There is a story in this month’s Wired , Uranium is So Last Century— Enter Thorium, the New Green Nuke. What is fascinating about this story is the backdrop.
1)The technology behind thorium as a replacement for uranium is American and starts in the late 1950’s with the publishing of the 978 page tome, Fluid Fuel Reactors, by the Atomic Energy Commission as part of its Atoms for Peace program. This book describes how to engineer a Thorium reactor that runs more safely than the contemporary Uranium reactors.
2)Thorium technology has 3 critical advantages over uranium fuel – its cheaper by a longshot because its more plentiful, its safer because it does not produce Plutonium and other weapons grade by-products like uranium reactors do; and its relatively clean because its radioactive by-products are fewer and have shorter half-lives;
3)The technology still has a major American developer, Lightbridge, but their success is in Russia;
4)Meanwhile the Chinese, French, and Indian governments plus business communities are investigating and investing in Thorium reactor designs big time.
Now Thorium reactors still produce considerable amounts of radioactive wastes. This is a major problem as long as radioactive waste is treated like Guantanamo Bay prisoners by all of the 50 States and US territories.
But that is not the real Thor Point.
Thorium Reactors are like Electric Cars, Methane and other Gas Deposits, and much Green Technology. The US is again a pioneer in many basicresearch areas but in the old fashion innovation and entrepreneurship it is falling way behind not just Europe but all the Asian tigers – China, India, Japan, Korea and Taiwan. The evidence is clear:
Bruce Nussbaum at Business Week describes the US Sclerosis:
US-sclerosis – America becomes increasingly ungovernable and incompetent. Ideological polarization, political corruption (legal lobbying but pay-to-play), growing inequality, globalization of corporate and financial elites, and large-scale social system failures (education, healthcare, intelligence, industry), cut America’s economic, political and military power. The shift to a green economy is slow. The dollar sinks and inflation rises to ease paying for huge government debt.
Second, the US has seen the gutting of its lending institutions as greed and false financial risktaking in shadow markets have been able to crowd out traditional entrepreneurial risk taking:
This meant that nearly one-third of the U.S. lending mechanism was frozen and continued to be frozen into June 2009. According to the Brookings Institution, the traditional banking system does not have the capital to close this gap as of June 2009: “It would take a number of years of strong profits to generate sufficient capital to support that additional lending volume.” The authors also indicate that some forms of securitization are “likely to vanish forever, having been an artifact of excessively loose credit conditions.” While traditional banks have raised their lending standards, it was the collapse of the shadow banking system that is the primary cause of the reduction in funds available for borrowing.
As a result China, Korea, and India whose economies a)were not hit as bad as Europe and North America and b)whose credit systems were never greatly endangered have already started making the huge Green Economy Investments while the US is lagging far behind. So in effect US entrepreneurs not only have to battle a renewed emphasis on quarterly and immediate returns but also a major downturn in venture capital. American innovators/entrepreneurs are “missing first entrant opportunities in many major new markets”. Think Thorium just as a starting point.
Finally, outsize rewards and bonuses on Wall Street are being paid for easy Slam Dunk performances. With the Federal government and taxpayers providing not only “Too Big To Fail” Insurance payments [and the Financial Overlords are able to stop all attempts at re-regulation and control of this repeated malfeasance] while banks and other institutions are given 3%++ point spreads between what they borrow from the US and what they collect from investors [the easy Slam Dunks], real risk taking, innovation, and technology ventures is just a sideshow to “where real money is to be made”.
The Bautocrats of the Finance industry who have financed most Democratic and Republican Senate and House campaigns mightily, are still calling the tunes to their nominal Federal government masters. So while the US flounders under rabid partisanship, dwindling financial capital maneuvering room, and an elite bautocracy that defends its prerogatives with bull terrier ferocity[see how quickly the major banks paid off their government loans], the rest of the World gets to catch up – and the US educational and global institutions have trained many of the Indian, Chinese, Taiwanese, Korean, Brazilian and other national business people in how to win at innovation and new technology. I will let Business Week’s Bruce Nussbaum have the final words:
China is running a national, mercantilist economic policy that both state-owned and privately owned companies follow. Technology transfer is focused on building Chinese global companies that can compete with US, Japanese and European corporations. Investment and trade are not just about raising living standards (if they were, then Beijing would let the yuan rise, increase the buying power of China’s consumers, and boost their living standards). They are about building national and global economic and political strength. US companies know they are building up their own competitors in China but feel they have no choice [and have to sell their technology cheaply in the down market]. They need a choice or the future long-term growth prospects for the US will grow dimmer and dimmer. China is playing a serious national innovation game. Good for China. The US is not. Bad for America.