The Kernel
Published in

The Kernel

Nothing Is More Dangerous Than Sacrificing Progress To Safety

Progress and innovation require ingenuity and learning; both have been missing from the nuclear industry.

The control panel for EBR-I, the first electricity-generating nuclear plant in the world (Photo by Dan Meyers on Unsplash)

by Robert Hendershott and Don Watkins

Nuclear power is experiencing something of a renaissance: Commonwealth Fusion recently raised $1.8b. But safer, smaller, more versatile fission technologies are getting increasing pushback despite being far closer to real-world application than fusion.

Opponents of new fission technologies claim that despite nuclear fission having been around for a long time, it remains unsafe and expensive. Why make bets on a technology that has come up short for 70 years?

While this superficially sounds right, it misses a critical point about progress. Progress and innovation are not inevitable. They don’t happen because time passes; they require ingenuity and learning. Both have been missing from the nuclear industry, stymied in the name of safety.

Set aside whether the concerns over nuclear’s safety are justified. What’s crucial is that the source of improving safety (and performance) are ingenuity and learning. If you can’t innovate because you are not safe (or are perceived that way), then you end up unsafe because you are not innovating. The nuclear industry has been caught in a catch-22 for 70 years, stuck with designs from the 50s and 60s.

If you can’t innovate because you are not safe (or are perceived that way), then you end up unsafe because you are not innovating.

Think about that for a minute. In the 50s and 60s plane crashes were regular tragedies. In 2022 it has been almost two decades since there has been a fatal airline crash in the United States.

Technological progress comes from novel breakthroughs followed by a long cycle of learning and innovation-driven improvement. The Wright brothers build the first “plane” which flies for 12 seconds. Orville Wright almost dies in the first fatal crash five years later. A century of steady innovation later, we have safe, reliable jumbo jets that cruise 10,000 miles at close to 600 miles/hour.

Industries that embody Ingenuism — that experiment, learn, and innovate — flourish. Industries that keep doing things the same way stagnate and eventually disappoint. Not just nuclear (we’re looking at you, education).

In the 50s and 60s, cars were expected to break down and typically had a useful life of less than 100,000 miles. In 2022 you can buy a Toyota reasonably expecting it to break down zero times over 20 years and 300,000 miles. Innovation improves safety (and performance)…if you let it. By what logic can we deny that the same is possible for nuclear technologies? No logic at all.

Almost all the nuclear plants in the world today are built on technology developed in the 50s and 60s (Photo by Nicolas HIPPERT on Unsplash).

Imagine a world where, instead of being frozen for over 50 years, nuclear technology has followed the long cycle of learning and innovation. There are Toyota-level nuclear reactors, extraordinarily safe and reliable. One-third the cost of the obsolete designs from 60 years ago. A combination of nuclear and other energy sources provide abundant, inexpensive power to the entire planet. A billion people who today live in extreme poverty are thriving.

Imagine a world where, instead of being frozen for over 50 years, nuclear technology has followed the long cycle of learning and innovation.

Fantasy? No. As cars and planes show, complex systems have the most potential upside from long-term incremental improvement. But if you don’t give novel technologies the chance to evolve and improve, you might as well not invent them in the first place. We missed this lesson in the early years of nuclear technology. Let’s not make the same mistake with new (and old) technologies.

Robert Hendershott and Don Watkins run a fascinating Substack and podcast on a way of thinking about innovation and growth that they call Ingenuism.

Sign up at ingenuism.com.

--

--

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store