Another industrial revolution?*

23 March 2016

At no time in the technical development of man has he been determined to herald the birth of a revolution as today. The discovery of nuclear fission has been described in many extravagant terms — as the dawn of a new era, the beginning of the millenium and so on — but we must leave history to ascribe these high-flown phrases. In the meantime it is better to examine the significance of the “atomic Age” in its relation to its immediate industrial and sociological problems.

Its chief impact is in the prospect of a source of illimitable power or, more accurately, an illimitable source of heat -- at a cost. Too often vague prophetic allusions have been made to the physical form that atomic energy may take, but fundamentally this energy is available as heat -- and heat only. Uranium can, therefore, be described as a fuel in complete accordance with established terminology.

Fuel Resources

The prospect of an inexhaustible supply of fuel is by no means insignificant, but it must be remembered that only within the past few years has any serious limitation on our expansion been imposed by the difficulties of obtaining conventional fuels. Even here the limitation has, to a large extent, been economic rather than physical. In some countries supplies of fuel -- oil, coal and water for hydro- electric schemes -- have not been exploited to any extent: admittedly it is possible that for power these sources will never be exploited because of the advent of nuclear energy. Nevertheless it cannot be over-emphasised that uranium should be regarded simply as an alternative but readily-available fuel. The generation from it of transmittable power, such as electricity, inevitably entails the familiar problems of economics, and at present even greater problems of technology.

Much has been published on the applications of radioisotopes, the by-products of the atomic energy programme. Here man has been presented with a new instrument for scientific and technical exploration, for material processing and for healing the sick. But radioisotopes are not the universal panacea for troubles met in pure research, agriculture or biology. They simply represent an important extension of the techniques that have been developed over many generations. At the same time the very radioactivity that is the basis of these techniques is of considerable embarrassment in the disposing of the useless effluent from nuclear reactors. The ecological and genetic implications of the use and disposal of radioactive materials may be a serious handicap to large-scale exploitation.

Industry has a great challenge to meet in these new developments. Atomic energy is often quoted in terms of a great power for good or a great power for evil, but the division of its potentialities into these two categories is only part of the story. We are not here concerned with atoms for war. In its power for good, greatness will come only with efficiency. Nuclear energy is in direct competition with established practice.

Often industry will be involved in entirely new techniques which will require almost complete original thinking. Already a new language has been developed to describe the fundamental principles and, although this language is to a large extent simple and straightforward, it represents a stumbling-block to the engineer working on conventional plant. On the other hand much of the development required is on lines well established, where details perhaps are modified but where the basic conception remains the same. The choice between the two methods of attack will not always be obvious at the beginning of a project. Ease and cheapness will usually point to a familiar approach where well-tired principles can be applied and where experience will suffice without recourse to intuition. At other times major advances will be made only by unconventional means, frequently necessitating large capital expenditure without a sure return. It is probable that the success will be to a large extent a function of courage. A balance, therefore, must be struck between originality of thought and sureness of method, which must apply to large-scale planning and detailed manufacture alike.

Competition and Duplication

Where healthy competition between companies is allowed to flourish, some duplication of effort is inevitable We cannot afford in this county to let this go to excess because of both manpower and material shortages. Also a compromise must be found between a completely unchannelled system of development and a stifling autocracy. This compromise has been met in the United Kingdom by the establishment of consortia with the U.K.A.E.A. acting as director-adviser and by the operation of the development contract system. As a temporary measure it has enabled the atomic energy programme to start on a firm footing with strong governmental backing, but its implied rigidity of operation will require serious modification in the years to come. Many other companies have valuable contributions to make, and of course the end product of a reactor will not always be electricity.

An extreme example of triplication was demonstrated at Geneva last August when it became obvious that in spite of intense security restrictions developments in the three main countries had moved along similar lines. The divergences that had occurred were forced by local conditions rather than by fundamental conceptions. Similar conditions will prevail in a single country unless an adequate exchange of views and information is encouraged.


*The above article featured in the very first edition of Nuclear Engineering International (Vol. 1, No. 1, April 1956) and has been reproduced as part of the magazine's 60th Anniversary celebrations.

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