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June 30, 2008


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Damn. A mere nine hours or so of work over three days (and a useful chat with my old friend Todd) and I've finally got an overview that I'm happy with. I've been building up to writing this for a while now. It was a combination of a few heated exchanges I got into at a recent Sierra Club event and a few more with corporate techies spouting pro-nuclear snake oil at the AMWA exposition that finally put me over the edge.

I see from my stats that somebody has already emailed a link to this to somebody. Good. I put a hell of a lot of work into this document and I sure as shootin' hope that plenty of people will see it. If this were to ended up linked to on one of the big sites like Treehugger I suspect that sparkly glowing pink butterflies would jump out of my eyes or some such. Now if only I could add a reference to Brittany Spears or a picture of breasts or something, maybe I could get some serious traffic.

Oh, well.

Arthur Embleton

I've never read your blog before, but after reading that article I'll have to read more. Excellent and very positive, although I'm still in the pro-nuclear group as I see it as a necessary base load during any switchover to renewables and there is still hope for fusion power.


Dear Arthur, thank you for your comments and I look forward to seeing more feedback from you. When it comes to nuclear, I must admit that, as I pointed out at the top, I did simplify my position on some issues for the sake of space. My position on "nuclear power" as an actual technical category is quite different from my position on what most people mean when they use that phrase.

As I have written elsewhere, my problems with it come down to a lack of trust of megaprojects in general, the reliable proportionality between secrecy and employee misdeeds, and the issue of how to manage and then store the many tons of radioactive materials involved. None of these but the first necessarily apply to fusion.

So, to state in more detail, I have some hopes for fusion, especially any kind that could be run from smaller facilities. I also think that the overall track record of fission reactors used in spacecraft merits their continued use and that from what has been publicly disclosed, it appears that the nuclear sub program has continued a degree of rigor that makes it far less troubling than commercial reactors. (Thank you Hyman Rickover yet again.)

In other words, I'm not categorically opposed to any and all power generation means based on atomic change, only to those that fail the same kinds of tests of safety and cost effectiveness that I apply to any undertaking.

A number of the pieces on this site address a common theme. Since I was first exposed to the works of Richard Cyert in 1984, I've been very concerned with the crucial issue of how organizations actually act, and how that behavior varies from what we've been taught they do. Having now not only read far too many books and papers in the field but also been a workflow and operations consultant for organizations varying from two room volunteer childcare centers to Fortune 100 corporations, I'm fully convinced that certain behaviors predictably occur.
- Decisions are made for the maximized *perceived* advantage of the decisionmaker.
- This maximum advantage is not defined only in terms of money; not for the individual, nor for the firm. Emotional comfort, bribes, familiarity, support of the decisionmaker's social group, and at least a dozen other "exogenous" factors play key roles.
- The larger the firm, the less the accountability.
- The more obscure and difficult to understand the activity underway, the less the accountability.
- The greater the secrecy, the less the accountability.
- The less the accountability, the greater the incidence of fraud, uncorrected mistakes, and deviation from stated goals.
- The greater the secrecy, the worse the diagnostics become.
- Beyond a few months, the longer the interval between project initiation and implementation, the lower the effectiveness of the solution, unless redesign is practical and encouraged throughout design and construction.
- The greater the externally provided capital required, the less efficient the resulting project.
- The greater the amount of regulation, the slower the rate of adaptation to changing circumstances.

Fission reactors inherently require great scale, great secrecy (if only to prevent terrorism), great complexity and obscurity, decades before implementation, and massive capital investment. They are an organizational perfect storm of undesirables.

I'm far from being a knee-jerk anti-technologist. I support animal testing and worked for three years in a biology lab working on, and occasionally killing rats. I eat meat. I am in favor of irradiated food under certain circumstances. And as a generally pro-tech guy with a long history in industrial organization, I just can't support commercial fission reactors.

And *that* is what I meant by saying that I oppose "nuclear power".

Anyway, I hope that this hasn't come across as an attack at you. This just seemed like a good chance to clear up something I have been itching to address for a while.

Again, welcome and I look forward to seeing you here again.

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