Links for the week of October 15th, 2009

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Links for the week of October 10th, 2009

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A Letter to David Bodansky

Hello Prof. Bodansky,

I’m a PhD student in geophysics, and I just finished reading your book, Nuclear Energy.  I appreciate the trouble you went to in the book to remain effectively neutral as to whether we ought to be pursuing the development of nuclear power.  While I can’t say that the book made me into a nuclear advocate, I am less opposed to it in principle now, and believe that it does represent a potential long term energy solution, albeit one with non-trivial caveats.  Then again, that seems to be the case with all of our options at this point.

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Nuclear Energy by David Bodansky

Nuclear Energy by David BodanskyI just finished David Bodansky’s 600+ page tome Nuclear Energy.  It’s almost a textbook, but not quite.  I don’t know who the intended audience is really.  Other than me.  Similar genre, broadly, as The High Cost of Free Parking.  A comprehensive overview of a technical topic, for those with a long attention span and no fear of numbers.  I decided to read the book because of the recent turn toward nuclear power that some environmentalists have taken.  There are many publics that react strongly, and negatively, to the idea, but I don’t trust public sentiment to be rational any more than I can manipulate it.  Bodansky did an admirable job of remaining neutral throughout the book, on a topic that almost universally devolves into something resembling a religious debate.  As a result of this reading, I’m much more positive (or rather, less negative) about nuclear energy than I was before.  I think that my position, which I hope can count as an informed one, now closely resembles that of Ralph Cavanagh, as articulated in this debate with Peter Schwartz hosted by the Long Now Foundation.

The main questions I had coming into the book were:

  1. Can nuclear energy be done responsibly?
  2. What would it take for it to scale up meaningfully?
  3. How would it compare in costs and risks to renewable energy sources, if it were done responsibly at scale?

The answers I came away with were that yes, it probably can be done responsibly, and at the scale necessary for it to be meaninful as a long term source of primary power globally.  However, if it were to scale up responsibly in the long term, it seems that the associated costs would likely end up being greater than for renewable energy sources.  So I guess I’m supportive of having the so-called “nuclear option” on the table, in competition with any other carbon free power source, with the significant caveat that the cost of the nuclear power being considered correspond to a responsible, long term, large scale deployment.  The scenario I foresee needing to be avoided is ending up with an unfair comparison, between short-term and/or irresponsible and/or non-scalable nuclear power, and renewables — especially renewables as priced before the solar power industry has obtained whatever economies of scale there are to be had in their niche.  One might be able to make a persuasive argument that we need to use nuclear power as a bridge between fossil fuels and renewables at scale, but I haven’t heard that argument made yet.

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A Letter to Richard Rhodes

Dear Richard Rhodes,

Thank you for writing The Making of the Atomic Bomb.  It was beautiful, and terrible, in the way I imagine a nuclear detonation might be.  It deeply changed the way I think and feel about history, about technology, and about the role and limitations of human volition and foresight in the making and potential unmaking of our world.  Somehow you made these people human, and independent of the roles they played.  You made the science beautiful, and the history engaging.  Given that books like yours exist, I am appalled that I was not required to read them in the course of my scientific education, and instead have had to stumble across them on my own.  I think science and engineering students deserve to have some understanding of the potential scope and consequence of our work, for better or for worse, before we are turned loose on the world.  Too often the ethical and philosophical impacts of technology are left completely unaddressed, or even shunned as irrelevant by scientists, until after the effects are widespread.  I doubt this kind of education would have much substantive impact on the overall course of history, or technological development, but I once attended a talk at Caltech by Hans Bethe on the Manhattan Project, and even after half a century he broke down into tears on stage.  He said he didn’t regret having helped create the bomb — that it had to be done — but that he felt guilty for having enjoyed it.  I would prefer that we were better prepared for the possibility of bearing that kind of responsibility, and for taking it on knowingly, as I think Oppenheimer and Rabi did, instead of only realizing our roles after the fact.

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