Every once in a while, I like to curl up with a good story that has villains, well meaning good guys, international intrigue, and perhaps even a moral. Sometimes those stories have happy endings, other times they leave you hanging and waiting for the next installment.
I just finished such a book – Light Water: How the Nuclear Dream Dissolved written by Irvin C. Bupp and Jean-Claude Derian and published in January 1978 by Basic Books, Inc. of New York. That date is important – it is more than a year before the core melt down at Three Mile Island, the event often blamed for the demise of the nuclear plant construction industry in the USA. It is also early enough that the nuclear plant construction program in France had just started and there was still a lot of doubt about whether or not it was the right thing to do and whether it would achieve its goal of reducing French dependence on imported energy.
The two authors bring unique perspectives – Bupp was a political scientist and economist who worked for the Atomic Energy Commission in the US for more than 15 years, Derian had degrees in physics and engineering and worked for the French equivalent of the AEC – also with more than 15 years in assignments that offered the opportunity for observation of policy and decision making. The authors worked on the book for three years and had extensive access to friends, colleagues and associates during the period from early 1975-late 1977 when they went to print.
The book is fascinating and really does share some characteristics with a good mystery novel. Unfortunately, it is long out of print and there are only about four copies listed for sale on Amazon starting at about $40 per copy. Over the next few weeks – or however long it takes – I plan to offer some selected insights from the book along with commentary enabled by some knowledge of the 31 years worth of related events and political developments that have taken place since the book was published.
Explanation of the title
As you may be able to tell from the title, the book is essentially an early obituary of nuclear power. My hope is that people will increasingly recognize that, like the famous obituary of Mark Twain, news of nuclear power’s passing was and remains premature. However, it is instructive to find out how two professionals who are closely associated with nuclear power developments in their respective countries developed that impression during a period when reactor construction was still happening and when there were still articles in places like Time and US News and World Report about all of the job opportunities available in the nuclear field.
Aside: I know about those articles from personal experience – I was in high school while Bupp and Derian were writing and I read those articles. They were partially responsible for maintaining my already developed interest in the field. After all, like most suburban kids, I spent a lot of time in high school trying to figure out what I should do when I grew up. The idea of making a good living by building electrical power facilities appealed to me. End Aside
What Bupp and Derian saw from the inside was an industry with a lot of detractors, increasing costs, and a dearth of new plant orders. What many journalists who comment about nuclear power fail to understand is that the orders for new plants in the US dried up five years before the accident at TMI on March 28, 1979. The construction projects that Time and US News and World Report were talking about were just finishing the plants that had been ordered before that time.
The other part of the title – besides the obituary part about the dream dissolving – specifies what the authors thought was a major reason for the demise, a focus on reactors cooled by light (normal) water as opposed to one of the other choices that had been conceived and tested during the early phases of nuclear power development. A major theme in the book is that the technologists fixated on a single technology too early and then scaled that technology up so rapidly that it out grew its usefulness.
Energy Situation Before Nuclear Power Was An Option
Before 1954, there was no nuclear option for power production. People knew about uranium and about fission from the small amount of information released before WWII, the visible evidence of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and because of the technical information released in publications like the Smyth report (official title – Atomic Energy for Military Purposes: The Official Report on the Development of the Atomic Bomb under the Auspices of the United States Government, 1940-1945 by Henry DeWolf Smyth, written at the request of Maj. Gen. L. R. Groves, U.S. Army.) However, the Atomic Energy Act of 1946 closed the door on all atomic research in the US and made private ownership of materials like uranium illegal.
Therefore, the only available choices for power production were coal, oil, natural gas, wood, hydro, wind, solar, tidal, and geothermal. (I know there are people who try to portray alternatives energy sources like the last four on the list as being something new, but they have been known energy sources since before the start of recorded history.)
Though many people today seem to think of energy shortages, pollution, and prices as modern problems that never existed before, that is largely because so many people fail to read about other ages and do not understand what happened before they were adults. In fact, many fail to understand what happens each day in the world around them, but that is a real detour from where I want to go here.
In December 1953, President Eisenhower, one of the most technically qualified Presidents ever elected to serve in the US, made his famous Atoms for Peace speech and opened the door to the first Atomic Age. (I know that sounds American-centric and that there were some developments going on outside the US despite our silly law, but it is close enough to the truth to identify that speech as a starting point for industrial development of fission power. It is important to understand that the speech happened just 11 years after the very first self sustaining chain reaction.)
I just looked at the clock and realized I need to leave this here. Come back for more about the light water story and its lessons for our current time of development.