Now and then

3 December 2012

There was a time when the best computer tech was institutional; bought by businesses and universities. I remember marvelling at the performance and screen resolution of a mainframe terminal at my university’s engineering library in the early 90s; it must have been surplus to some R&D project, but too valuable to junk completely. Now the consumer market for certain kinds of products outstrips the institutional one, as symbolized by the passing of IBM out of the consumer consciousness (of course it stood for International Business Machines). This has put us in the bizarre position of spending significant time reading and posting (for work) on social media sites like Twitter and Facebook, whilst in the office.

Social media as spread through mobile telephony seems to be the generational divider of the moment. Although my 80-year old father has embraced email and the internet for its ability to distribute his book, the lure of Facebook is lost on him.

Obviously there were telephones when the magazine started in 1956, and there were computers. But slide rules would have been more common then (digression: I ran across my father-in-law’s this summer, and was surprised how big it was; the size of a pencil case!). The advent of cloud computing and mobile data has brought the internet and social media to handheld devices; being on such intimate terms with the internet is a big social change. So many of the technologies discussed this month would be unfamiliar to those working on first-generation plants; and many of these technologies would also be out of place in the plants themselves, which, for safety, licensing or cost reasons, have retained many old-fashioned ways.

In the West, the 1950s and 1960s were really exciting times for big infrastructure, culminating in the space race, and captured the hearts and minds of a generation, uniting them behind a national identity that had antecedents in WWII. To me, nuclear power seems fundamentally culturally akin. Somehow a reactor control room wouldn’t be out of place in the National Air and Space Museum in Washington, DC, where I spent many happy hours as a boy. Unfortunately, the stale smell of space exploration today in the popular imagination, of old science fiction gone slightly off track, now also seems to cling to nuclear power.

As the early generations of nuclear scientists and engineers retire, their cultural values retire with them. There was a time when nuclear power was about a great leap forward for the nation. Gone is some of the national pride, the endeavour, the heady excitement of the advancement of technology. In the 1980s and 1990s, as electricity markets were deregulated in North America and some parts of Europe, it became a business, and a good one.

So in the US and UK, and also in this issue of NEI, there is now a strange division between extremely sophisticated, but old-fashioned nuclear technology, on one hand, and simple-to-use, but ultra-modern, communications tech on the other.

But I suppose that during the period when stations are built, nuclear power is an enterprise that involves the whole nation; once they have been operated for a generation it loses its lustre. The wave may have passed us now. But what is so exciting about nuclear power is that its mission is now heading east: helping electrify (on a low-carbon basis) countries whose people and businesses need power: India, China, Iran. I imagine that among many people in these countries there does exist the same sense of pride—not to say unanimity—abound nuclear power. We may have done it mostly without computers, but the Asian nuclear industry will be able to use all of the mobile devices described in this issue to communicate and create communities to help their industry develop.

Author Info:

-Will Dalrymple. This article first appeared in the November 2012 issue of Nuclear Engineering International magazine.

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