Matt Ridley on nuclear power and the phenomenon of disinnovation

In How Innovation Works, Matt Ridley observes:

“The twentieth century saw only one innovative source of energy on any scale: nuclear power. (Wind and solar, though much improved and with a promising future, still supply less than 2 per cent of global energy.) In terms of its energy density, nuclear is without equal: an object the size of a suitcase, suitably plumbed in, can power a town or an aircraft carrier almost indefinitely. The development of civil nuclear power was a triumph of applied science, the trail leading from the discovery of nuclear fission and the chain reaction through the Manhattan Project’s conversion of a theory into a bomb, to the gradual engineering of a controlled nuclear reaction and its application to boiling water.”

Ridley goes on to explain, “No individual stands out in such a story unless it is Leo Szilard’s early realization of the potential of a chain reaction in 1933, General Lesley Groves’s leadership of Manhattan Project in the 1940s, or Admiral Hyman Rickover’s development of the first nuclear reactors and their adaptation to submarines and aircraft carriers in the 1950s. But as these names illustrate, it was a team effort within the military and state-owned enterprises, plus private contractors, and by the 1960s it had culminated in a huge programme of construction plants that would use small amounts to boil enormous amounts of water reliably, continuously and safely all over the world.”

I agree with Ridley: “The story of nuclear power is a cautionary tale of how innovation falters, and even goes backwards, if it cannot evolve.”

From a discussion in Chapter 1, Energy, Pages 36-41.

Innovation Matters: And Why It Flourishes in Freedom was published by Harper (May 2020).



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