Technologies Take a While to Turn the World Around

By John Stewart
Director, Policy and Research
Canadian Nuclear Association

Asked in the 1970s about the influence of the French Revolution on western civilization, Chou En Lai is said to have paused and replied: It’s too soon to tell.

You might say the same thing about nuclear technology’s impact on the world.  Sure, we’ve had it for about 70 years. But is that long enough for a fair test?

Newcomen
The Newcommen steam pump, circa 1710.

Practical steam engines were in use for a century before they really changed most people’s worlds.

Steam engines were first commercialized around the year 1700 to pump water out of mineshafts (which they did better than humans), and shortly thereafter to drive textile mills (which they did better than waterwheels).

They weren’t successfully applied to transportation (steamboats and locomotives) until just after 1800. Before they could operate on these mobile platforms, steam engines had to get smaller, lighter, safer, more applicable, and far more efficient.

When they did this, steam engines dramatically reduced transport costs. That made the world a very different place in the nineteenth century – and in many ways, and for many people, a much better one.

Coalbrookdale
The Trevithick locomotive, circa 1803.

A recent announcement by Mississauga-based Terrestrial Energy Inc. (TEI) reminds us again that we’ve probably not even glimpsed where revolutionary reactor designs might take society in a carbon-constrained world.

Remember, we’ve come less than six decades from the opening of the first utility-scale nuclear generating station – which operated successfully in Pennsylvania from 1957 until 1982.

Reactor technology has spent those decades generating cleaner and cheaper electricity than nearly any other source, and probably doing it more safely than any other source. But that’s not the end of the story.

Because reactor technology has also spent those decades getting better and better.

A number of CNA member companies have designs that reflect this progress, and that could change our children’s and grandchildren’s world in very positive ways. Terrestrial’s is just one example of this.

Shippingport
The Shippingport atomic power station.

On January 7, Terrestrial Energy announced a collaboration with the U.S. Department of Energy’s Oak Ridge National Laboratory to advance the design of its concept for an integral molten salt reactor (IMSR). Oak Ridge is where early molten salt reactors were proven, decades ago.

Terrestrial
Terrestrial Energy’s IMSR80.

More recent Molten Salt Reactor technology could represent a revolution in nuclear safety, waste and proliferation resistance, and in energy cost-competitiveness. Terrestrial’s is a small modular design, with models ranging from as small as 80 MWth – about one-tenth of the typical utility-scale reactor installed today.

The company wants to start commercial deployment of IMSRs by early next decade. Edge-of-grid and off-grid locations in Canada, many of them currently using dirty, expensive diesel generators, could benefit dramatically from these or other advanced and smaller reactor designs.

Think nuclear had its heyday in the 1960s? Sure. And the piston engine was just a better way to get water out of coal mines.

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