The ideological Left is fond of accusing the Right of being “anti-science.” The evidence often comes in the form of Exhibit A (climate denialism) and Exhibit B (Darwin denialism). True, these maladies are encountered more frequently on the Right than on the Left. As it happens, however, there are also scientific allergies on the Left, and there is little question that they have been a great deal more damaging than their conservative analogs. The best example is probably the Blank Slate debacle. In order to prop up leftist shibboleths, denial of the very existence of human nature was enforced for more than half a century. The effect on the behavioral sciences, and with them the self-knowledge critical to our very survival, was devastating. “Scientific” Marxism-Leninism is another obvious example. However, when it comes to scientific allergies, the Left’s irrational and often fanatical opposition to nuclear power may turn out to be the most damaging of all.
Those who seek to alarm us about rising CO2 levels in the atmosphere, and yet reject the most effective technology for bringing them under control, are not serious. They are mere poseurs. Thanks to these anti-science attitudes on the Left, dozens of dirty, coal-fired power plants will be built in Germany alone to replace the baseload generating capacity once provided by nuclear reactors. The situation is no better in the U.S. Both countries have developed some of the most advanced, not to mention safest, nuclear technologies known to man, and yet both, hamstrung by opposition coming from the Left of the political spectrum, have abdicated the responsibility to apply that knowledge. Instead, they are exporting it – to China.
As I write this, we are helping China to build a novel type of reactor that combines molten salt technology developed in the United States with a version of the “pebble” type fuel pioneered by the Germans. Approved in 2011, the original target completion date of 2015 has now slipped to 2020, but both goals would be out of the question in the byzantine regulatory atmosphere of the 21st century United States. U.S. knowhow will also be used to build the novel “traveling wave” reactor design favored by Bill Gates – also in China. The Chinese are also actively pursuing the high temperature gas-cooled reactor (HTGR) technology that was proposed for the ill-fated Next Generation Nuclear Plant (NGNP), further development of which was recently cancelled in the United States.
I certainly have nothing against China building advanced reactors using technology that was developed elsewhere. It’s good that the knowledge in question is being applied at least somewhere on the planet. However, I find it unfortunate that we no longer have the leadership, vision, or political will to do so ourselves. It was not always so. The U.S. commissioned the world’s first nuclear powered submarine, the U.S.S. Nautilus, in 1954, little more than a decade after the successful demonstration of the first self-sustaining nuclear chain reaction at the University of Chicago. More than 50 experimental nuclear reactors were built at what is now Idaho National Laboratory (INL) in a period of about two decades stretching from the 50’s to the mid-70’s. None has been built since. The situation is similar at Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL), site of the world’s first molten salt reactor. Instead of working, next generation reactors, INL, ORNL, and the rest of the U.S. national laboratories now turn out only paper studies – gigantic mounds of them – in quantities that would probably stretch to the moon and back by now. The chances that any of them will ever be usefully applied in this country are slim and none.
The technologies in question are not mere incremental improvements over the conventional nuclear power plants that now produce almost all the world’s nuclear power. They have the demonstrated capacity to extract more than an order of magnitude more energy out of a given quantity of mined fuel material than conventional designs. They can burn the long-lived radioactive actinides and other hazardous isotopes produced in nuclear fission that represent the most dangerous types of radioactive waste, reducing the residual radioactivity from operation of a nuclear plant to a level less than that of the original uranium ore is less than 500 years – a far cry from the millions of years often cited by hysterical anti-nukers. Under the circumstances, it is worth taking note of where the opposition that stopped the development and application of these technologies in the past, and continues to do so today, is coming from.
The regulatory nightmare that has brought the continued development of these technologies in the United States to a virtual standstill is primarily the legacy of the “progressive” Left. The anti-nuclear zealots on that side of the political spectrum cling to bogus linear no-threshold models of radioactive hazard, grotesquely exaggerated horror stories about the supposed impossibility of dealing with nuclear waste, and a stubborn cluelessness about the dangers of the alternative coal and other fossil-fired technologies that their opposition to nuclear will inevitably continue to promote in spite of all their strident denials. These are facts that it would be well to keep in mind the next time you hear the Left calling the Right “anti-science,” or, for that matter, the next time you hear them pontificating about their deep commitment to the fight against global warming.