The Atomic Age did not really start with a bang, and the scientists who discovered that neutrons were matter altering tools that enabled them to release vast quantities of heat energy were not really focused on building destructive weapons. Instead, atomic pioneers like Szilard, Fermi, Noddack, and Mitner were excited to be both unlocking stored scientific secrets and unleashing a source of essentially unlimited energy that had been carefully stored away for a few billion years. The diversion into building atomic explosives was a matter of bad timing – the key discoveries happened at a time when the world was being threatened with domination by a madman.
There are some people who like to portray nuclear energy as something terrible that was the result of man’s inhumanity to man, but the reality is that nuclear energy has always existed. Capturing it and using it for purposes that people invent is just as natural an act as capturing the energy available in falling water, in the wind, in the sun and in burning hydrocarbons. Though human history shows a very real thread of evil and a depressingly number of dramatic examples that some people are willing to destroy others, human history also shows that we are more likely to be creative forces of good who raise children, support friends and communities, and work to leave the world just a bit better than it was before we were born.
Unfortunately, there are also examples throughout history of people who are generally good, creative, family-focused, community leaders who fail to recognize that they have the power at their fingertips to do so much more than they actually accomplish. Many human tendencies that make us successful can also limit our successes. Focusing on our own needs and the needs of those near to us is an important, Darwinian survival mechanism. It is generally not a good idea to lose that close-in focus when you are hunting, gathering, and trying to provide sustenance in a harsh and often unforgiving world.
Though it certainly does not work for everyone, and there are still many members of modern society who are stuck at the lowest levels of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, modern society offers the chance for people to be nearly completely free of worries about the source of their next meal, the place where they will rest for the night, or the place where they can take refuge from a storm. It also offers the opportunity for significant numbers of people to accumulate assets that would have made 12th century kings and queens who ruled vast territories appear to be paupers in comparison.
If the people who accumulate vast resources can climb up Maslow’s hierarchy and recognize the extent of the tools and resources at their disposal, they have the opportunity to employ those resources in civilization building enterprises roughly equivalent to the act of building “cathedrals” of lasting beauty and value. The choice to be a creator is at their disposal, but they have to somehow overcome that inherent human tendency to live life with a narrow focus on self and immediate family/community.
Please understand me – I am not talking about the kind of self-sacrificing altruism that some followers of Ayn Rand believe to be the only alternative to a complete focus on self. As Tom Builder, Aliena, Jack and Prior Phillip discovered in Pillars of the Earth, building long-lasting, well-designed infrastructure that gives a growing number of people valuable, creative employment can be an act of giving that provides rewards that might never have been expected at the start of the process. In contrast, the life story of William Hamleigh, Earl of Shiring, illustrates how extracting the last bit of treasure and resources from an estate provided by heredity, accident, cunning, or violent take over can result in widespread poverty with the extractor being able – for a time – to ignore the impact of his or her focus on accumulation and creature comforts.
In case you have not figured it out, I am still losing a little sleep while thinking about the lessons for today that are available to be learned through reading Ken Follett’s epic tale titled Pillars of the Earth. If you are not a reader, I imagine that you can extract some of the same lessons by watching the mini-series, but I have not had the chance to do that. I question the historical accuracy of the novel, but I can attest to the fact that the characters in the book are richly developed and thought provoking examples of different ways to approach living and working.
One thought that I am still trying to learn to articulate is the notion that the most natural and capable sources of the resources needed to build a new series of wealth-expanding atomic “cathedrals” is the established fossil fuel industry. Several years ago, I wrote an article titled Building New School Energy Wells. The idea was that it was time for the rational, number crunching members of the petroleum industry to recognize that atomic energy was a rewarding place to deploy their vast cash flow in a way that could sustain their energy enterprise into the distant future.
I started this post off with the classic video from General Electric that described a view of atomic energy in 1953. It was a time of great promise, but little real knowledge about our ability to safely harness the power. If you watch the video closely, you will find that the producers were not even sure at the time that it was possible to build economically viable fission power plants. Though some adamant antinuclear activists repeatedly point to the few times when we have learned some hard lessons, the real performance and safety record of the plants they fought against in the 1970s, 80s, and 90s has been remarkable.
I am fairly certain that no nuclear plant salesman seeking to close a deal in 1969 would
have tried promising his customer that they would be able to achieve an 85% capacity factor, that they would be able to operate their plant for 60-80 years, or that they would have the opportunity to make modest investments that would increase the amount of power they could produce with the unit he was selling at the time.
I am pretty sure that he would not have told the customer that the long term average fuel cost would be just 0.6 cents per kilowatt-hour or that the refueling outage times would drop to less than 30 days every 18-24 months. Even if the salesman had made all of those promises, he would have been “under promising” based on the numbers that the 1970s vintage plants are turning in today. The US nuclear fleet as a whole has “over delivered” based on the sales promises actually made and even on some of the visionary dreams that were described by people who were not employed to sell real machines.
Yesterday, I wrote about the impressive quarterly profit and cash flow numbers turned in by ExxonMobil and included the fact that the company has been investing to keep its stock price up by spending as much as $5 billion every quarter purchasing its own shares. Though that strategy is a moderately successful one, ExxonMobil has about the same market valuation as the far smaller and younger Apple Computer. The difference, I believe, is the fact that investors see Apple as a visionary company that keeps reinvesting its resources to develop exciting, life-changing products. (I am not picking on Exxon – it is a well-run company and one of several petroleum companies that turned in impressively large financial results in the most recent quarter.)
I believe that the market would bid up the stock price of well-capitalized energy companies that announced to the world that they were going to invest a portion of their cash flow into developing new school energy wells. Announcements by companies that have widely recognized expertise in energy, government regulations, safety, and project execution combined with plenty of access to patient capital would remove the uncertainty that plagues the industry today. Technically competent people recognize that nuclear energy is superior on many levels to other alternatives, but they remain skeptical that the current political and economic climate enables successful project completion. That climate can change as rapidly as the political situation in the Middle East if the right people stand up to take the lead.
Fossil fuel companies have the necessary assets to make successful investments in nuclear energy wells. They can raise capital from organizations that are comfortable with risk, work their way through the regulatory wickets, buy the steel and concrete, develop the necessary agreements with local governments and ensure that their suppliers meet exacting specifications. They live and breathe safety based on long experience with massive quantities of volatile materials. After their new energy wells begin operation, they can look forward to many decades worth of reliable production and sales – energy is not a fad and people will always find new ways to use whatever quantity is available.
Of course, these nuclear energy wells could eventually reduce the value of fossil fuel by lowering energy prices, but by the time that occurs the fuel will be almost gone anyway. We have reached the time when fossil fuel companies can legitimately meet their fiduciary responsibility to maximize their investor returns by spending heavily to build a new generation of energy production capability based on heavy metal fission instead of fossil fuel combustion.