Why Today's Nuclear Era Must Become Bolder

Peaceful applications of nuclear technologies have evolved over the course of the twentieth century in a manner that no other industry in the history of mankind has, with a trajectory that started with the atomic bombs used to end World War Two and the latent background that nuclear was a novel, unique, and fully modern area of technology able to literally change our lives in profound ways. It was a field of technology that promised things no conventional technology ever could have imagined—from weapons that could end the worse war ever seen to power that might send spaceships to the stars. The two world wars and even more, the Cold War, defined the twentieth century in political terms and nuclear—both in terms of weapons and in terms of the broad promises of peaceful nuclear technologies—was the visage of the Cold War in science and engineering. America accomplished greater feats in the short course of the Manhattan Project than it had in many areas over much longer spans of time prior; the able quest for a technological solution to the threat of Japan and later that of the Soviet Union was the greatest catalyst to technological progress the United States ever has seen. 

As atomic weapons were developed in the 1950s and 1960s, a very necessary and astute push for peaceful applications of nuclear technologies also came about with Eisenhower's "Atoms for Peace" programs being foremost of these efforts. The concept of Atoms for Peace was to see nuclear reactors and associated technologies that could foster education and research in areas such as nuclear power and nuclear medicine placed in leading American universities and other research institutions. While most of the Atoms for Peace programs and grants were academic-based, there were some unique and promising applications such as the provision of a nuclear reactor for medical research purposes to a Veterans' Administration hospital in Omaha, Nebraska. For decades, that reactor provided a singular resource the researchers at this hospital otherwise would not have had access to and allowed for important, beneficial, work to be carried out that had real, valid, applications in clinical therapies. More commonly, small research reactors at colleges of engineering provided a site of applied training and vital research for a new generation of scientists and engineers. The positive effects of the Atoms for Peace program can still be seen writ large on the fields of nuclear physics, nuclear power, and nuclear medicine—and beyond. It was a highly-successful example of federal government, academia, and industry working together to foster a new level of science and discovery. 

Things got stormy for nuclear though by the 1970s due to growing public distrust with the government and military due to the war in Vietnam plus a combination of a few incidents that alarmed the public—the Three Mile Island incident being foremost of these—plus Hollywood thrillers such as The China Syndrome and Silkwood which painted the nuclear industry as not only deeply flawed in terms of safety, but downright sinister and greedy. The promises of Atoms for Peace were lost on many Americans in the wake of the more-entertaining themes of disasters real or imagined, however, Atoms for Peace and the American academic and national labs-lead thrust for progress in nuclear technologies was highly successful. Indeed, it can be fairly said every major goal of Atoms for Peace was met. Sure, there was a point in time somewhere in the 1950s where nuclear-powered planes, ships and even cars were promised to be commonplace in a few decades and that didn't happen, but the core technologies were realized where they were found to be pragmatic. Admiral Rickover's dream of a nuclear navy became the backbone of modern American naval power as nuclear reactors allow our submarines and aircraft carriers to have sustained global reach. While the US Air Force spent billions on researching nuclear-powered bombers without producing a working, in-service aircraft, much of what was learned in that program still offers a fascinating foundation for future work perhaps in spacecraft propulsion and many side-related technologies. Nuclear power as a source of electricity kept its promise, offering clean, economical, and comprehensive power for America while developments in nuclear medical therapies have saved many lives via offering novel means of both diagnostic and treatment approaches. 

So did nuclear keep its promises? Did Atoms for Peace keep its promises? Did the Atomic Energy Commission, the Energy Research and Development Administration and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission later, the Department of Energy keep their mandates to not only oversee and regulate but to inspire and motivate—to facilitate—peaceful nuclear applications for America? I daresay they did. I cannot find a failure except very isolated ones such as the fact we don't have nuclear-powered aircraft or that the US Army's reactors program in the end was not successful in the long-term. Not every project panned out, but the vast majority of a wealth of diverse approaches spearheaded by the military, academic institutions, private corporations, and our national labs all brought about exciting and useful progress in science. Considering the diversity of the many initiatives under the broad scope of nuclear, the vast majority have proven successful and viable investments. Even more would have in the long run if the political and regulatory climate didn't make nuclear such an expensive undertaking; we have many plants that have closed—sometimes prior to even entering active service—mainly due to political and fiscal challenges. The scientific challenges have been far fewer and mostly ones that have been overcome with the highest of success. Despite this, from the 1970s onward, the exciting promises of nuclear became overshadowed for many people by what they viewed as the "scary" safety concerns of nuclear. A new space-age technology of promise became a technology of fear, in no small part because it was a technology so associated with warfare and mass destruction. The public of the 1950s could envision the necessary aspect of military nukes in the Cold War alongside the promises of peaceful applications however the public of the 1970s, 80s, and onward seemingly could not. This was the sea-change that is so crucial to understand and address today. We have seen many of our research reactors at academic institutions close down and for a long while, little growth in the nuclear power industry itself. We have to get most of our medical isotopes for American clinical use from Canada because despite pioneering many vital aspects of nuclear medicine such as the Cintichem process, we have not successfully invested in reactors to produce a domestic supply of these isotopes. 

Here is the fulcrum: We stand at a point on the apex of our core accomplishment in basal nuclear technologies and their applications from the onset of American nuclear industry to now—we are where we need to be to continue necessary work and we have the foundation for that work. We are also at a point where new, very exciting, nuclear technologies like small modular reactors are coming on the scene. In other words, we are at the summit of the accomplishments that began in the 1950s and we are at the threshold for new trajectories of accomplishment. We are at a position where it should be possible to market nuclear technology as new, exciting, vital, technology and to shed the shroud of fear that covers much of nuclear for the public. We are at the first point in decades where we're at a position where a return to the awestruck wonder of the Atoms for Peace years may be possible. However, undoing the past—the public view of fear and distrust in the recent past—with nuclear is tough. The environment that the next generation of nuclear technologies will develop within and the next generation of nuclear professionals will obtain their training within is very different from previous generations. There is, overall, less money for research on the governmental, academic, and corporate levels. There is possibly less interest on the part of young people in college as other fields like nanotech and genetics have the gleam of the future that nuclear held in the 1950s. There is a vastly different international playing field, too, that as I have detailed in other blog posts is constantly changing with fairly new players like the Russians branching out to claim a larger portion of the world market. 

Thus, for nuclear to enter a new era of success—to see the type of robust success it enjoyed in the early golden years of American nuclear progress—the following seems highly necessary:

—A strong effort needs to be made to interest high school students and college undergrads in nuclear. While STEM fields in general are positioned as exciting, high-paying, majors where there are ample jobs for graduates, nuclear doesn't seem to get included within this scope as it ought. I live in a college town—Gainesville, Florida—and I know a number of college undergrads and graduate students. The University of Florida here has a very good nuclear engineering program at both the undergrad and graduate levels, however, few UF students I meet—even engineers—are aware of nuclear engineering unless they're already in the program. In other words, and I realize this is a very personal and biased way of looking at the situation, nuclear doesn't seem to have its name out across campus in the way biomed fields or the new nanotech center do—I hear students expressing interest in these fields but many seem even surprised if I mention nuclear. Why is this? When young people look at careers in science, they need to see nuclear as a field of great promise and progress.

—The DOE needs to put nuclear foremost of its fields for energy research. The current administration has taken an approach with DOE where trendy, supposedly "green" forms of energy such as solar are gaining as much research emphasis (and mainly as a public relations ploy) as nuclear. This is a mistake: there is ample, immediate, work to be done with nuclear where the United States really could take the lead in many areas and it's somewhat falling by the wayside instead because DOE feels obligated to push unproven niche technologies that will not have the depth or scope of service in public energy generation that nuclear—especially the next generation of nuclear—can offer. Moreover, DOE was born out of nuclear: With its AEC roots and its vast program of national labs, DOE knows nuclear and is poised to work on nuclear in a way that it is not in other areas of energy. The failure of DOE to put nuclear first has probably both delayed very useful research and also sent an unfortunate signal to the public that despite having the greatest expertise in many fields of nuclear in the world, DOE is not giving nuclear enough attention. How is industry or the public to respond to the idea of nuclear being in a season of renaissance when DOE isn't taking the lead on this?

—Developing nuclear technologies is expensive and it can be a long process. There need to be further incentives—both in terms of tax breaks and otherwise, both formal and informal—for companies to engage in basal nuclear tech research. One reason we get most of our medical isotopes from Canada is because we have been slow to invest in a reactor and associated program to produce these necessary isotopes here stateside. New nuclear power plants are of course tremendously expensive, but again, they are vital resources. We have to be willing to spend the money but also to make the business enticing for companies that wish to participate—especially on the research end where the profit may be long in coming. My own expertise is in engineering and to a degree in journalism and science communications, not economics, so I cannot speculate on all that needs to be done, but I do know the turn-around on nuclear tech research is slower than many tech fields. We have to ensure it's an area you can make profits in for American business, because I can tell you, the Russians and others are already getting deeper and deeper in their involvement in research and development for reactor and control technologies mainly for export purposes. Every time I do business with Russia, I get told about these new exciting technologies that are targeted for international power plant applications—not so much for domestic. 

That's just the start of it: If we want the nuclear tech renaissance that the actual technology on the horizon can promise, we need to foster the right climate for that growth. We're at the point in time to do it, too: The past era has pretty much played through all of its acts and we need a new chapter, so the choice is now in how nuclear will be seen from here on out.