Just a few months ago I started reading more about nuclear reactors. So I got converted real quick from an eternal pessimist to an (cautious) optimist. There is a lot of cool technology in this area.
And I was surprised to learn that just a few months ago, NRC (the Nuclear Regulatory Commission) got out from its long dormant state, and actually did some useful work. They actually offered a real license (first in the last 20 years, probably) to a new nuclear reactor design. The licensed reactor is called AP-1000, and it has quite an interesting design. AP-1000 was designed with this social anti-nuclear overreaction in mind. In other words, the main principles were (a) provable safety and (b) design simplicity. (Quite similar with the recent design paradigms in writing solid code, don’t you think?)
So, why are these things important? First, a little bit of history of nuclear engineering in United States (presented here with the risk of oversimplifying) US was _the country_ that pushed the civil development of nuclear engineering at a very early stage (I am intentionally ignoring military applications). Americans were the first to recognize the commercial potential of nuclear reactors, and first that got excited in mass about anything that contained the word “nuclear”. Somehow, this early boundless enthusiasm caused later lots of problems due to rushed adoption of nuclear technology (including the Three Mile Island accident). This, combined with changing public perception, led to the opposite effect – a strong public opposition that lasted thirty years, and it still going. This effectively froze any nuclear development in US in the last centuries. To compensate, the only thing that these companies can come up with is extremely safe reactor designs. So safe, that you could effectively walk away in case of a disaster, and come back later. (Well, with AP-1000 you have to come back at least three days later after the accident to refill the emergency cooling tanks with water – the cilinder located in the small section at the top in the attached picture)
Lots more to say. I feel that I barely scratched the surface in this post, however, I’ll stop here – I don’t want to make this blog too boring for you programmers out there 🙂