Oddly enough, I found one of my missing pieces yesterday, quite by accident.
Reading Freeman Dyson’s book “Disturbing the Universe” (1979). Did not know he had anything to do with nuclear reactors. Turns out he was part of a small very capable group that designed an early “fail-safe” nuclear reactor - one that did not require active systems to maintain safety. (The same kind that was in the basement of the Physics building at UCI, before and while I was there.)
I had long suspected that something had gone wrong, and innovation in reactor design was somehow derailed, but all I had was a suspicion. In Dyson’s book there is a rather long section where he ascribes the failure of nuclear power to match the initial high hopes to interference from government and business, and the shutdown of progress on new designs.
And he was writing in 1979, from first-hand experience.
When someone asks if I am “pro-nuclear”, the answer is a little long. I am very much against using old reactor designs that always require active systems to maintain safety (exactly the problem the Japanese are having right now). But engineers and scientists are clever folk. Given the right folk and enough resources, my bet is they could come up with designs that “fail-safe”, and generate far less waste. Given safe reactors and small waste, we could have plentiful power, and very much less impact on the environment than we get now, burning fossil fuels.
Dyson’s early group (some very idealistic folk) designed a “fail-safe” small research reactor (not for power generation). General Atomic has sold hundreds of copies … and they are boring. Basically, nothing ever goes wrong. This is an example of the very best design, by the very best folk.
Imagine what the world would be like if research had continued, we got ultra-safe nuclear reactor designs, and instead of 30-40 years of depleting fossil fuels (and all the attendant political mess), we had plentiful cheap energy from completely boring non-polluting plants.
Many of those very early folk (many who had worked on early nuclear weapons) were very idealistic. They wanted a better world, and very much wanted to put nuclear power to positive use. The story of how that went wrong is … tricky.
Nuclear power is at present the only long term viable solution to meet the bulk of our energy needs. Given the best possible engineering, nuclear power should also do the least harm to the environment (and would undo a lot of the harm presently done). But before building new reactors in large numbers, we need to take a good hard look at improving the designs. We want designs that will serve us best over the long stretch of history, not whatever is quickest to build, today.