by Luis de Sousa
Fri Nov 4th, 2011 at 06:28:16 PM EST
Now here's an article that connects many dots on Nuclear energy.
LEAP: After Fukushima
For the sake of completeness, the title of this exercise in political anticipation applied to nuclear power should also include two other factors besides Fukushima, namely the Internet and the global energy crisis which is one of the elements of the global systemic crisis we are experiencing. In effect, it is the combination of these three factors which, according to LEAP/E2020, radically and permanently alters the whole decision-making process on nuclear power that we have known since this source of energy took its first steps after the Second World War. This decisional "revolution" will, during the course of the current decade, equally affect the methods to decide or, on the contrary, block the development of nuclear power, as the room for maneuver for national players in these decisions and, finally, the players themselves. Indeed, the "nuclear power policy makers", historical pillars of the development of this energy from the 1950s, just like their fierce rivals the environmentalists who emerged in the 1970s, will quickly see that their monopoly of the debate on this subject is coming to end. Fukushima, the Internet and the crisis are in the course of shattering the nuclear debate's traditional expertise, limited to mode "pro" or "anti". The implications of such an upheaval for the various industry players and policy makers faced with choices for national energy are on an unprecedented scale since they involve a whole segment of global energy production.
I especially like the analogy with operating systems. Microsoft DOS came to light 30 years ago to pretty much revolutionize the computing industry. It was possibly the most important step into the "one computer for every home" vision, as opposed to the ancient vision of centralized computing. It was very basic, but it was also very cheap, when compared to other operating systems and relative to the price of the hardware. A success, the user could run many useful applications with it, create documents, use calc-sheets, produce neat graphics, do some basic programming, play games and more. The usage of resources wasn't perfect, but anyway, how could any program ever use more than 640 Kb of memory?
DOS had its role in the world of Computing, especially on personal computers, but the technology didn't stop there. In the beginning of the 1990s a Finish informatics student created his own operating system, also inspired in UNIX like DOS. Baptised Linux, this new system had many improvements over DOS: correct usage of resources, multi-processing and above all security, with multi-user authentication and access control lists. But the revolution Linux eventually brought about was not really technical, was conceptual, the whole process of software development evolved in a completely different way: the source code was open and free to use. Anyone can read the code, test it and contribute with improvements, a fully transparent process that grew to an incredible volume, resulting in dozens of thousands of alterations and evolutions every year. A great example of emergence, for the community and by the community. This has resulted today in a vast range of options (to which add the choice of graphical environment and applications) that can pretty much suite anyone's needs: from the really basic and simple system for momma to read the e-mail and make video-calls on an old laptop, to the highly customized 3D programming environment, to the serialized web service system or the supercomputer.
The Pressurized Water Reactors that starred in horror movies like Three Mile Island, Chernobyl and Fukushima are pretty much the DOS of Nuclear technology. Unsafe, with many weak design issues that can result in outside contamination; and incapable of using resources properly: reliant on a scarce fissile material that isn't fully used up in the process, leaving waste behind. Designs to deal with these issues (plus the concerns of military use) have been around since the 1960s, but have been left to dust in Scientific Magazines or in Patent offices. The reasons for this are well explained in the LEAP article. To make its entry into the XXI century Nuclear technology has to find its Linux paradigm. An open development process that is understandable (and contributed) by the community, detached from corporate interests.
But on one aspect I'm not as optimist as LEAP: time. Even Linux had its learning curve, for so saying. When I started using it in the midst of the 1990s it already was a major improvement for a programmer (or programming student), but for a basic personal computer user the experience wasn't as appealing, a simple task like connecting an external backup disk could be daunting. Even if everyone realized overnight that the mass media is not a trustful source of information of nuclear energy and modern programmes where started or re-started, the results would only be years, maybe decades, away.
Eventually, as the Chinese develop a Nuclear programme based on Thorium and start spreading the a strictly civil technology as a means of gaining influence in certain regions of the globe, people in the OECD will start wondering. Why is the transition way from fossil fuels being so painful here when others seem doing much easier with technology we envisioned in the first place?