Published in the September 2016
issue of the Canadian
Nuclear Society Bulletin, Vol.37, No.3.
Avoiding Faster Horses
by Jeremy Whitlock
It could very well be the case that mankind is not ready for nuclear energy.
Nor womankind either, for that matter (and in fact, public polling indicates even less so).
We've tried - oh, we've tried. It's been 65 years since electricity was first squeezed from the atom (EBR-1), and almost that long since the first
large-scale civilian power plant (Shippingport). Where are we today?
As a species we largely remain locked out from accessing over 99% of nature's energy. We build reactors by exception, not the rule, and our designs haven't advanced much for half a century: If reactors were cars we'd all be driving Model-A's (good designs, but so much potential!).
We worship the least efficient energy resources on the planet like Neanderthals just happy to be getting by. Our altars to the Sun and Wind dot the landscape, doing their part to soothe our guilt for industrializing our planet so quickly over the last 200 years.
This past summer saw a number of civil society groups gather in Montreal for a conference dedicated to creating a "Nuclear-Fission-Free World". They produced a "Montreal Declaration" - now out for broader signature - recognizing "each nuclear reactor as a repository of the most pernicious industrial waste ever known."
Importantly, this isn't anti-nuclear weapons or anti-nuclear power - it's anti-nuclear fission. It is to technology as Donald Trump is to immigration: Just Stop It. No more fission until we know what the hell is going on. Build a wall and make the physicists pay for it.
(Yes I know what you're thinking: physicists aren't stopped by walls - they'd just tunnel through, with a probability of success they can annoyingly calculate.)
Of course nuclear fission isn't the first innovation to incite fear and loathing.
The automobile was one of the first game-changers to scare the bejeezus out of people - leading to laws that required someone to walk ahead of the murderous machines with a red flag.
Famous librettist W.F. Gilbert once dryly expressed his support for the shooting of motorists - noting that it "would appeal strongly to the sporting instincts of the true Briton, and would provide ample compensation to the proprietors of eligible road-side properties for the intolerable annoyance caused by the enemies of mankind."
A U.S. Congress report decried "the menace to our people of vehicles of this type, hurtling through our streets and along our roads and poisoning the atmosphere... In addition the development of this new power may displace the use of horses, which would wreck our agriculture."
A century earlier it was the locomotive earning the scorn of decent people everywhere, one observer protesting that "nothing is heard but the clanking iron, the blasphemous song, or the appalling curses of the directors of these infernal machines."
The professionals agreed: Dr. Dionysus Lardner, Professor of Natural Philosophy and Astronomy at University College, London, warned that "rail travel at high speed is not possible because passengers, unable to breathe, would die of asphyxia."
It is natural, of course, that innovation wouldn't be universally embraced - in fact, the more innovation, the less embracing.
Least of all, it would seem, is the embracing by those you'd think might stand the most to gain: Western Union famously snorted: "This 'telephone' has too many shortcomings to be seriously considered as a practical form of communication. The device is inherently of no value to us."
In 1977 (four years before the IBM PC) Ken Olson, founder of Digital Equipment Corporation, foretold that "there is no reason anyone would want a computer in their home."
In 1901 Wilbur Wright, two years before Kitty Hawk, declared that "Man will not fly for 50 years."
In 1926 Lee de Forest, American radio pioneer, predicted that television, "while theoretically and technically may be feasible, commercially and financially it is an impossibility - a development of which we need waste little time dreaming."
The fact is, light bulbs don't turn on in all heads at once. (To wit, the light bulb itself was said by a British Parliamentary Committee in 1878 to be "good enough for our American friends, but unworthy of the attention of practical or scientific men.")
Fortunately pessimism is often the catalyst for change, a credo that Hungarian genius Leo Szilard embodied in his nuclear chain reaction patent, filed shortly after hearing Ernest Rutherford famously scoff that "anyone who expects a source of power from the transformation of these atoms is talking moonshine."
But pessimism on a societal scale is a catalyst for catastrophe. The key to the above game changers is that they weren't put to a referendum (otherwise, as Henry Ford allegedly pointed out, "if I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.")
We still sell nuclear fission like the people don't matter. Hoping, I suppose, that what happens in Montreal, stays in Montreal.