The Economist reports with superheated prose
In an apparent triumph of style over substance the Economist abandons its analytical roots, livened with an occasional foray into dry British wit, and subjects its readers this week to an over-the-top review of a collection of obvious news items about nuclear energy. Let's start with the Economist's title for the article, which is "Life After Death". A renaissance is not a resurrection, and the newspaper's metaphor is, like much of the rest of the article, an exercise in trying to be stylish rather than substantive.
Next we have purple prose and a graphic (left) of a "renaissance man" bolting together a reactor one wing nut at a time. It creates the alarming impression that the newspaper is turning into a transatlantic tabloid. Here's the purple prose lead.
If you want to make an environmentalist squirm, mention nuclear power. Atomic energy was the green movement’s darkest nightmare: the child of mass destruction, the spawner of waste that will remain dangerous for millennia, the ultimate victory of pitiless technology over frail humanity. And not even cheap.
Thereafter the article, which is published without a byline, as are most of the magazine's pieces, chirps away happily that Patrick Moore, like a knight of the roundtable, will single-handedly turn the greens' view to endorse nuclear energy. Mr. Moore surely has no visions of impending superhero status, and might even be slightly chagrined to be so wonderfully described in a major media venue.
According to the magazine Mr. Moore's expected "super" accomplishment will be to prevent a global catastrophe caused by the impending revenge of mother earth herself (James' Lovelock's Gaia) upon hapless humans for fouling its atmosphere with greenhouse gases. Will the editor of the Economist please remove the comic books from the newsroom now?
Even more on the apocalyptic front, the piece argues that "for today’s youth, climate change is what global nuclear warfare was for the baby-boomers." I remember as a 10-year old in 1958 taking the prospect of nuclear Armageddon very personally. I was mad because I was made to be terribly afraid for reasons having nothing to do with my existence.
I suspect some of that same type of anger resides in today's young people, who look at the more senior members of the establishment, will wonder how things could have gotten so screwed up and out of control. However, I don't agree that this emotional powder keg will necessarily translate into a rational tilt towards nuclear energy. It may very well tilt towards a new form of social rejection of industrial organizations.
More pots, More Cooks
Having stirred the pot of emotions of its readers with at least two visions of a world ending crisis from global pollution,the Economist shifts gears and offers a tour of the newest thinking on nuclear reactors. It starts by quoting Ernie Moniz (left), a former federal government energy official and now returned to his more permanent home as an academic scientist at MIT. Prof. Moniz's role in the Economist's set piece may be one of its few bright moments. He is quoted as arguing that the success of the nuclear industry rests on two important concepts.
The first is "modular construction" of nuclear plant. This means no more "stick built" units with parts left over. His observation is obvious to people familiar with what's going on in the industry. Maybe, on a positive note, it will stimulate some entrepreneurs to get into the business of providing modular components for each NRC certified reactor design?
The second is "passive safety" which if it had been included in the designs of SL-1 and Three Mile Island, the nuclear industry would be booming today instead of recovering from a Rip Van Winkle type snooze for the past three decades. The Economist gets this part right.
What it means is that safety measures kick in automatically in an emergency rather than having to be activated. That can be something as simple as configuring the control rods that regulate the speed of a reaction so that they drop by gravity rather than having to be inserted.
As Danny Kaye once said famously to Glynis Johns, "Get it, got it, good!"
Finally, some real journalism
The article ends with the Economist pumping up two useful paragraphs on the Pebble Bed reactor though it leaves the reader with the scientifically implausible prospect that leaking helium will cause fires. In fact, what the newspaper is trying to say is that if enough of the helium leaks out of a high temperature gas-cooled reactor, oxygen could seep in, causing the graphite wrapped fuel elements to catch on fire. Maybe the newspaper should look at "passive safety" design features for pebble beds and not just light water reactors?
Toshiba's developing design for a "nuclear battery" also gets a nod, and while the concept is appealing to the gadget driven "Slashdot" crowd, its commercial debut is still in the future. According to the NRC, the Toshiba 4S, has the following characteristics.
The Toshiba 4S reactor design has an output of about 10 MWe. The reactor has a compact core design, with steel-clad metal-alloy fuel. The core design does not require refueling over the 30-year lifetime of the plant. A three-loop configuration is used: primary system (sodium-cooled), an intermediate sodium loop between the radioactive primary system and the steam generators, and the water loop used to generate steam for the turbine.
Improbably, Toshiba has promoted the device as a "nuclear battery" and as a substitute for diesel electric units used to provide electricity in Alaska. The logistical challenges of installing and operating the reactor in the frozen north are undoubtedly alarming and perhaps even more of a challenge will be get scarce nuclear engineers to live and work there.
Given the large number of PWRs expected to be built in warm climates in the southern states of Florida, Texas, Alabama, and the Carolinas, it looks like Toshiba definitely has a human resource problem on its hands.
As for the Economist, it's superheated prose could benefit from a cooling off period in Alaska. Are any of its reporters willing to go?
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