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Reactor Design: Lessons from the Soviet Experience

  • MIT Room 24-213 24 Cambridge, MA 02142 (map)

Sonja Schmid

Department of Science and Technology in Society
Virginia Tech

The process of choosing reactor designs is messy and arbitrary, despite the fact that retroactively, these choices are often presented as rational: the best, most functional design won out, and the worldwide fleet of light water reactors arguably proves this point. And yet, in recent discussions of future nuclear power generation, designers have claimed unprecedented levels of safety, efficiency, and even elegance for novel types of reactors. In such debates, the idea of radical, revolutionary innovation clashes with the idea that only standardization can ensure the reliability of operation (and ultimately the possibility of effective emergency response) that the nuclear industry is seeking to implement after the Fukushima disaster.

This talk will provide a fresh perspective on these contemporary debates by presenting historical evidence from another era: when Soviet planners in the 1950s and 1960s tried to come up with a coherent energy policy for the next decades, they wrestled with similar questions. Was nuclear even a viable contender in the country’s energy portfolio? Which of the ten or so reactor designs proposed by Soviet scientists and engineers should they choose and why? Who would manufacture these complex machines, and at what cost? By explaining the decisions they ultimately arrived at I will show that considering the economic, social, and political implications of what might appear to be “purely technical” matters is worth the effort even today.

Sonja Schmid is a faculty member in the Department of Science and Technology in Society at Virginia Tech (National Capital Region). Originally hailing from the University of Vienna, she earned her PhD from Cornell University and spent time as a postdoctoral fellow at the Center for International Security and Cooperation at Stanford, and at the James Martin Institute for Nonproliferation Studies in Monterey. Her research focuses on the ways national energy policies, technological choices, and nonproliferation concerns shape each other. Earlier this year, MIT Press published her book, "Producing Power," on the development of the civilian nuclear industry in the Soviet Union, which is based on extensive archival research in Russia and on interviews with nuclear experts. In her current NSF-supported project, she investigates the challenges of globalizing nuclear emergency response.