The Travelling Wave 12

A socialist society is a stagnant society. And stagnation is a terminal illness of powers and peoples.

Invention springs from one brain, even if the development of it is advanced by other brains. A committee, a commune, a community, a jolly gathering of drinking chums will never do it.

Not only is there no incentive under socialism for an inventor to invent, there is also a lack of what he (have you noticed an inventor is always a “he”?) needs to do it: spare money, spare time, and above all freedom. No one interfering with him, no one saying you may or may not do this or that. No one directing him how to use his time. No one sharing his facilities and tools.

Only freedom fosters innovation.

Look how little in the way of important invention has come out of socialist Europe since WW2. It’s not because Europeans can no longer invent, it’s just that they have to go to non-socialist countries to do it. (Vide Sir Tim Berners-Lee, the Briton who invented the World Wide Web – in capitalist Switzerland.)

Fortunately in America, despite Obama’s efforts to turn the United States into Big Sweden, there are still some of the right conditions – some freedom and capital and incentive – for invention. But already ideas conceived in America need to be taken elsewhere for their development. Where? Shamefully, to communist China, because it has a freer economic system, less government regulation, and no pestilential environmentalist lobby. 

Here’s the story of an American inventor and his idea, from an article by Carl Shockley in the National Review:

An extraordinary pair of events occurred this week. They concerned the future of energy and two of the world’s richest men, Bill Gates and Warren Buffett. No one took much notice but they have remarkable implications for the future of the American economy.

First, Gates returned from a secret visit to China where, it was revealed in the Chinese press, he struck a deal with the Chinese National Nuclear Corporation to develop the Travelling Wave Reactor, a highly innovative technology that Gates has been developing with his spin-off company, TerraPower.

The Travelling Wave is a profoundly sophisticated technology that, thus far, exists only on paper. The idea is this: First, you design a fuel assembly in the shape of a long cigar, so that it burns slowly end-to-end. The uranium first “burns,” producing heat and electricity and transforming into plutonium and other highly radioactive isotopes in the process – creating what is usually called “nuclear waste.” But this is no “waste,” as the design of the reactor then allows the plutonium to “react” with itself as well, producing another round of nuclear fission and burning up the “waste” fuel in the process. By the time the “wave” has travelled end-to-end it will have generated up to 1000mW or more of electricity for a century with no refueling and very little waste remaining at the end of the process.

The Travelling Wave is the brainchild of Nathan Myhrvold, the legendary chief of research at Microsoft who, a decade ago, founded his own company, Intellectual Ventures, to research futuristic technology. Myhrvold settled on the Travelling Wave as the wave of the future and convinced Gates to fund TerraPower in order to develop it. The company is now working on the design with the aid of “1,024 Xeon core processors assembled on 128 blade servers,” which is a cluster that has “over 1,000 times the computational ability as a desktop computer,” according to its own report. TerraPower President John Gilleland estimates that a demonstration model can be assembled within ten years, with commercialization in 15.

But where to do all this? Developing nuclear technology in the United States means squeezing through the portals of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, that 11-story building in Beltsville, Md., that serves as corporate headquarters and clearinghouse for all new ideas in the nuclear industry. Right now, NRC chairman Gregory Jaczko is complaining he doesn’t have enough staff to conduct license-renewal applications for aging reactors such as Vermont Yankee and New York’s Indian Point (which will conveniently allow him to postpone these contentious issues until after the 2012 election, thereby protecting President Obama’s environmental flank). Getting approval from the NRC to build anything new is basically a lost cause. …  Several start-up companies have been trying to commercialize small-modular reactors but so far they have barely managed to get a foot in the door at the NRC.

So where to go with your revolutionary ideas? Why, China, of course! There they don’t have a mandarinate bureaucracy or hordes of environmental lawyers waiting to oppose your every move. So Gates has taken his pet idea to China — which means, of course, that if the Travelling Wave ever becomes a reality, China will be manufacturing them.

But wait — don’t we have “alternative technologies” that are going to make all this fossil fuel and nuclear stuff unnecessary? That’s what Warren Buffett thinks. Last week his MidAmerican Energy Holdings plunked down $2 billion to buy the 550-megawatt Topaz Solar Farm in the Central Valley of California. This is one of those projects in which about five square miles of photovoltaic panels are deployed in order to produce slightly less electricity than the 40-year-old Vermont Yankee nuclear facility — and only when the sun shines. During the night, when nuclear power just about runs the whole country, we’ll have to try something else.

Is Buffett riding the wave of the future? Does he see something that Gates and others don’t recognize? Well, not really. What he is perceiving most clearly is the array of federal and state subsidies, plus California’s “renewable portfolio standard” that requires utilities to build and buy solar electricity regardless of whether it’s reliable or even needed. … Even if these projects produce off-and-on electricity at four times the price of today’s power, they will be guaranteed a profit.

Under redistributionist big-government regimes there is always Obama-type “crony-capitalism”, which is not capitalism but the destruction of it.

We may soon see a wave of American inventors emigrating to anomalous China where, among other favorable conditions, fossil-fueled and nuclear power will reliably provide the energy to drive progress.


(Hat-tip Andrew M for the link)

  • Liz

    In reply to Harold –
    The article doesn’t say there are no inventors in socialist countries – but that they are stifled in developing their ideas there. If a socialist (ie overly regulated) society is such a great place for developing inventions, then why did Gates go to China to develop his?   You seem to be so intent on pointing out errors in this article that you are missing the whole point, which leads you to a skewed conclusion. 

    • Harold

      You may be right – maybe in Sweden and Finland the inventors do not get to develop their inventions.  Maybe you are not.  How do we know?  Can you provide any evidence to support your view?  Otherwise it is just speculation. 

      I think that Gates went to China to develop the nuclear reactor because there is such a climate of fear relating to nuclear power in the USA and Europe that it is impossible to get a rational decision.  I think the environmental lobby is wrong in this matter.  As an example, there was a coal mining union leader (I think) who once said that nuclear power should not be allowed until it could be proved that it would not cause any deaths.  This seemed a bit rich from the industry that had caused the death of so many miners.  I believe that the move to China in this case is a result of excessive fear of nuclear power.  This fear has been promoted by the “green” lobby.

      I support examination of the evidence to make these decisions.  Public opinion is swayed by hyperbolic statements from both the environmentalists and the industrial spokesmen.  I always support looking at the evidence, rather than the rhetoric.  In my view, the evidence says that nuclear power is reasonably safe (despite what some environmentalists say) and that CO2 causes global warming.  I am against entrenched positions which are counter to the evidence.  

      • Keith

        I agree, nuclear power is reasonably safe. This traveling wave technology solves (or appears to) the inherent problem with nuclear power, waste.
        I have read that it may be possible to take waste from old reactors and create fuel for traveling wave type reactors. That process would be more costly but probably not more costly than creating fuel and disposing of waste long term.
        The “green lobby” will do their best to prevent implementation of any of these new technologies here in the US. My guess is that even if someone invents 99% efficient solar panels that work even at night they will find a way to oppose them. It is my feeling they don’t want us to have an abundance of energy…. period.

        Having spent the last 15 years in the fuel cell industry and thus the alternative energy industry I can tell you all that those industries are mostly about getting grants and subsidies so they can produce anything that allows them to go public so they can make a bundle off initial stock offerings.  I have seen it happen a dozen times. 

        Harold, you seem like an intelligent guy so I am sure you realize that the graph AlGore used in his movie showing temperature rise as related to CO2 rise was misleading. The facts are that CO2 rise FOLLOWED temperature rise by a couple hundred years (no guessing or computer models but actual data gleaned from ice cores and tree rings). So yes they are related but it appears global warming causes CO2 levels to rise.

        Also, Liz suggest to me a while back to look into alternative theories of the universe, i.e. Electric Sky, Electric Universe and Thunderbolts of the Gods (thanks again Liz). These books promote an observational view of cosmology as opposed to a theoretical mathematical view. These theories are meeting with much criticism mainly because they go against the entrenched political side of science. It pains me that every time we look for open minds we end up butting heads with close minded entrenched ideologies. 

  • Harold

    I was interested by the connection between freedom and inventions.  I assumed there would be a correlation, but I was not sure that Europe had produced so few inventions.  What would be a good measure of inventions?  Number of patents obviously gives quite a good measure of inventiveness.  I looked up the countries with the top 20 number of patents and divided by population.  I then looked up the Freedom Index for these countries from the Heritage Foundation ( and plotted one against the other.

    I was slightly surprised by the lack of correlation.  There was a weak correlation, r squared = 0.14, but not as strong as I had suspected (1.0 would be perfect correlation).  There were some interesting points. 

    At the lowest end in both freedom and patents were Russia and China.  I suspect that China may be there because it has a much smaller GDP than nearly all the other countries in the top 20.  I was surprised by the absence of India.  If we removed China the correlation coefficient drops to 0.1 – not very strong at all. 

    There were 3 counties which stood out with the most patents per head.  These were S. Korea, Switzerland and Japan.  These 3 form a separate little cluster, separated from the rest.  Switzerland scores very high for both patents and freedom.  S. Korea and Japan are very high for patents, but not so high for freedom.  There may be something in the way the freedom index is calculated that could explain this – possibly S. Korea has lots of economic freedom, but not so much social freedom so score lower on freedom index – I don’t know. 

    The group that is left (removing China, S. Korea, Japan and Switzerland)  interestingly has the same correlation as the whole data set, 1.4 – although this does disappear without Russia.

    There are some further interesting observations within this group.  The next highest numbers of patents per head are Sweden and Finland- both noted for socialist type policies.  So perhaps turning USA into a big Sweden may not be bad for inventions after all!

    This is obviously a very imperfect study, but it is a study of sorts.  It does not support the view that the type of socialism effected in Europe has any stifling effect on inventiveness.  If you want to stimulate inventions, do whatever they do in Switzerland, S. Korea and Japan, and definitely do not do whatever they do in Russia. 

    • Harold

      When I said China has the smallest GDP, I of course meant GDP per capita.

    • Jillian Becker

      Harold – I’m amazed that you don’t bore yourself with your pedantic proceedings. Or do you? 

      Do you agree with all the criteria used by the Freedom Index?  I don’t. 

      And even you must have noticed that we’re not overwhelmed by the number or enthused by the brilliance of Swedish and Finnish inventions.      

      • Harold

        I am sorry you find this pedantic.  Some of my comments may be, but this is not pedantry.  It was an attempt to lift the argument above anecdote.  

        The Heritage foundation is not a “left wing” or “liberal” organisation at all.   I suspected you might support them, but perhaps not.  I may not agree with all the criteria, but can you suggest a better index?  Perhaps you can support your claim that little invention has come out of socialist Europe since the war?  Do you have a better measure of freedom than the Freedom Index?  Or a better measure of inventiveness that patents?  This is not a rhetorical question, I am sure there are other measures which you may be thinking of.

        • Jillian

          I am a member of the Heritage Foundation. That doesn’t mean I always agree with them. 

          Please continue trying to prove us wrong. We’re awed that you consider this a worthy aim to devote so much of your time and energy to achieving.  

    • Don L

      Harold you are still a useless piece of c__p! You haven’t an original thought in your body.  You are the government stooge spouting useless numbers without any ability to see and understand.  YOU ARE WHAT”S WRONG WITH AMERICA!!!

      You are the enemy of free thought and invention.  You are the welfare redistribution state.  Without your study you are incapable of anything. QUANTITATIVE ANALYSIS ISN’T THOUGHT…ESPECIALLY WHEN IT’S ANALYSIS OF MEANINGLESS  DATA. I’ve told you before…jacka__…your core premise/principles/philosophy is corrupt collective garbage. 

      Your the adolph eichman…just the numbers, the good little german.  Go live in Sweden…please!  Sweden is crashing and burning under the weight of follow on generations that lack the startup generation’s work ethic.  The natural outcome of ‘ability to need’ redistribution.  You know that socialist externality crap you promote! 

      What a foul and disgusting person you are.  You must be some government funded/dependent grunt.  I have provided you with reading and viewing suggestions…open your mind and eyes…obviously to no avail. 

      You are the bureaucratic mindset…the very essence of why government fails.  You lack any notion of human.  You have no understanding of economics.  You are merely the vessel of central planning indoctrination.  A virtual zombie. 

      Ah, as before…you are dead between the ears.  communicating with you is a fruitless endeavor.  And, the stuff you post is statist propoganda…

      ___ yourself  LOL

      • Harold

        Hi DonL.  Happy Christmas.  I have been away for a few days and just looked back.  Wow.  Try to establish some data behind anecdotal claims and suddenly I am Adolph Eichman.  Without study I am incapable of anything, whereas without study you are presumably capable of gleaning truth?

  • This reminds me of a very important principle of magnetism discovered by Roy Harrigan, who acted out of sheer ignorance of established scientific doctrine:

    It only goes to show that the only thing limiting your potential is your mentality. That being said, I wouldn’t discourage women from engaging their mental and entrepreneurial spirits to brighten the world simply because they are women and historical inventors were rarely women.

  • Harold

    There is so  much fear about nuclear it is impossible to get rational decisions.  I don’t know if travelling wave is the answer, but even the well tried existing designs should be being rolled out as we speak.  Instead, partly because of leaks in Japan following the earthquake, the Western world has almost stopped planning for more nuclear.  If we look at the actual harm done by the Japanese leaks, it was not that large compared to the harm caused by, say, coal mining and coal burning. 

    The Topaz farm also has a place.  It is of a decent size, about the same as a medium sized coal power plant.  This uses thin film photovoltaics, and this technology could be cheaper than coal with a few more % efficiency.  In principle, I am in favor of moderate subsidies, to allow new technologies to compete with the de-facto subsidised fossil fuels.