The Science of Human Innovation

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The “science” of human innovation is both within and beyond our understanding. Looking backwards through time, our problems have often been solved through simple innovation. Population growth, for example, sparked transformation: the Industrial Revolution began to harness the power of coal. Wind was no longer in our sails, but ships burning fossil fuels were taking explorers around the world faster than ever before, and, as David Attenborough pointed out, guaranteeing escape from Fijian cannibals. This remarkable ability of humanity, often overlooked, is one of our strongest sciences: being able to think, and invent, our way forward. Human society has now reached a new stage; one in which we must change almost every aspect of our daily lives, and reduce our dependency on our earlier innovation: fossil fuels. Nuclear power is the next innovative step.

Nuclear energy is, arguably one of our greatest innovations; the ability to generate power from miniscule molecules. Our freedom to invent was catalysed by the birth of agriculture (ingenuity in itself!) and the surplus of food it brought roughly 10 thousand years ago-. This was arguably the most important event in human history as a reliable source of food released us from the requirement to spend the day hunting and gathering, and enabled rapid human growth and innovation. Today, our modern intensive agricultural system enables us to live in our giant metropolises, far removed from nature and our food sources, empowering our scientists to invent the very items we now rely upon.  This view, that population growth causes invention to solve a looming crisis, can be loosely termed as Boserupian: “necessity is the mother of invention” which is at the root of the PRISM (Power Reactor Innovative Small Modular) fast breeder nuclear reactor’s birth. While on the edge of a climate precipice, facing melting ice caps, unstable weather and biodiversity loss, we have been given an innovative solution: a carbon-clean method of energy production.

The generation of PRISM really is a pinnacle, to date, of human innovation. As Eric Loewen, president of the America Nuclear Society, once remarked, says, it “is a fast and secure way to power the world using yesterday’s nuclear waste”[1]. Currently, there are nearly 120 million tons of plutonium stored in the UK[2], and as we learnt from the Cumbria debacle – a proposition to bury nuclear waste in the north of England – the problem, like carbon, will not go away easily. In conventional reactors, uranium is bombarded by neutrons, causing it to split and release both more neutrons, and energy, with the energy used to generate electricity. The neutrons must be slowed down to ensure a chain reaction occurs, and so these reactors release just 1% of uranium’s energy. However, fast breeder reactors are true to their name and they bombard plutonium at a quick pace. In theory, the reactors not only continuously produce electricity, but recycle their own fuel as they exhaust the supply of plutonium.  According to figures released by David McKay, Chief Scientific Advisor at the Department of Energy and Climate Change, our plutonium stores could power British electricity for 500 years[3]. This technology, 99 times more efficient than conventional nuclear energy,   98 has such transformative potential it could revolutionise our way of life, just like agriculture did, and the Industrial Revolution.

 

A critical point here is that this transformative innovation must not be dismissed on the grounds of superstition and a fear of anything deemed “artificial.” A fear of nuclear explosion, as in Japan, is clearly rational. However, in December, a UN scientific committee found no radiation illnesses from Fukushima, and they warned against radiation superstition. Nuclear evacuees are costing the Japanese government billions of dollars, despite their former homes being deemed safe, and hundreds have died from the stress of the displacement. Rather than “trashing the test fields” we need to be lauding our scientists, clapping them on the back for coming up with a workable solution to our current energy and climate crisis. Renewable technologies will provide energy, but PRISM is an invention that can operate now, on a large scale, and meet our energy needs. Scare-mongering by environmentalists merely fuels superstitions: at 400x the background radiation level humans would see no DNA damage[4]. Current Government policy intends to have electricity generated from nuclear power stations by 2019, however I believe this is an issue that deserves a higher ranking on Governmental policy. Although there is already governmental backing to nuclear power, it needs to be implemented rapidly. The green solution is nuclear; Germany, following the Fukushima disaster is closing its nuclear power plants, in favour of reverting back to coal. Their new “clean coal” power plant emits in one year one million times the carbon emitted over 20 years by all its previous nuclear power plants combined. There is no better solution.

Written by Lily Peck, edited by Simon Renwick