The inertia theory of technology development

In 1957 Latin American nuclear scientists came to a bonding and education conference at Brookhaven National Laboratory on Long Island near New York. Not much from that conference seems to have survived, at least outside American archives, but Nucleonics, the industry’s trade journal, reported on a speech by Alvin Weinberg, Oak Ridge’s supremo. Weinberg had a searching mind, fine narrative skills, and exuberant presentation tactics, so his speeches often resonate down the decades. This particular speech was titled “Whither Reactor Development” and at a more granular level explored the design issue of using a gas or liquid coolant, and in particular allowed him to spruik his laboratory’s aqueous homogeneous design (long vanished from the world). But take a look at his opening remarks, as reported by Nucleonics:

The massiveness of reactor technology, he says-in the sense that hydraulics or bridge-building are massive-has had these effects: (1) it consists of relatively few very large devices, hence has fairly limited possibilities for experiment; (2) each project resembles an inverted pyramid, in that a single idea requires an ever-increasing amount of effort for its implementation, and hence few of the 100-odd. possible reactor types can be worked on seriously; (3) the reactor experiment-a relatively small-scale reactor embodying some, but not all, the essential features of a full-scale reactor-has become an accepted developmental device for reactor technology, removing some of the expense and inertia involved; and (4) the technology has so much inertia that once a line of development is chosen it becomes difficult to move to another line. Thus the history of a line of development weighs almost as heavily as its intrinsic merit in deciding the future.

Nucleonics. 1957. “Whither breeder development?” Nucleonics, 15, Aug., p. 99.
Weinberg speech

This hypothesis of development is often cited as the reason that LWRs (light water reactors) dominate the global nuclear power plant landscape, making up over three quarters of the world’s reactors. As a hypothesis it has merit but when proponents of left-field designs claim that “we’ve gone down the wrong technology path because LWRs became ‘locked in,'” I find myself skeptical. I’m not saying they’re wrong, those proponents, but it certainly seems to me that competition for the “best” design was most intense over the decades, and funding capital was available for the best ideas and designs.