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View Diary: Biggest Blunders in Technology History (76 comments)

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  •  I take DECIDED exception to #4 as stated (1+ / 0-)
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    The nature of the "technological blunder" in the current implementation of nuclear fission for power production is how it was implemented--the wrong technology, in the wrong hands, wrongly subsidized by the bureaucrats.

    The problem is that, due to what is probably the biggest QWERTY fail* in history, current nuclear power generation is in the hands of light water reactors (LWRs) that require exactingly precise construction, highly skilled operators & active safety measures to prevent terrible accidents.

    LWRs have been spectacularly successful in the role for which DoD paid handsomely to develop them: Powering long-endurance ocean-going warships, most notably the first true submarines. But naval reactors are built to profoundly exacting standards (for which the US taxpayer pays handsomely, of course). They are operated by intelligent & highly trained sailors personnel who are acutely aware that if anything goes wrong they could die, there & then. And the Navy (again thanks to the US taxpayer) can arrange storage of its hazardous waste without much public fuss.

    IOW the LWR is exactly the wrong sort of device to allow (let along encourage) cost-conscious private utilities to build & operate. And yet every commercial-power-producing reactor in the USA is an LWR--because that's what the nuclear industry knows how to build, because DoD paid them to figure out how.

    Thanks to some other DoD research of half a century ago (to design a power plant for a nuclear-powered aircraft--?!!?!?!?) we have a pretty fair idea of how to build advanced power-generating reactors that are inherently unable to produce disasters like TMI, Chornobyl or Fukushima--with integral internal reprocessing loops and low-power breeding that would utilize all the potential fissile materials much more efficiently & reduce hazardous waste to manageable levels. We're not there yet but it wouldn't take a lot of R&D (much of it not involving fission or radioactivity) or many years to prove the concepts.

    But it may never get done, at least not in the US. Because the government continues to protect & subsidize the nuclear power industry (probably to ensure continuing access to the expertise needed to build those sub reactors). And the nuclear power industry currently makes its money fabricating solid fuel assemblies for those LWRs--fuel assemblies that the type of advanced reactor alluded to above wouldn't need.

    So Troub, if you want to rephrase point #4 to something like "Using inherently unsafe fission reactors for commercial power generation," I'm with you about 150%. But I don't think the idea of electricity generated by fission should be considered a "technological blunder" in & of itself--just the Rube Goldbergish QWERTY-addled fashion we've gone about it.

    * NB--I thought "QWERTY fail" was a common term but I haven't been able to not to be found on the Net. It derives, of course, from the QWERTY keyboard that was originally designed to slow typists down so they wouldn't jam the mechanical keys--& continues slowing them down even though the rationale vanished no later than the introduction of the IBM Selectric typewriter in 1961. Let me introduce it then, & define it as "The continued use of a design or method out of habit or convenience after the original reason for it has been superseded or made moot, leading to unnecessary disadvantages compared with alternatives."


    by Uncle Cosmo on Mon Apr 22, 2013 at 07:20:27 PM PDT

    •  Thanks. I don't know enough about (1+ / 0-)
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      Uncle Cosmo

      the different types of fission to comment on this - just the kind that's actually been deployed in real reactors.

      Democracy is a habit, not a circumstance.

      by Troubadour on Mon Apr 22, 2013 at 08:03:56 PM PDT

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      •  Yes, there are designs for reactors that run (2+ / 0-)
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        Troubadour, Uncle Cosmo

        almost entirely on nuclear waste (yes, it eats up that insanely dangerous stuff in the "cooling ponds" and turns it into power) and are considered walk away safe in that you can just pull the plug and walk away.  One such design includes things like frozen salt plugs so that if it fails all the radioactive material gets dumped into one or more containment tanks designed to survive anything short of a dinosaur killer asteroid.  Still a medium term solution and thorium reactors are better in the long term as it is much more common than uranium (and can also be built using inherent/passive safety rather than the active safety systems used today).

        You have watched Faux News, now lose 2d10 SAN.

        by Throw The Bums Out on Mon Apr 22, 2013 at 09:37:06 PM PDT

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        •  Just to clarify, molten salt reactors qualify (2+ / 0-)
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          Troubadour, Throw The Bums Out

          as candidates for "nuclear pigs" to gobble up those radioactive "slops"--you separate the elements in the reprocessing loop & run the ones with long-lived isotopes back through the core until they suck up enough neutrons to turn into fissile species & then get split by one more. In the end you're left with a much smaller amount of radioactive waste, primarily fission products with half-lives of 30 years or less, which after 200-300 years in secure & geologically stable facilities are no more radiologically hazardous than uranium ore. Still not an ideal situation, but consider that CO2 has a half life in the atmosphere of roughly 80 years...


          by Uncle Cosmo on Tue Apr 23, 2013 at 06:45:02 AM PDT

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      •  You're very welcome. I'm no nuclear engineer but (1+ / 0-)
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        I learned a lot starting in 1978 when I had the opportunity to review Light Water: How the Nuclear Dream Dissolved by Irvin C. Bupp & Jean-Claude Derian. (Still have the review copy here somewhere, & a good thing for reference purposes, as it is long out of print.)

        The alternative design I alluded to is a development of the molten-salt reactor prototyped at Oak Ridge in the years 1955-65. The variety that particularly intrigues me is the liquid fluoride thorium (breeder) reactor (LFTR), because it promises to avoid so many of the problems, shortcomings & risks inherent to the LWR--& there is a lot of fertile thorium for the taking in the leftovers from rare-earth mining alone. (Not to mention 3200 tonnes of the nitrate form sitting around in the Nevada desert already.)

        If you're interested, here is a fairly detailed & readable introduction to the concept. And if it piques further interest, things get a bit more detailed & technical over at the Energy from Thorium Foundation website.


        by Uncle Cosmo on Tue Apr 23, 2013 at 06:20:01 AM PDT

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