We're in for a wild ride. Exponentially accelerating technological, cultural, and socioeconomic evolution means that every year will see more developments than the previous one. More change will happen between now and 2050 than during all of humanity's past. Let's explore the 21st century and ride this historic wave of planetary transition with a confident open mind.

Thursday, March 29, 2012

Future of Modular Nuclear Reactors

City, state, and local governments have to own their nuclear reactors the way they own police stations and provide electrical energy the way they do police protection.

Country of Lithuania was able to provide for over 70% of energy needs for its roughly 3.6 million population in mid 1980s with one 1,500 megawatt nuclear power plant. Kyshiwazaki-Kariwa 8,212 megawatt plant powered 16 million homes in Japan. Such feats can be scaled down to small political units owning modular reactors that are relatively quickly and cheaply constructed (and even delivered by ship or rail if small enough).

Think about the potential of cities like Boston or San Francisco deciding to build a third generation hyper efficient and safe 2,000+ megawatt plant to power their public needs. Think about a small city of 50,000 people having a train deliver a factory manufactured modular 125 MW reactor and not only having its needs met for decades but allowing city's expansion.

Public Ownership of Energy Sources

The cost of government falls dramatically if capital intensive long term construction and management systems like power are controlled by the public. Just as with public provision of healthcare, the overhead cost is substantially lowered.

The essential foundation of all modern civilization and growth is how much electrical output is available per square kilometer and per human being. Most of public expenditures in the future will be to power electrical buses, trams, firetrucks, police cars, garbage disposal units, water treatments plants, vertical farms, medical vans, construction equipment, various tools, etc. Acceleration of resource expenditure on fission (and later fusion), not austerity, is the way to cut public spending and increase growth. This will mean state directed efforts. The tax payer will be a lot less bothered by government expenditures on constructing clusters of small fission reactors if it means lower long term spending overall. The borderline superstitious "not in my backyard" mentality is easily overcome by multipronged propaganda campaigns and top down repeated appeals by authority figures. The elderly public can be easily swayed if even half as much propaganda effort is put into supporting nuclear industrial production as is put into homicidal military "humanitarian" interventions abroad. The nationalism of many conservative boomers should be tapped to "beat the Chinese, French, Russians, and Japanese in a nuclear development race while cutting dependence on Arabs". Great emphasis should be placed on the green and carbon free aspect of nuclear to co-opt boomers who are former hippies. When analyzing public support, almost no other industry stands to have as broad of a public coalition behind it.

For large central and federal governments to become more flexible and efficient themselves, there has to be political decentralization via increased and effective autonomy for local governments. That is only realistically possible if local governments, down to the city level, are allowed to own, staff, and operate their own next generation nuclear reactors. This allows infrastructure building efforts to eventually become relatively independent of the often hated political center.

The central governments however can help in this effort by coercing/taking over large multinational energy companies and negotiating deals with them. This would provide localities with cheaper fission reactor parts or finished units themselves (via pulling together local government funds to tap economies of scale with large purchases/orders).

One can visualize a federal state holding company bending Lockheed-Martin and Boeing to its will and pushing them to mass produce thousands of large parts for modular reactor assembly the way bomber airplanes or ICBMs are built during wartime. A city of 500,000 people can acquire five 150 MW medium reactors and be set indefinitely for basic routine tasks once it undergoes energy grid and vehicle modernization. Smaller cities would require newest small reactors spun off marine/submarine designs. The center can continue to play the vital role of standardization so mass production is applied to small, medium, and large reactors and matched with political units based on population size and energy needs as required. Central regulatory planning is not incompatible with decentralized locality rule (think of individuals ruling themselves while the center standardizes their cellphones and food quality).

Average American house is roughly 200 sq meters (more than twice the average of many European houses) and consumes roughly 10,000 kilowatt hours of energy annually. New 21st century housing and appliance standards should half the consumption. As the countryside gets depopulated due to aging and migratory outflows, many small towns will increasingly be able to come under cover of relatively tiny 21st century "hot tub"  reactors in the 20-30 MW range. These can even be delivered by heavy helicopters or specialized trucks. This will allow many rural areas to continue to be productive and lead dignified lives, even in relative isolation. Additionally, once thorium is developed as fuel for this range, safety system costs should drop dramatically.

The key is to cut out the profit driven private middlemen and overhead costs that come along with it. County reactors (their quality, brand, model number) should be a source of pride and care for the locals. Introduction of new reactors should be combined with festivities and bottle breaking /ribbon cutting ceremonies seen with introduction of new battleships. Actual production of the reactors however should be performed by large supranational monopoly government managed cartels as mentioned in a prior article. On a large enough scale, a factory made reactor to power high tech 21st century civilization for 200,000 people is but a "Volvo truck" in terms of mass assembly.

The medium sized reactors of course can have mass manufactured large modular parts be assembled on site, have the plants floated to coastal cities, or even have them delivered by heavy lift transport military airships. Chinese will probably be the first to make breakthroughs in modular mass production of reactors considering the scale and speed of some of their other modular projects such as 30 story hotel in 2 weeks assembly (even if it is 4-6 weeks, it's nothing to sneeze at).

United Nations can help a lot by setting realistic goals such as raising global electrical output via fission to 30-40% from current 15% over a certain amount of years. What humanity really needs is a Henry Ford of nuclear industry.

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