I welcome you to SMiRT 16, the 16th International Conference on Structural Mechanics in Reactor Technology, and to the National Capital of the United States, the Washington DC Metropolis. Both offer much; are leaders in their own right. SMiRT is a forum of free discourse; the metropolis symbolizes freedom and free enterprise.
The nuclear energy enterprise is on the threshold of a renaissance—a miracle indeed, for many did not expect it to overcome the Dark Age that lasted more than a quarter century. The reality was and remains, that nuclear energy is an imperative. Could the nuclear energy enterprise rise to the occasion as demand rises to unthinkable levels? Much time has been lost and little remains to build and rebuild the energy supply that was assumed inexhaustible. Much time is lost since 1977 when President Carter declared combating the energy problem “moral equivalent of war.” Could the enterprise rise to the occasion, unshackle public policy, generate capital, groom leaders, ready the workforce, compress decades into years, and build and operate—in the best of scenarios at least—a few hundred plants in the next decade?
At stake is no less than a way of life in which consumption and availability of energy are taken for granted. Abundance of energy is the hope for a better future for more than two billion people in the developing countries, who don’t consume much now, but willneed more—sooner than later. Weapons and wars would no longer protect prosperity of the rich, for they destroy the rich along with the less rich. The economies of the haves may not be sustained without the resources and the markets of the have-nots. The global society has changed the paradigm of international relations.
It will take no less than a miracle to meet the challenge, think out of the box, accomplish the unthinkable, dream freely even if ridiculed. In the 16th century, the Church forced Galileo “on pain of death” to recant his work on astronomy that supported the then-well-established fact that earth rotates around sun. Ridicule is less pain than death; but it still takes courage. Some, if not all, must dare at SMiRT 16; and they will.
Engineers are unique. They excel at the edge of the known, beyond the certain. Risk is the hallmark of engineering. It is intuitive, practiced since creation, codified for centuries, refined with knowledge and experience. People accept risk, without which no progress could happen. Representatives of the people required nuclear energy be generated in such a manner that the health of the people is protected. They never required zero risk for other enterprises (for example, civil aviation) in the past, nor did they for nuclear energy. The government of the people and the people of science and technology proclaimed that it be risk free. Inconsistent? Yes! Much has happened since the first rules were written and plants built; since the rules became increasingly restrictive and the plants more expensive; since TMI and Chernobyl. The plants couldn’t be risk free no matter how much was spent.
While risk-based engineering was perfected for common building codes over three decades, restrictive rules were written for nuclear plants. The goal was noble – public safety; but the execution faulty – safety at any cost. President Eisenhower’s “Atoms for Peace” offered cheap energy. Few thought, at least initially, that “a little bit of extra engineering and hardware” would turn nuclear energy from “too cheap to meter” into “too expensive to afford.”
The new consensus emerged that plants shall be risk-informed, not risk-free. Safety would be enhanced using common sense (defense in depth) and experience (performance). It is a beginning of a long journey. The SMiRT 16 theme “Challenges to Structural Mechanics: Safety & Cost” is a part of the journey. Think the unthinkable and see history in making.
Thank you for joining me at this momentous occasion. Enjoy the Capital City, take and give. Join us again in Prague, August 2003!