The Need For Nuclear Energy

One of the great disappointments of the President’s first term was his failure to devote political capital on the task of re-starting our nuclear energy program. Unfortunately given the already contentious nature of the election, it is hard to image the 2004 election focusing any attention on this critical issue.

After 225 years of amazing advances, still the most important invention to humankind was James Watt’s steam engine, the first instance of generated energy. Almost every activity in our economy is dependent upon energy. Without the ability to generate vast amounts of inexpensive energy on demand, there would be no high yield agriculture, no manufacturing, no widespread exchange of goods, and certainly no consumer economy. It is not too much of a stretch to say that insuring an adequate supply of energy is a responsibility of government almost as critical as that of national defense.

At the moment our long-term energy policy is best described as “Hoping science comes up with something better than nuclear energy while trying to make fossil fuels last as long as possible.” We are hardly the only country drawing down oil reserves, and as democratic capitalism spreads energy demand worldwide will increase dramatically. Already China is the second largest consumer of energy, behind the U.S. As China continues to democratize and prosper, it will eventually far surpass the United States in energy usage. While many factors have an impact on how long the world’s fossil fuel supply will last – finding new reserves, better extraction methods, transformation of coal, economic cycles, increasing efficiency of vehicles and manufacturing operations, recycling plastics – if I had to take the over/under on most estimates I would take the under. It frightens me to no end to think that our government has been betting on the over for the last four years.

As importantly, technology development usually doesn’t work well when a whole avenue of exploration is shut off. If we do find a superior power generation method, it is possible that it will somehow evolve out of nuclear energy. It is also possible that science won’t come up with a better answer, and that nuclear energy will be the only viable option as we run out of fossil fuels; at the moment there is nothing else that comes close to its power generation ability. We have removed the dynamic potential of the market to drive development. Without the realistic possibility of building new nuclear power plants, no company or entrepreneur will focus on improving their design and efficiency. Without the ongoing generation of nuclear waste, there is significantly less focus on remediation or neutralization technologies. We need to start building nuclear power plants again.

For many people opposition to nuclear energy is a moral issue; because of the scope of the potential harm to humankind in the event of a catastrophic accident, nuclear energy is inherently wrong. But the choice is not between risk and no risk - it is a choice between different risks. Global warming and depletion of the ozone arguably could have much greater catastrophic consequences for the planet. And way, way down the road, the potential of running out of energy is even more problematic. A couple of centuries ago, Malthus predicted that the world’s population would outrun its food supply. The variable which proved Malthus wrong was generated energy and the advances in agricultural productivity this allowed. Without being overly dramatic, if we ever do run out of fossil fuels before we find an alternative, billions of people will starve. While there is a segment of our population which thinks that humans have gotten too high and mighty and look forward to a forced return to the equality of all species, I personally find the prospect less than appealing.

The oversight of the construction and operation of nuclear power plants was not necessarily well handled during the paranoia and secrecy of the cold war years, but nuclear energy is too important not to pursue. Sooner or later nuclear energy will again have to be part of our energy policy. Both Bush and Kerry will probably avoid talking about the issue during the campaign. But at some point in the not to distant future, our ability to construct, operate and overseen safe and efficient nuclear power plants is going to be of critical importance. Lets hope that whoever is elected President in 2004 has the political capital available to get the discussion started sooner rather than later.

Posted by at March 15, 2004 12:28 PM