors will buy one and use it while going on a rampage.)