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Category — Nuclear Power (history of)

Rocket Science is the Easy Part: How Government has Grounded Space Propulsion

“The Apollo moon landing was 42 years ago, and at the time many Americans thought it only a matter of time before they made their way to the next frontier. Is it simply that the problem of space travel is too difficult technologically? No–it’s that government policy has made it too difficult politically.”

Ever floated through space, 200 miles above the earth’s surface at a comfortable cruising speed of 17,500 miles per hour, while watching the earth whirl beneath you in a full revolution every 90 minutes?

Ever stood on the surface of the moon and gazed at the tiny blue-green ball where you had spent most of your life, nearly 240 thousand miles away?

Neither have I. To date, only a handful of super-wealthy individuals, paying enormous sums of money, have experienced the thrill of a trip into low earth orbit. And only a handful of stratospherically-subsidized astronauts have made it to the moon.

But if the history of capitalism tells us anything, it is that under economic freedom, yesterday’s impossibly expensive luxury can become today’s affordable commodity. Terrestrial flight was once available only to the wealthy but eventually its price came down enough that most Americans can now afford it–why not space flight? The wonderful world of space could become an affordable vacation destination. Wouldn’t you like to buy a ticket to the moon?

A New Resource Frontier

The possibilities of affordable space travel go well beyond recreation, as space is a literal and figurative gold-mine of mineral resources. For example, near earth asteroids are known to contain massive stores of platinum and other similarly valuable materials, which could potentially be mined and exploited for cheaper and more extensive application on earth (see John S. Lewis’s Mining the Sky: Untold Riches from the Asteroids, Comets, and Planets).

One company, Promethean Enterprises Inc., is already proposing to embark on the venture of space mining. As exotic and far-fetched as this sounds, space-mining could make a real difference in your life.

Consider a rare metal such as platinum, which is incredibly valuable–about $26,000 per pound (as of March 23)–not primarily for jewelry but for its vital industrial applications. [Read more →]

March 30, 2012   11 Comments

The Failure of Nuclear Power (Remembering the bad start from government policy)

“In the long run, [government] subsidies can stifle technological progress and retard true commercialization.  If state-of-the art technologies find a market, some of the private incentive for further improvement is dissipated. The acceptable becomes the enemy of the better, because individual firms come to have a stake in present technology. Minor improvements will be made to stay ahead of the competition, but there is little motivation toward major steps away from a successful line of business. Once a basic design is established, it also becomes more difficult for federal research and development managers to support radically different approaches to the same problem. There is fear of appearing foolish, hesitation in seeming to second-guess prior decisions, concern about upsetting investment in the operating technology, and pressure to satisfy competing demands for funds to support marginal improvements to current practice.”

- Sam Schurr et. al., Energy in America’s Future:  The Choices Before Us (Baltimore:  The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1979), pp. 534–35.

The Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster in Japan has once again caused many to question the appropriateness of nuclear power. The timing is significant: in the U.S., Georgia Power has placed an order for two nuclear reactors, while other utilities are considering the possibility of constructing new reactors for the first time in decades.

To move the process along, the Obama administration has increased the amount of loan guarantees available to utilities with the knowledge that the cost of a new reactor will run between $6 and $8 billion. Obama’s last proposal was to increase the loan guarantee kitty by $36 billion (to $54 billion). That would be enough to jump-start between seven and ten new reactors, according to the Department of Energy.

Obama’s unveiled his new energy plan earlier in the year. But with Fukushima and with federal budget cuts in vogue with both political parties, the odds have worsened that Georgia Power’s Vogtle Units 3 and 4 (and other proposals) will become the nation’s first new nuclear power units to operate in more than 30 years.

Clearly the costs, along with renewed environmental concerns, make the notion of any revival tenuous. A larger issue is why a revival is necessary from a technology that promised so much. Looking back, the events at Three Mile Island in 1979 come to mind. Yet, the decline of nuclear power started before Three Mile Island. Consider that until just recently, no nuclear plant had been ordered since 1978.

In reality, the decline of nuclear power can be traced to government policies that emerged during the 1950s that led to the demise of the technology and from which it has never fully recovered. [Read more →]

May 5, 2011   6 Comments