Diatribes of Jay

This is a blog of essays on public policy. It shuns ideology and applies facts, logic and math to economic, social and political problems. It has a subject-matter index, a list of recent posts, and permalinks at the ends of posts. Comments are moderated and may take time to appear. Note: Profile updated 4/7/12

06 September 2010

Missing the Point, Again and Again


[For a comment on liquid fluoride thorium reactors, click here.]

Sometimes the obtuseness of politicians is frightening―even the ones you admire. The President is about to announce a $50 billion “jobs bill,” which will fund an “infrastructure bank” to invest in our decaying infrastructure and put people back to work.

The goals sounds good, and the effort is long overdue. But the amount is orders of magnitude too small. In a 2009 report, the American Society of Civil Engineers estimated that we need to invest $ 2.2 trillion in infrastructure just to repair and maintain what we have. That’s nearly fifty times as much as in the bill to be announced today. You can thank the Party of No for us having no chance of making that kind of investment.

Yet even on its own modest merits, the $50 billion bill is woefully misdirected. Its “bank” reportedly will fund roads, railroads, and airport runways.

Think about that. What do all these things have in common?

They all use oil. Roads support cars, virtually all of which now use oil. (They also cost a lot of oil to build.) While we have a few electrified railways in our crowded northeast corridor, the vast majority of our long-distance runs use diesel fuel. We owe this sad fact to our woeful lack of long-distance electric infrastructure and our relatively long runs compared to Europe’s and Japan’s. (Virtually all of Europe’s and Japan’s intercity railroads are electric.) As for airplanes, they use only special aviation fuel, which comes only from oil. There is no other source.

So unless part of the railroad money will go for building more electric railroads―a point not clear from reports so far―virtually all of the proposed infrastructure bank will entrench, not reduce, our dependence on fossil fuels and foreign oil. Unless our railroads are electrified, we may have to convert them back to coal, a nineteenth-century fuel, as oil gets scarcer and more in demand.

Even more astonishing, this tiny bill is supposed to fund medium-term infrastructure investments. It reportedly is directed at projects for the next six years. By then, unless we are smart, we will have lost the race to develop electric cars and will be buying them, their batteries and their chargers from Japan, Korea and China.

In the meantime, a foreign private company, Nissan-Renault, will reportedly spend billions of dollars in our own country developing quick-charging infrastructure for its electric cars. If that infrastructure is incompatible with the Chevy Volt’s batteries, for example, in voltage, charging cycle, or plugs, it will give a foreign product (the Nissan Leaf) an infrastructure advantage over a native American one (the Chevy Volt). Incompatibilities like these will also retard the development of the entire industry, just as different gauges of railways did in the nineteenth century; but that’s another story.

Any smart “infrastructure bank” should do three things above all. First, it should support, build and (if necessary) convert our aging infrastructure for the twentieth century into something for the twenty-first. Second, it should do all it can to promote a resurgence of American manunfacturing in new industries, not ones that already have gone offshore. Third, by setting standards of compatibility for things like electric-car chargers, it should head off the wasted effort and mini-monopolies than can arise from things like the nineteenth century's multiple (and incompatible) gauges of railways.

The $50 billion Obama bill fails on all counts. First, it supports existing infrastructure in old industries: cars (which overwhelmingly use oil), trains (most of which burn diesel fuel) and planes (which burn specially refined oil). Second, it fails even to begin building infrastructure for the coming electric-car era. It thus looks backward toward the glorious twentieth century, not forward to the rest of our own. Finally, reports mention no effort to head off deliberate incompatibilities for private advantage and suppressing competition, even by example, let alone by standard-setting, regulation or antitrust enforcement.

Doing more would be “picking winners,” you say? Well, if so, that’s what American visionaries have done throughout our history. Every single one of our great national infrastructure investments (except education)―canals, railroads, air travel, interstate highways, and the Internet―supported an emerging technology when made. When our government invested heavily in postal air mail and military aircraft, and when it funded development of the packet-switching protocols and computer networks that drive the Internet, no one could predict what marvels would arise. But our political leaders made the investment because they looked forward, not back. And as for suppressing incompatibilities, it doesn’t pick winners at all; its whole point is to assure a level playing field on which robust competition can run.

In contrast, the “new” Obama infrastructure bank seems a modest investment in the status quo, a burnt offering to Boehner and Mitchell, who want our nation to remain just the way it is, standing still, while others pass us on the road to stem-cell medicine, locally produced energy, and the stars.

I still support the President. I continue to believe he is the best among all realistic alternatives for the White House. And I continue to harbor secret admiration for Rahm Emmanuel, who (along with Speaker Pelosi) appears to be the sole street fighter in the Administration, and who reportedly was the driver of this bill.

But by God we need some engineers and some economists who have vision in the White House and in Congress. However many construction jobs it may finance, a bank that builds bridges back to the twentieth century will not move us forward. And no matter how clever a liar John Boehner may be, he cannot make an investment in more Erie Canals restore our greatness.

Liquid Fluoride Thorium Reactors (LFTR)

While on the subject of energy—which is what the post above is really about—I could not refrain from bringing up the subject of liquid fluoride thorium reactors. These new types of nuclear power stations are so promising that they deserve an allocation of serious money in the President’s $50 billion infrastructure program.

I just discovered the LFTR concept today, so perhaps I have the zeal of the recently converted. But here are the salient aspects of these new designs that I gleaned from a year-end report on them and a series of apparently expert comments (mostly from nuclear engineers) that followed:

1. These reactors use the element thorium as their primary power source. It is less radioactive than any fissionable isotope of uranium and far easier to handle. It is far, far less radioactive and dangerous to health than plutonium, which many current nuclear reactors use. And we have enough inside the US for all our power needs for a millennium.

2. Because of these properties, the LFTR design lends itself to small reactors. Theoretically, every town, and even certain large buildings, could install a reactor and have their own power sources.

3. Not only is thorium less radioactive than other sources of nuclear power. It “burns” more cleanly, with far less radioactivity, than fuel in uranium- and plutonium-based reactors. That’s why reactors using it can be made small and used in buildings; they require neither the heavy shielding nor the isolation from people that conventional reactors do.

4. The waste products of LFTRs are far less dangerous than those of conventional reactors. They have a very short radioactive half-life of 300 years, as compared to tens of thousands of years for waste products of conventional reactors.

5. In normal operation, LFTRs have very low weapons proliferation risk, since neither their fuel nor their waste products are useful in making nuclear weapons. If is possible, in theory, to increase the proliferation risk by modifying the reactor to extract, continuously and in real time, a protactinium operational by-product, which might be useful in making weapons. But that possibility is theoretical only. As far as anyone knows, no one has used protactinium or its decay product U-233 successfully for weapons in the entire history of the nuclear age, despite apparent (and still secret) American efforts to do so.

6. The LFTR design has zero meltdown risk because natural thermal expansion of the liquid thorium fluoride salt, as it heats above operating temperature, puts the reactor below criticality and eventually shuts it down.

7. High-temperature operation with a liquid-fluoride reactant permits electric generators to run on superheated gas, rather than steam, making power generation much more efficient and requiring 50% less water to draw away waste heat. It is even possible to design LFTRs to work in the desert, with air cooling only.

8. Major potential users of nuclear power, including France, China, India and Japan, are looking at the possibility of building thorium reactors. So are major American nuclear-power-plant suppliers.

9. Although working models of the new designs have yet to be built, successful thorium reactors were built and run for years during the Cold War. The powers that be abandoned them because they didn’t generate weapons-grade material. During that time of war hysteria, they wanted reactors that would supply both electric power and fissile material for weapons.

After you read these facts, you will no doubt want to shout, along with me, “Why the hell aren’t we devoting tens of billions to bringing these wonders on line ASAP?” There appear to be only three reasons: (1) inertia in the private nuclear-power community, which has invested billions in conventional nuclear power and doesn’t want to have to invest more in “new” technology that has not yet been fully engineered; (2) a public that has been trained to freeze in fear at the mere sound of the word “nuclear” or “fission;” and (3) the small and poorly understood risk of weapons proliferation that these plants might pose, plus the time and effort it might take to explore, analyze and refute these theoretical concerns.

Aren’t these precisely the kinds of obstacles that government assistance can overcome? I would hope that money in the President’s $ 50 billion “infrastructure bank” could be set aside for an LFTR demonstration plant, plus whatever additional analysis of its theoretical proliferation risk is warranted. Did I mention that nuclear power produces no carbon? Where is Nobel Laureate and Energy Secretary Steve Chu?

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