March 21, 2011

The nuclear power industry’s technological lock-in

Filed under: Economics, History, Science, Technology — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 09:20

Leon Neyfakh looks at how light water reactors became the “default” choice of the nuclear power industry:

Japan’s reactors are “light water” reactors, whose safety depends on an uninterrupted power supply to circulate water quickly around the hot core. A light water system is not the only way to design a nuclear reactor. But because of the way the commercial nuclear power industry developed in its early years, it’s virtually the only type of reactor used in nuclear power plants today. Even though there might be better technologies out there, light water is the one that utility companies know how to build, and that governments have historically been willing to fund.

Economists call this problem “technological lock-in”: The term refers to the process by which one new technology can prevail over another for no good reason other than circumstance and inertia. The best-known example of technological lock-in comes from the 1970s, when VHS and Betamax, two different kinds of videotape, competed in the market until VHS gained a slight lead and then leveraged it to total domination. Whether the VHS format was actually superior to Betamax didn’t matter. After the lock-in, consumers no longer had a choice.

Much more is at stake in nuclear power. Some reactor designs are safer than others in an accident; some are more efficient than others in their use of fuel and produce less nuclear waste. The fact that the industry settled on light water over any number of alternatives was determined in the years after World War II, when the US Atomic Energy Commission and Navy Admiral Hyman Rickover made a series of hasty decisions that irreversibly set the course for how nuclear power plants around the world are built today.

“There were lots and lots of ideas floating around, and they essentially lost when light water came to dominate,” said Robin Cowan, a professor at the University of Strasbourg and the University of Maastricht who wrote a 1990 paper in The Journal of Economic History about the nuclear industry’s technological stagnation. “The market tends to choose a dominant design before it’s optimal, and it tends to under-explore.”

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