The recent post on the Japan earthquake prompted quite a bit of response. Some commentary focused on the technology of nuclear power and what the alternatives might be. Other comments were very insightful about the nature of engineering for critical applications. I found the comments very thought provoking and will take this week’s post to expand the discussion.
With regard to the technology discussion there was a great post regarding the fabled Thorium reactor. By far, the YouTube post linked by a reader was the most informative piece I have ever seen on the subject. At 16 minutes, it’s well worth the effort. Please check out http://youtube/WWUeBSoEnRk or Google search Thorium reactor and note the Google Tech Talk from 2008.
There is so much knowledge available and yet so little makes it into the mainstream of political decision making. And this, I think, is the essence of a couple of comments from readers. Will our politicians make good decisions? Is it even possible? There seems to be so much “influence” going around. Does General Electric or Westinghouse really care about the technology they are putting out, or is it more cost effective to just re-hash the 40 year old water cooled reactor of the late ’60’s and just keep truckin”?
New technology does not guarantee performance. It is simply that the improved solution is expected to have similarly improved performance. But that performance has to be proven. The thing to do would be to fund a demonstration program to construct a variety of technologies and get some idea of how they really work. Working hardware is easier to evaluate than concept drawings.
On the engineering side, a number of comments were focused on the nature of critical systems. In the controls arena there is a combination between the control system software and control system hardware that has to properly designed in order to achieve the robust, stable operation required in many critical applications. Electrical practice also includes a number of important conventions that impact operational safety such as removing power from part or all of the control equipment.
More complex issues exist in understanding the nature of the critical systems in nuclear power plants. Clearly the water supply and pump for cooling the core of the reactor are critical systems. The engineering challenge is to make the cooling system reliable in the event of a power failure and in the event of earthquakes. These are very complex circumstances to engineer around, but that’s the challenge.
The need for establishing higher reliability power and backup systems is critical to our future. In order to achieve the power goals of the modern world, the fundamental technology options must be explored an the same time sophisticated methods of managing the equipment in order to keep things running.
All worthy goals which we need to pursue. With all the available options.