Tuesday, January 01, 2008

Local Nuclear Energy

The philosopher of technology, Langdon Winner, argued a decade ago that technologies have politics. In making choices about technology adoption, usually based simply on considerations of efficiency and production, we also as societies make political choices without properly subjecting them to political processes. Our own conceptualization and assumption of technology as merely a value-neutral instrumentality for achieving goals established outside of the technological realm disguised important, though unconscious, socio-political decisions. This meant that technological development unfolded to some extent through the reshaping of human values to adapt to technological values - efficiency and production. Technology's relation to human beings as an instrumentality, an extension of human will, is thus inverted.

Winner wasn't the first to suggest this kind of claim - it was central to the thought of technological determinists/autonomists like Herbert Marcuse and Jacques Ellul. But Winner used some striking contemporary examples. My favorite is the production of nuclear energy.

It's pretty simple. Say a society faces a choice about which energy technology to adopt: solar or nuclear. The choice, Winner says, is also political, but in a sense generally not considered part of the deliberations. If we choose nuclear energy (on the basis of criteria of efficiency [i.e., cost] and production, of course), we necessarily choose a centralized and hierarchical administrative structure. Nuclear energy would be produced at a central location - a plant - distributed through a tightly policed network, and delivered to your home. But it's not possible to have little nuclear plants in everyone's backyards. Nuclear technological knowledge must remain the domain of specialists for security reasons.

Now, say the society chooses solar energy. The administrative and distribution structure potentially looks much different. We could have the same hierarchical and centralized administrative and distribution structure as the nuclear choice, but we could also have a highly decentralized administrative and distribution structure. If the technology was adequate, everyone could have solar energy production in their backyard, or on their rooftops. The importance is that we've left open a number of political-administrative options, not foreclosed them.

The point here is not that solar is better than nuclear. The point is that technology adoption isn't simply a matter of efficiency. The solar-or-nuclear choice in the example illustrates that it is also a choice about a political-administrative structure. But that political choice is not part of the deliberations at all. Only efficiency considerations.

So... what to make of the new Toshiba Micro Nuclear Reactor?
Toshiba has developed a new class of micro size Nuclear Reactors that is designed to power individual apartment buildings or city blocks. The new reactor, which is only 20 feet by 6 feet, could change everything for small remote communities, small businesses or even a group of neighbors who are fed up with the power companies and want more control over their energy needs.

The 200 kilowatt Toshiba designed reactor is engineered to be fail-safe and totally automatic and will not overheat. Unlike traditional nuclear reactors the new micro reactor uses no control rods to initiate the reaction. The new revolutionary technology uses reservoirs of liquid lithium-6, an isotope that is effective at absorbing neutrons. The Lithium-6 reservoirs are connected to a vertical tube that fits into the reactor core. The whole whole process is self sustaining and can last for up to 40 years, producing electricity for only 5 cents per kilowatt hour, about half the cost of grid energy.

Toshiba expects to install the first reactor in Japan in 2008 and to begin marketing the new system in Europe and America in 2009.


jenhargis said...

um...does it come with a nuclear engineer? I don't think I would trust Bob down the street to have such a thing in his backyard. This, in my opinion, is quite possibly the worst idea I have heard in years. Kinda like a kitchen meth-lab. I think that this issue is still political because even though it's a personal matter, it affects those around you.

jenhargis said...

I know it says that it's fail-safe and fool-proof and all that good stuff, I still don't trust it. Especially in a world where there are warning labels on hair dryers telling you not to use them in the shower.

CKR said...

A colleague of mine used to say that he'd like a carefully packaged cylinder of nuclear waste for his home heating and electricity.

Jen brings up an interesting point: those labels on hair dryers are primarily for the purpose of protecting the manufacturers from lawsuits. But I suspect they're making us stupider, because we expect that sort of instruction, just as we become more susceptible to authoritarianism every time we submit to taking off our shoes and the whole "Beat the Clock" nonsense at the entry to the airport concourses.

I'll agree that there are legitimate questions about the competence of those overseeing the mini-reactors, but steam boilers were once life-threatening too. We can learn, even though currently we're selling ourselves 'way short.

helmut said...

You think something like this is a good idea, Cheryl?

CKR said...

Ugh. I just wrote out a long response, and then closed the window without sending it. Let's see if I can reproduce it.

The news release doesn't really give enough information to make a judgment.

Some numbers of people are trying to come up with improved, safer designs for nuclear reactors that are nonproliferative. I'm not impressed with what I've seen so far.

Most reactors are designed to slow down the nuclear reactions if something goes wrong. Unfortunately, the RBMK that exploded at Chernobyl was not. The lithium-6 seems to be an additional safety factor in this respect.

I'd like to know more about the physical containment and about how access to the reactor will be limited.

I think that nuclear power can be safe and nonproliferative, but what I've seen of the industry so far is that its attitudes haven't changed nearly enough. There needs to be more red-teaming done to figure out what terrorists might do, or how people might push the wrong buttons.

Ed The Frog said...

It looks like this is some combination of hoax, wishful thinking, and/or honest mistake.

The bottom line is that there is no micro nuclear plant being developed by Toshiba, although they are working on smaller reactors, these would still be massive centralized power stations.