11A071 Nukes by Jim Davies, 3/13/2011    

The world's known reserves of uranium will last us 80 years at current use rates, with a much larger potential supply available with additional exploration; nuclear power is by far the safest, cleanest and least politically vulnerable fuel known to mankind. It would be an enormous tragedy, therefore, if last week's awful earthquake in Japan were to delay the construction of new nuclear generating plants.

Government has, alas, been intimately involved in nuclear energy ever since it was discovered, and the result has been an inordinate dependence on unstable supplies of oil and on coal - which, though abundant and domestic, is the dirtiest fuel of all. Wind, solar, geothermal etc are all very attractive in theory but still far too expensive to compete in a free energy market. So in the near to medium term, nuclear power generation is very obviously the best choice.

That government intrusion has so far had three phases. In the first, the FedGov pressured the urgent development of the new science of nuclear fission by pumping vast resources into the Manhattan Project, for the express purpose of exterminating human beings en masse. Destruction is the main business of government, and is the one thing at which it is quite effective. A mere five years after Einstein wrote his famous letter advising FDR to begin, a quarter of a million Japanese men, women and children were suddenly and terribly killed - though some of them lingered many days in agony. The single, small and wholly unexpected benefit from those two explosions was the discovery, decades later, that a moderate exposure to nuclear radiation (suffered by those living on the edges of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki) actually prolonged life! Seems that radiation, like water, can be healthy in small doses even though fatal in large ones.

The second phase followed fast: the FedGov pushed the electricity industry to develop power generators faster than prudence, in a free market, would have suggested. This was still a new and unproven technology, with obvious hazards if done wrong; I was a junior and temporary intern in the 1950s in one nuclear design lab and all the scientists worked feverishly to maximize safety by understanding neutron flux through the massive concrete shields they were designing, but if the companies (and their insurers) had been responsible for any possible spillage of radiation there is no question, they would have taken more time. Government absolved them of that responsibility by writing the Price Anderson Act, which limited liability; so they rushed to market at indecent speed. Very fortunately, there were no serious accidents but we owe that more to luck than to sober judgment.

Then thirdly after the minor accident at Three Mile Island, the Feds reversed course and banned all further plant construction until very recently, and the result was a tragic abortion of a highly promising technology at the very time when understanding of safety factors was increasing exponentially! Thus, government was completely out of phase; hurrying when the free market would have been cautious, prohibitive when it should have got out of the way. This was so colossally stupid as to compare badly even with some other governments, such as those of France and Sweden, which now generate most of their electricity in nuclear plants. If we are very lucky, the Feds will continue to permit the market to work somewhat, even despite the shockers at Fukushima Daini and Daiichi; business people are perfectly able on their own to work out that it's not wise to build reactors right on top of known earthquake-prone fault lines.

When government has evaporated, choices about ways to generate power will be left to those who will live with all the consequences - risks of bankruptcy as well as hopes of healthy profits - and that's exactly the way it ought to be. I predict nukes will be a popular pick.

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