China and USA will test how much big infrastructure and engineering matter

Bill Gates has gone to China to develop his Travelling Wave Reactor, which promises to run for 50 years without refueling and consume its own waste. After several years of effort, Gates had given up on ever getting anything approved by the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission. Instead, he signed a deal with the Chinese National Nuclear Corporation to build an experimental model in Asia.

Many academics and activists in the USA claim that nuclear energy is not needed and only solar and wind power are needed. They claim that solar and wind power can completely replace all other forms of energy. They seem to imply that this is the best choice and it will produce a stronger economy with more modern and high tech jobs. These claims appear to be likely to be put to the test where China is putting more emphasis on large scale engineering and nuclear power.

  • China is betting many trillions on infrastructure and advancing nuclear power. China is pursuing a global high speed rail network and building megacities (megaregions) of up to 300 million people each.
  • The USA is letting its infrastructure lag and is not pursuing large scale nuclear power and its lagging on many advanced engineering efforts.

Which is the worse error ? Overbuilding or Underbuilding and is the measurement of overbuilt correct ?

Some Claim China has put too much into infrastructure

China’s investment rate, averaging 43% of GDP since 2000, is greater than any other major economy in history. There is the claim that ineffective investment has cost China $10.8 trillion since 1997.

China will put $1.5 trillion into external investment from 2016 to 2020 according to their 13th five year plan. This will mostly go to the Belt and road initiative which could ultimately take $21 trillion or more. With the October 2014 launch of the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) in Beijing, (and a capital of US $50 billion), China laid the cornerstone for the next commodity Super-Cycle. This may even be an understatement. The development marks the beginning of the realization of an ambition estimated at US $ 21 trillion to re-establish the trade routes (both by land and sea) that connected the civilizations and peoples between East and West across the Eurasian continent for thousands of years.

Connecting the Asia-Pacific economic circle in the east and the European economic circle in the west, it’s currently the longest economic corridor with the greatest potential in the world. It directly impacts 4.4 billion people, around 63 percent of the world’s population, and deals with an economic aggregate of $21 trillion, 29 percent of the global volume.

The USA has let its infrastructure lag or rot for decades

Following its most recent assessment of all forms of infrastructure, from energy to schools to drinking water, the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) gave the U.S. a depressingly low overall grade of D+. Levees and inland waterways were the worst offenders, both slapped with a D-. According to the group, which releases its report every four years, a staggering $3.6 trillion will be necessary by 2020 to bring the nation’s infrastructure up to ideal conditions. Short of this investment, the ASCE says, $1 trillion in U.S. business sales could be lost every year, along with millions of jobs.

The United States used to be the leader in developing big industrial projects and capabilities.

– USA first with the national highway system
– USA leader with nuclear energy in the 1960s and 1970s. But froze development at 20% of electricity being nuclearized while France in the 1980s went to 80% nuclear electricity. Now China is putting the money into building many large new nuclear designs. China is building a nuclear city where many large scale factories will assemble modules for reactors

Bill Gates reviewed Thomas Friedman’s book, That Used to Be Us

The US should renew our own economic vitality by doing what we’ve done before: investing for the long term in education, science, infrastructure and stable government. Friedman and Mandelbaum have good ideas for making the U.S. economy stronger and more competitive. But they never really answer the question: Should 5% of humanity hope the other 95% messes up, just so the 5% can still call themselves exceptional? Isn’t it better for the whole world to become richer and healthier? Doesn’t that create new customers for U.S. goods and services, and make for a more stable world overall?

Nextbigfuture believes that large engineering projects are useful and more choices should emphasize pros and cons from an engineering perspective instead of from legal, policitcal and financial views.

China can now build an AP1000 from the ground up in five years, whereas it takes American and European countries 15 years with huge cost overruns to finish a project. (The two EDF reactors, Flamanville in France and Olkiluoto in Finland are approaching 10 and 15 years respectively with no end in sight.) The Russians have put a small modular reactor on a barge and are preparing to sail it into the Arctic to power isolated communities. Both the Chinese and Russians are experimenting with molten salt reactors – an American invention still on the shelf in this country. Since 1980 the Russians have been operating the world’s only fast breeder reactor, the BN600, and started operating a larger BN-800 in 2014. Fast breeders are the most advanced type of reactors that can burn any radioactive fuel and leave no waste product. We had a fast breeder experiment going in Idaho in the 1990s but it was killed by the Clinton Administration.

Outsourcing infrastructure to China

Large scale technology innovation is being stifled in the USA. By 2025 the US may have to do what Britain has done and ask the Chinese or the Russians to build reactors. This is already the case with large sections of bridges. The USA had China build sections of the Bay Bridge.

USA only letting small scale through

The cutting edge now lies with those small start-ups that have seized molten salt technology and are using it to produce “nuclear batteries” – small modular reactors that can be built in factories and shipped anywhere. Transatomic Power, Nu-Scale, Thorcon and Flibe all have the innovative models that would shake the foundations of the current players if this were all happening in Silicon Valley. One small start-up, Terrestrial Energy, a Canadian company, has a contract to build a molten salt reactor at Oak Ridge National Laboratories – proving that when the government controls everything the only thing to do is to partner with the government. But the other start-ups are being left out in the cold, Despairing of ever getting anywhere with the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, they are exploring the possibility of going to other countries with their experiments.

The fact that only small scale projects are getting through is not necessarily a conscious plan but that the disfunction at the large scale has not reached the smaller scale. Venture capitalists can fund tens of millions easily and even up a couple billion.

China is tripling down on Big Infrastructure and USA is blocking and screwing up its own infrastructure

China will put tens of trillions into more of its own infrastructure and building out throughout Asia, over to Europe and Africa and eventually beyond.

The USA is drifting to more infrastructure decay and not rejuvenating with anything but tiny nuclear and some solar and wind.

We will see whether solar and wind can really make up for lacking or lagging big engineering.