The dream that failed. The Economist on nuclear power

ImageOne year after Fukushima, the Economist has published a special report on nuclear power, which I recommend you read in its entirety if you are interested in the past, present and future of power sources on our planet (article and further links here).

It is a fascinating report (pictured: Enrico Fermi), and it ventures into broader issues of technologic success and failure (emphasis added):

The ability to split atoms and extract energy from them was one of the more remarkable scientific achievements of the 20th century, widely seen as world-changing. Intuitively one might expect such a scientific wonder either to sweep all before it or be renounced, rather than end up in a modest niche, at best stable, at worst dwindling. But if nuclear power teaches one lesson, it is to doubt all stories of technological determinism. It is not the essential nature of a technology that matters but its capacity to fit into the social, political and economic conditions of the day. If a technology fits into the human world in a way that gives it ever more scope for growth it can succeed beyond the dreams of its pioneers. The diesel engines that power the world’s shipping are an example; so are the artificial fertilisers that have allowed ever more people to be supplied by ever more productive farms, and the computers that make the world ever more hungry for yet more computing power.

There has been no such expansive setting for nuclear technologies. Their history has for the most part been one of concentration not expansion, of options being closed rather than opened.