Monday, February 7, 2011

A National Disgrace

I just confronted yet another instance of how the US is losing the war for innovation, green technologies, sustainability and energy independence to countries like India and China despite the fact that the inventions put in play are American Inventions.   See Smart Planet - China to develop a greener nuclear reactor

How can that happen?  The usual suspects could be fingered: disrespect for science and engineering, focus on easy answers, industrial vested interests, etc.  I propose that perhaps the worst is "Failure To Communicate" and this is the most blatant example I ever found.


During the Manhattan Project a process to use nuclear materials (nuclear cycle was identified that could generate nuclear power but was not good enough for the explosive reaction needded for nuclear bombs.  Given the objective of the Manhattan Project, it was naturally sidelined.

During the 1950's and 1960's the "less efficient" process was revived, as an option for peaceful power generation. in what became known as the Thorium Nuclear Reactor. It was demonstrated capable to avoid all the most negative aspects of a high pressure nuclear reactor (e.g. meltdown, explosion, highly 1000-years radioactive waste, etc.), but gained little attention.

From the 1970's until today nuclear power developed evermore the popularity of "the turd in the punchbowl" for a variety of legitimate and other reasons.

Today it appears that the media and the voters would prefer confronting an ice age with candles than considering nuclear power generation in the US.  But what if there were an option that avoids many or all of the risks, costs less, produces more and was already tested sixty years ago?

Well,  for that option to go anywhere we'd have to publicize it so that voters would come to understand it, develop confidence in it, accept it and allow construction of this  "new" variety of nuclear plant.

The national tragedy

As it happens, that option appears to exist in the Thorium Nuclear Reactor (TNR)

  • The TNR was designed and tested in the US in the 1960's

  • Our TNR technology is now being test deployed by India and China

  • In the future, when it becomes fully commercial, we will buy it from India and China just as we buy oil from Canada and OPEC today

How can it happen?

Smart Planet reports these facts (hats off to them for reporting at all)


at the bottom of their report there is also a video surely intended to help the reader better understand the process and the inherent opportunity.

The combination of the report and that video is the disgrace I am talking about.  It is the clearest example of scientists' and science reporters' inability to effectively communicate and make a good case even when all facts appear to be in their favor:

  • The video is 16 minutes long.  Challenge yourself to listen to the end.  It will become a blur, but you'll get key relevant pieces any way.

  • Is the audio in the video speeded up to suit the internet attention span?  Hard to tell.  If it is, shame on the editor, if it is the speakers's natural pace, shame on them.

  • Did all the presenters speak at the same time?  I doubt it.  Shame on the editor.

  • The message is clearly educational about the advantages of the TNR, but you would not know it. The positive technical  details are buried in an alphabet soup and cacophony that hides it all.

  • The speakers in the video, one guesses, are knowledgeable presenters at professional conferences, but sound like drug advertisements disclaiming potential side effects.

  • Comments such as  "no one knows anything about TNR any more because all the original scientists are dieing" would dissuade any politician from going to bat for this technology.

In 1993 Michael Crichton took the media to task (speech at the National PressClub) warning that superficiality and lack of quality in reporting would eventually have disastrous consequences for the media, which undoubtedly it is having.

I suggest that by framing important issues poorly, sloppy, if well intentioned, reporting can have more disastrous consequences than no reporting at all.  We all depend on the media to make informed decisions, to support or obstruct national policies.  On a subject as urgent as the one above, and not particularly popular with the populace, the damage may well exceed the benefit.

When that happens an opportunity the voters and for the nation to stay in the lead is wasted.  India and China move ahead and we are left to wonder why.  As Crichton said, there are no easy answers, but surely bad information or badly framed information will lead us to lousy outcomes.

And that is a national tragedy.