Did the Nuclear Renaissance in the U.S. falter because people ignored lessons from the First Atomic Age?
During the ANS Student Conference 2017 in Pittsburg, PA, a student at the University of Wisconsin-Madison made the effort to find me and introduce himself. Among several other topics, he wanted to exchange thoughts about an article that I first published more than 22 years ago. The student indicated his interest in becoming an atomic entrepreneur or finding other ways to enable a more entrepreneurial approach to developing nuclear energy.
After our discussion, I decided to find and reread the article. Perhaps I’m being entirely too vain, but I think it has stood the test of time and retains its original utility. In fact, it may be even more timely today than it was in 1995.
The First Atomic Age: A Failure of Socialism
Dated January 1, 1995
By Rodney Adams
The first Atomic Age began with high hopes, but it has languished, being replaced in succession by the Space Age, the Computer Age, and the Information Age. Atomic planes, trains, and remote power stations discussed by 1940s visionaries were never built. Atomic powered ships, able to operate for years without refilling their fuel supply have seen limited civilian and military application. Most are now museums or being laid up as anachronisms. Nuclear submarines, powered by compact engines able to push their massive bulk at high speeds for years without any atmospheric intake or exhaust are widely thought to be expensive Cold War relics with no real mission or lesson to offer.
Hype Versus Reality
Was it all hype? Were Dwight Eisenhower, Al Gore, Sr., Isaac Asimov, Alvin Weinberg, Leo Szilard, Enrico Fermi, Lewis Strauss, and H.G. Wells all wrong in their predictions for a new source of abundant energy? If not, how did the present stagnation in the industry happen?
First the facts. Uranium is abundant. One indication of the enormity of the resource is that the United States has an existing stockpile of enriched uranium large enough to fuel over 1000 Trident class submarines for fifteen years. Another indication is that the price of natural uranium has fallen so low that domestic mining companies are crying for protection from foreign “dumping.”
Uranium, thorium, and plutonium are concentrated energy sources. One pound of any of them contains as much potential energy as 2,000,000 pounds of oil or 2,600,000 pounds of high grade coal.
Uranium, thorium, and plutonium have all been used as fuel in fission reactors. Fission waste products weigh less than the initial metal used for fuel and are compact enough to be completely retained within the reactor core. Each year, we produce approximately 4,000 tons of spent fuel from all 108 nuclear electric plants in the U.S. while a single 1,000 megawatt electric (MWe) coal station produces that much ash every day.
A 1,000 MWe nuclear power plant uses about seven pounds of fuel each day and produces no carbon dioxide. A 1,000 MWe coal plant burns 11,000 tons of coal and produces 42,000 tons of waste gas every day.
A total of three people have been killed by nuclear accidents in the United States in the forty years that we have been operating power reactors. All three were killed in a single accident at an experimental military reactor in the early 1960s. Not a single person has ever been killed handling the waste from a nuclear power station.
The Atomic Age was not stopped by protesters, mismanagement, technical hurdles, economic hurdles, or heavy regulations. All of these may have played a role, but they were more symptoms than causes. The true reason that atomic power has not yet fulfilled its promise is that the industry was established and operated as a socialist enterprise. Like all other experiments that prevent innovation, experimentation, and individual rewards it was doomed from the beginning.
By 1946, the power available in the nucleus of certain heavy metals was well known. The extent of the heavy metal resource was not fully understood, but there were indications that there were extensive deposits. The means for using the power were not yet known, but scientists and engineers were confident that the heat produced by fission could be put to good use. If atomic power had been like other technological developments, there should have been rapid innovation and eventual commercialization.
Unfortunately, politicians thought that atomic power was different. Although the basic science had been developed over a period of decades with most work taking place in European laboratories, American congressmen, secure in their belief that the United States was the world’s only remaining technological power, claimed atomic energy as domestic property. They also decided that no one but the government could be trusted with the awesome power contained in tiny atoms and nationalized the whole industry.
All nuclear knowledge was declared secret and U.S. scientists were forbidden to discuss their work with even such notable colleagues as Niels Bohr, whose liquid drop model of the nucleus had helped explain how fission worked, and Bertrand Goldschmidt, a French chemist who developed a plutonium extraction process as part of the Manhattan Project. Uranium gained a new name as “special nuclear material” and was declared to be federal property. Inventors of devices designed to use special nuclear material were required to give their patents to the government who would then decide on just compensation.
A commission was established to decide how best to proceed with the development of atomic energy. The commission was given the responsibility for the national laboratories that had developed atomic bombs. They took several years to decide how to organize themselves. Most of the scientists and engineers involved with the Manhattan Project returned to their pre-war duties while the Atomic Energy Commission was figuring out their priorities.
Within three years the Soviet Union exploded their first atomic weapon, making it obvious to the world that atomic energy was no longer a U.S. monopoly. It took five years for Congress to recognize this and take action to loosen some of the controls established by the Atomic Energy Act of 1946.
Bureaucracies relinquish control reluctantly; many onerous provisions of the Atomic Energy Act of 1946 were retained when the new act was passed in 1954. The government maintained ownership of all special nuclear material and provided a means to license it to users who would then pay a “reasonable” fee to the government for its use. Of course, the fee was determined by bureaucrats based on complicated formulas and obscure cost accounting.
About the same time that the Atomic Energy Act of 1954 became law, the USS Nautilus reported that she was “[u]nderway on nuclear power.” Her performance during the subsequent demonstration period made headlines. Her builders gained head of the line privileges at the Atomic Energy Commission which had to approve and license any new reactor designs.
Although the Nautilus’s power plant was functional, it had many limitations. It depended on keeping water under extreme pressure so that it would remain a liquid at temperatures far above the normal boiling point The hot, high pressure water was a potential hazard with even small leaks in the lengthy piping systems. The valves, pumps and piping required specialized materials since hot water is an excellent solvent and is quite corrosive. The reactors needed fuel with a higher concentration of U-235 than was found in natural ores, requiring the use of a complex process of isotope separation.
Despite the difficulties, the pressurized water system was probably the best that could be rapidly produced under the technology constraints existing in 1950. It was suited for the specialized application of a submarine because it was far more capable than diesel engines combined with batteries for underwater operation and because the enrichment plants were already built and producing products for the weapons programs. There was no way that the submarine system could compete economically with engines burning oil costing less than $2.00 per barrel, assuming that air and exhaust space was freely available.
The President and certain congressmen who were interested in using the new form of energy for civilian applications decided it was in our national interest to encourage the nuclear industry. From their point of view, the natural customer would be the electrical generating industry, one they were familiar with from the government’s involvement in public power projects. They invited some utility industry representatives to Washington to discuss their needs.
The contractors who had built the Nautilus, the Seawolf (a submarine with a sodium-cooled reactor plant), and the land based prototypes were invited to the government discussion because of their nuclear experience. The contractors involved in the government work were mammoth companies, used to doing things in a big way. Their governing economic philosophy was similar to those of the state agencies in the Soviet Union, i.e. if a piece of machinery is not economically competitive, make it bigger. This matched the economy of scale concept that the utility companies had been taught by Samuel Insull.
These three groups, utilities, contractors and government bureaucrats, decided where best to concentrate their efforts to develop civilian nuclear energy. The decisions seemed right to the queried group; light water reactors would be developed because they were proven energy producers, and they would be made bigger, assuming that would make them cheaper. The U.S. monopoly on enrichment services might have played a role in this decision. Some effort would be made to produce sodium-cooled breeder reactors, based on the Seawolf technology and on plutonium extraction technology from the weapons programs. These would also be made economical by increasing their size.
Bigger Is Better?
Of course, many people with an interest in energy production were left out of this decision process. There were no farmers, railroad executives, airline operators, ocean shippers, steel mill operators, gold miners, or aluminum smelters at the table even though their industries are highly dependent on energy inputs. No invitations were issued to entrepreneurs or inventors. Because of the government’s secrecy about the technology, most of them did not even know that nuclear energy existed or that it could be used to meet their needs. Most of the mentioned groups still have no idea what nuclear fission could do for them.
The results of the socialistic decision are now clear. The bigger the plants got, the more complex they became. They became more complex to build because the increased size of critical components like pressure vessels, reactor coolant pumps, containments, and steam generators made fabrication, inspection, and transportation uniquely difficult compared to other energy production systems. They became more complex to finance because the huge electricity factories required multi-company partnerships, large bond offerings, and a whole coalition of banks. Raising billions for a single project is a time-consuming and costly endeavor.
They became targets of intense opposition that seemed to intensify in the mistrust of government and major industry prevalent in the 1970s. Compared to other regulated industries, they became a nightmare for bureaucrats. Proof of safety became a difficult issue with heavy reliance on complex computer modeling techniques. Unlike commercial airliners, for example, reactors are simply too big and expensive to fully test. Regulators, given only the responsibility to ensure public safety, appear to feel that the best way to do their job is to make licensing as difficult as possible.
Because nuclear power plants are almost universally viewed as huge, capital intensive, risky, and potentially hazardous no new plants have been ordered in the United States since Gerald Ford was President.
Things might have turned out differently if atomic energy had been developed by entrepreneurs.
Suppose there had not been a Hitler or a Mussolini active in 1938 when Otto Hahn announced that he had found barium in the sample of uranium he had bombarded with neutrons. Maybe Enrico Fermi would have stayed in Europe and continued his work, perhaps forming a research partnership with Leo Szilard, who had already filed a patent for a power producing reactor. Being scientists, they would have widely published the results of their experiments, demonstrating to the world that uranium was a potent new source of energy. Even if they had gone on to other projects, others might have taken up the research.
A smart money man, perhaps one who had spent his life finding oil in difficult places, or one who had cut his teeth in a coal mine, or one who had spent a lifetime eking out small efficiency gains in oil-burning steamships might have recognized the significance of a compact energy source and seen a way to turn this scientific knowledge into a useful and profitable product. He might have been enough of an inventor to see that fission could be a heat source able to function in any system normally heated by burning coal or oil. He would have recognized that some applications would be entirely new since fission needs no oxygen supply or means for routine dispersal of waste products.
An entrepreneur would keep his risks as low as possible. He would not have government insurance or contracts to bail him out if he failed. Any engines would be based on natural uranium since the enrichment process would be viewed as too risky and expensive to attempt. He would test his new product to ensure adequate safety. He might concentrate on finding premium markets where high margins would allow him to write off development costs in the shortest possible time.
He would do extensive research, seeking to determine where his product could beat the existing competition. He would base his decisions on both study and “gut feeling” from extensive personal experience of how the world uses energy. A market for an atomic engine that would have been familiar to a 1940s entrepreneur would have been a high speed ocean liner, like the Queen Mary, which burned approximately 1,000 tons of fossil fuel per day during Atlantic crossings.
Using the proceeds from sales to premium markets, he would push his developers to design products that could serve the widest possible market, knowing that diverse customers increase income and protect against cyclic economic pressures. Instead of moving toward bigger plants, he would have realized that smaller engines would find more customers. He might have tried limited enrichment at this point in order to reduce the size of his engines.
The money man would have understood that he had to tell people about this fantastic new product. Magazines, newspapers, television, radio, and billboards would all have been full of advertisements trumpeting the ability of atomic engines to push stackless, smooth running ships across the ocean for years without needing new fuel.
The entrepreneur would arrange special demonstrations for dignitaries and influential members of the media. He would work to attract additional investors for his capital-hungry endeavors. He would develop partnerships and arrange for lease purchases of his engines for customers unwilling or unable to afford the initial capital expense.
Competitors would have surely appeared after seeing the success of the initial pioneer. They would develop better systems that could lure customers away from the established company. They, too, would look for ways to broaden the market. Some design standards would have been established to take advantages of the installed base of trained operators and suppliers while still allowing room for product differentiation.
The industry would have been attacked. There would have been people genuinely concerned about potential hazards and others more selfishly concerned about their jobs and investments with existing energy suppliers. The enormous industry involving the supply, transportation, storage and marketing of coal, natural gas, and oil would have been particularly vocal and possibly violent. The adolescent nuclear industry might have decided to form an industry group to lobby for its own interests and to refute bogus claims from the competition. They would commission studies and ensure that their advertising outlets provided balanced coverage of the hazards of their industry versus the competition.
There would probably have been some people who saw the leftovers from reactor operation as potent new raw materials and made arrangements to take the waste off the hands of the reactor owners. The reactor operators would probably have taken whatever price was offered by this budding scrap industry, preferring to concentrate on figuring out ways to take advantage of the new systems that were being offered by the engine manufacturers. The engine manufacturers might have become customers of the scrap industry for raw materials for new engines.
There would have probably been some notable accidents during the early phases of this new industry. The industry would have learned from the accidents and figured out ways to prevent their recurrence. Engineering societies would have played a strong role in establishing construction and operation codes. There might have been several pioneering companies that collapsed because of lack of vision, poor management, failure to recognize competition, or inability to correct design faults. This is probably the point where the government would have become involved. Up until then, the government would not have recognized what was going on in the exciting new industry.
This whole business might have gone on for years before anyone mentioned that the incredible energy available in uranium could be released fast enough for a militarily useful explosive. By that time, it would have been far too late to attempt to impose a government-owned monopoly of “special nuclear materials.”
The above is speculative hindsight, of course, but it holds important lessons for us in 1995, as we work on new information systems, flat screen display panels, and options to fix a supposed crisis in medical care.
Even democratic governments are poor managers of new technology. They are worse when they choose a socialistic model for their enterprise. Governing bodies respond better to existing interests than they do to people with fresh ideas who want to alter the status quo. Because of their competing interests and regular changes of the guard, bureaucrats are doomed to fail in a pioneering effort that requires singleness of purpose and continuity of effort.
The solution is for the government to allow innovation to occur, keeping in mind its responsibility to respond to dangers to the common good. Whenever governments begin to protect chosen industries or work to encourage their development, they inevitably make decisions that have impacts they did not intend.
Perhaps it would be beneficial to fully open the debate about nuclear energy, this time allowing all interested parties to participate. The best forum for such a debate is the free market with its competition and ability to handle more decisions at one time than any politically selected management body. Although it is not recognized as such by liberals, the market is an ideal body for making tough decisions.
This article was originally published on FEE.org. Read the original article.
Yes, you need your message to reach a wider audience, but what a shame that you’ve gone full neoliberal. I leave you with two thoughts:
1. It was the Cold War. The American government needed to keep competitive advantages as secrets so the USSR wouldn’t be able to utilize them and come out on top.
2. Any developed or wealthy country worth its salt has legal regulations and investments in the public sector. These DON’T preclude the ability to establish privately owned businesses and profit from them- in fact, well-funded public credit and infrastructure make logistics and distribution easier for business. A public sector DOES NOT equal “socialism” or “tha gubmint owning everything”. The libertarians who say otherwise are blind ideologues or intellectually dishonest propagandists. Singapore, the supposed ideal polity of libertarians, charges few or no corporate taxes and bans labor unions, but the government is the dominant shareholder in education, banking, real estate, healthcare, defense and energy. Absolute free markets don’t exist, and their closest implementations have caused as much misery around the world as their opposite.
Did you read the article before commenting?
During the period from 1946-1954, the U.S. government FORMALLY and aggressively declared complete ownership of all things atomic. It absolutely precluded the establishment of privately owned businesses, took control over intellectual property related to atomic energy – including the Szilard/Fermi patents that were filed well before the U.S. government got involved and began paying any of the development costs and prevented information sharing among any researchers who were working on practical applications of nuclear knowledge. (Basic physics and chemistry were still allowed.)
I’m not seeking absolute free markets. I also remind readers that I wrote the piece more than 22 years ago, more than 1/3 of a lifetime ago. I did not do any editing to reflect the morphing and refining of my ideas and attitudes toward economic development and the government’s role in enabling it to move forward.
Rod, I thought in your article, you sounded like a great conservative. Though I still can’t forgive you for voting for Obama.
I think it was still a good article.
I do wonder. OK, the US government limits innovation in nuclear technology. Despite the arrogance of many, the US is not the world. If the US won’t be the innovator, why haven’t people elsewhere created more innovative reactors?
Is there a possibility that the advent of smaller reactors will be a springboard for this innovation? Think of the rapid technological changes done with microchips. Small devices take less effort to “tinker out” new changes.
Of course, “Necessity is the Mother of Invention.” Cheap fossil fuel energy will not encourage this innovation.
At the end of WWII, the US had successfully gathered a large portion of the scientists and engineers who knew anything about nuclear energy production, nuclear physics and associated chemical and material experts. Obviously we did not have a monopoly; there was still a lot of talent out there.
Even under the conditions that existed, there was a pretty fair exploration of the types of reactors that were possible. Progress was made, but it was slowed at nearly every possible step.
The innovation that the industry needs isn’t in basic science or engineering or even in new types of reactors. The innovation needed is the normal evolutionary process of designing systems that do a better and better job of meeting customer needs. There are many measures of effectiveness that customers formally or informally use to determine which product best suits their budget, schedule, specific application, long term planning, fuel diversity criteria, etc.
Capable businesses need people who are innovative in a wide range of skills so that they can find out what customers want, figure out ways to improve their product, package it in attractive ways, supply accessories that improve the experience, etc.
I have firmly believed for a very long time that smaller units than the extra-large sizes produced in the First Atomic Age are necessary to enable the kinds of refinement that I believe are necessary. When projects last as long as some people’s careers, it is hard to learn and refine skills. Once you choose a path, making changes is difficult. Even making minor adjustments can disrupt schedules and thus budgets.
Size matters a lot. Generally smaller is cheaper which in turn allows innovation, which is essentially what you said in your last paragraph.
Recent example from the space world: Take a look at what SpaceX and Blue Origin are doing with reusable rockets. Why are they able to innovate re-usability when Shuttle / United Space Alliance (Atlas – V / Delta – IV) are not?
Smaller company. Less expensive equipment. Smaller bureaucracy. More agile. Able to start / stop and turn on a dime.
Cheap small reactors ought to allow the same sort of serial innovation and subsequent learning curve. And if DoD and NASA can learn how to open the door to this, so can the NRC (note that this was mandated via legislation written by newSpace people inside the O’Bama administration). Cheers –
I think this article is somewhat of an illustrative example of what you’re talking about in your (old) article, Rod. All about heavy control of everything nuclear. Bemoaning that other entities may be networking around the (burdensome) US-controlled system. What do they even mean by “strong governance”?
“Strong global governance is essential if the promise of nuclear power is to be achieved.”
Why? You don’t hear about a need for “strong governance” for all of the competing energy sources. Might that just be a reason why nuclear is struggling to compete?
“……to ensure that nuclear power can meet the growing need for clean energy with the highest standards of safety and security.”
If they continue to relentlessly focus on minor and/or made up issues (nuclear is already the safest source, and proliferation is not really an issue), as opposed to focusing on cost reduction, nuclear will NOT play much of a role in meeting the need for clean power generation.
And this is from NEI! Articles like this cause me to think that the nuclear industry doesn’t deserve to succeed, and that many if not most in the industry itself are nuclear’s worst enemy).
Re: “…and that many if not most in the industry itself are nuclear’s worst enemy).
That really sums up the core of the whole problem in a nutshell. Tech smarts nuclear folks have. People smarts, naw…
region of the utterly unsupported and non-advertised ex-Indian Point.
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