an industry whose glory years never came


The nuclear prospect should be dubbed “the big distraction”. * A look at a historical text teaches us all to make technological predictions.

Albert Einstein’s famous equation E=mc2 dates from his miraculous year of 1905, in which he published four groundbreaking papers.

Despite its importance in calculating the energy released by nuclear reactions, scientists only realized the prospect of these reactions in the 1930s with the work of Rutherford and Chadwick.

Pioneers of atomic physics, including Neils Bohr and Albert Einstein, believed that harnessing this power for practical purposes in the near future was unlikely.

The history of Australia’s nuclear industry is littered with badges. Credit: David Havyatt

The study of nuclear reactions progressed rapidly after scientists, including Einstein, persuaded the United States to develop a nuclear weapon before Germany. This culminated in the construction of the first fission reactor in 1942, developed solely to produce weapons-grade plutonium.

In 1953, just eleven years later, newly appointed physics professor at the University of Sydney, Harry Messel, wrote a paper Nuclear power for Australian industry (The Australian Quarterly, vol. 25, no. 4, pp. 7-12.). Unfortunately, his opening paragraphs have not, as the saying goes, aged well. They read:

“Before discussing the economics of nuclear energy for industry, it is perhaps interesting to consider why, generally speaking, so many countries around the world are interested in nuclear energy as a source of energy.

“Mr. Palmer Putnam recently conducted a survey of world fuel reserves for the Materials Policy Commission of the United States. The results of this survey contain the answer to the above question. Putnam indicated that world reserves Complete coal reserves will likely dwindle to a negligible amount within 100 years, and oil and gas reserves will disappear in about half that time.The question arises now – so what?

“There is little or no hope that the energy from the wind, tides and waterfalls will meet a large part of our energy needs. The use of solar energy is not as easy as many people have been led to believe and is unlikely to play a major role in providing energy for several hundred years.This source of energy is likely to be exploited after the world’s uranium resources are exhausted usable.

“So despite the fact that nuclear energy has a number of disadvantages, such as the inherent danger of radioactivity, the difficulty of disposing of radioactive waste, it seems that the world will – whether it wants to or no – forced to turn more and more to nuclear energy as the main source of energy.

These short paragraphs offer the conclusion that fossil fuels would have diminished to a negligible level by 2053 and that solar energy would not be viable for hundreds of years.

The following paragraphs from Messel are a bit more prescient. After noting that uranium would become a highly prized commodity and that Australia would likely be one of the top three producers in the (Western) world, he opines:

“Unfortunately Australians have failed to realize what nuclear power can mean for this country and are quickly falling into the deplorable idea that in uranium we have a convenient exportable mineral for which there is a very dollar market. Australians have not yet realized that in their uranium resources in nuclear energy, they may have the means at their disposal to make their nation another Canada or another America of the ‘southern hemisphere.

“Uranium is not just another mineral to be exported. The return, whether in pounds or dollars, will be negligible compared to the national budget and will probably do little to make Australia a great nation. Let’s make sure our children’s children don’t end up with just holes in the ground – where Rum Jungle and Radium Hill once stood – and nothing to show for it.

Here we have a precursor to Ross Garnaut’s economic superpower argument, but based on the use of nuclear energy as a cheap source for massive industrial enterprise rather than sun and wind. At least Messel had the excuse of being a physicist, while Garnaut should understand that there are limits other than energy that hold back our industrial potential. Foremost among these is labor – but that is not the exaggerated argument of labor cost but of labor volume.

However, it is touching to see the confidence with which Messel enters the detailed conversation on the economy.

“The economic problem is of enormous magnitude, complicated by the fact that no nuclear reactor has yet been built for the sole purpose of generating electricity for industrial purposes. There are well over 30 nuclear reactors in the world today, but none of them were built for this sole purpose.

He first discusses the economics by observing that, yes, nuclear power is extremely expensive to start with, but the final cost of delivered electricity is very close to that of conventional steam power. Then, Messel turns adversity to his advantage.

“While nuclear power is not yet a paying proposition in America, that doesn’t mean it wouldn’t be a paying proposition in many remote parts of Australia today. Conditions are very different in Australia. of those that exist in America. We urgently need more power, which is not the case in America.

“One thing is certain – before any further large-scale expenditure on power generation in Australia, careful study must be made of the feasibility of achieving the same end output at equal or even lower cost.”

Messel wrote as Australia experienced tight electricity supply conditions. Post-war growth combined with the inability of our traditional suppliers in England to supply generators meant that supply struggled to keep up with demand.

Messel’s predictions of when Australia would develop nuclear power for industry were straightforward.

“It may be worth guessing how long it will be before Australia gets its first nuclear power plant. The most optimistic answers to this question are usually given by people who have never built a reactor I’m one of those people, so I’ll be optimistic and say that if Australia looks at it and pushes it, then we’ll have the number one nuclear power plant in Australia within ten years, and a nuclear industry within 30 to 40 years.

The electricity shortage in Australia has quickly eased. A quarter of a century after the newspaper, your correspondent paraded with his fellow students chanting “Export Fraser, not uranium”.

Five years later there was a surplus of electricity supply based on an investment cycle promoted by the Fraser government in an unsuccessful attempt to extend the mining boom of the 1960s and 1970s (i.e. the resources).

Today, just under seventy years after the article was published, the world is not short of fossil fuels; it just can’t afford to burn them any longer. Solar has not only been developed, but its “levelised cost” is lower than that of all fossil electricity sources. And globally, nuclear energy continues to struggle, with a play this week headlining “In 2022, the future of nuclear power looks bleaker than ever.”

There is a moral to this tale; don’t trust technology forecasts (or forecasters) too much. Just as Messel was wrong about solar, those who dismiss the potential economy of hydrogen could be wrong.

Nuclear fission’s younger brother, fusion, should still be thirty years from now as it has been for each of the last fifty. But that could change quickly, as shown by the short ten-year period between Chadwick’s discovery of the neutron in 1932 and the role of neutrons in the chain reaction at the heart of the first reactor.

Note: I discovered Messel’s article in response to a Facebook thread about Professor Julius Sumner Miller. Someone had posted about Messel, who used to take Miller to an annual science school. People who studied science in high school through the Wyndham (the HSC) curriculum (until the mid-1970s) would have used science textbooks forever associated with Messel.

However, the actual title was ‘Science for Secondary School Students: A four-year integrated course in Physics, Chemistry, Biology and Geology based on and covering the New South Wales Secondary Schools B Board Approved Science Curriculum/Nuclear Research Foundation School Certificate Integrated Science Textbook Group of authors and editors, under the presidency of H. Messel.’ The second volume for years 11 and 12 was simply ‘Higher sciences for high school students.

While Messel was originally a particle physicist, throughout the 70s and 80s he spent his time researching crocodiles in the Northern Territory. A college student in his late 70s spent a term living in the otherwise abandoned Messel office.

For those interested in what went wrong in STEM education, an article by Messel on textbooks is instructive. He states that within the Wyndham program, “in the sciences, the most important decision at the higher level has again been to reject the study of separate sciences in favor of the coordinated study of at least three sciences. “. This approach was later abandoned, I think when the unit system was introduced in 1976.

* ‘The Great Distraction’ is a play on Milton Friedman’s ‘The Great Contraction’, which was his term for the early years of the Great Depression. This is technically the phase in which a monetary policy response could have avoided the recession.

Do you know more? Contact James Riley by email.

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