Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Nuclear Power Plant Design Contest:

Can Appearance Help?

Several news items in recent weeks have reported that John Ritch of the World Nuclear Association has organized a design contest to come up with a more attractive design for a nuclear power plant. He asserts that "Many plants look little more inspiring than a 100-year-old flour mill. We can and should do better."

He may have a point. I sometimes think I am hearing as many objections to the appearance of the industrial facilities that we depend on as to concerns about health or safety. Certainly, we have seen that people object to windmills marring the unspoiled crests of mountaintops, or the dramatic expanses of ocean. No one likes the look of power lines crossing the landscape. And whenever someone wants to write an article with an anti-nuclear bias, they illustrate it with a photograph of ominous cooling towers casting their shadow over the land, despite the fact that cooling towers are not unique to nuclear power plants.

This concern over appearance is not limited to energy sources. My husband, Mike Marcus, is an expert in wireless telecommunications policy, and he finds that one of the major objections to the cell-phone towers we on which we have come to depend to connect us instantaneously and everywhere in this wireless age is the fact that they are, frankly, ugly projections sticking up in our suburban landscapes. Some have tried to disguise the towers in the form of fake trees, which somehow never seem to match the native flora of the area. Mike has called for a similar contest to design more attractive cell-phone towers.

Beauty, of course, is in the eye of the beholder, and I know as many people who think windmills are beautiful as I know who think they mar the landscape. Nevertheless, most people, given a choice, will pick the unspoiled shoreline over the one with cooling towers and buildings with pipes jutting out. And yes, many will succumb to NIMBYism--these things are OK, but not where I can see them--but most, I think, will agree that, whenever possible, a less intrusive profile is better.

Now, I don't think anyone thinks that appearance is the only issue. People will continue to worry about safety, particularly for nuclear power plants, but also for cell-phone towers, high-power transmission lines, and most of the other infrastructure that supports the services that society wants and needs, but whose presence they don't want to see or acknowledge. So, solving the problem of appearance is not the only need.

Still, I recall an old ad that said, "Good taste costs no more." There is no reason why much of our infrastructure needs to be quite as unattractive as some of it is. If designed right from the beginning, many facilities could be made more attractive for minimal additional cost.

And in the case of nuclear power plants, some of the options on the table for future designs might actually work hand-in-hand with efforts to make the sites more attractive. Plants that can be sited underground and plants that need no cooling towers automatically remove some of the visible evidence of a plant's existence. There is still a need for other infrastructure above ground, but the visible footprint should be smaller and less intrusive.

So I wish John Ritch and the World Nuclear Association well as they engage in this new effort to develop more attractive nuclear power plant designs. For those wishing to enter the contest, the contest rules indicate that the deadline for submissions is December 1.

Finally--a reminder that my new book is out. See my earlier post for details, or click on the link to the right to order.


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