Sunday, April 10, 2005

Doom. Gloom. And Nuclear Power.

So, Kevin Drum is going off again on peak oil, and Kristof is telling environmentalists that nuclear power is their friend.

Now, True Blue is going to play futurist: as we are forced to find affordable replacements for oil, the dominant power source of the next century will be nuclear power. Fundamentally, there is no replacement for oil today--it's an easily transportable, dense energy source that's easily converted to a usable form. Even when using other fossil fuels, nothing's nearly as good as oil. But we're not going to run out of oil overnight; it's going to become gradually more expensive as it becomes more difficult to obtain. So, it's a marginal benefit issue: as oil becomes gradually more expensive, what's going to replace it where it's replaceable?

Every alternative energy source except nuclear has some sort of glaring technical problem that makes it unworkable: solar and wind are far too unreliable, geothermal/tidal/hydropower are too local (hydro, especially, has significant political repercussions in water use battles), and we can't get fusion to pay off on planet Earth. If we could figure out a way to efficiently store and transport electrial power, we'd be more willing to work on the technical issues for these alternative energy sources and make the continuing investments that made them more and more efficient, but it turns out that storing electricity ain't easy.

Today, the path of least resistance is to substitute nuclear-generated electricity for oil wherever possible. To be reductive, when it comes to keeping the lights on, burning uranium is the most like burning coal or oil. This path of least resistance won't change without a major investment by government--it's pretty clear that finding the technical solution to storing energy will be a phenomenally expensive high-risk venture, and making energy cheaper looks far too much like a public good for any business to reasonably anticipate a meaningful ROI.

Today, we've got an administration that refuses to make this investment in a meaningful way. Even if we manage to get a progressive in office by 2008, the window of opportunity for investment is closing--the next officeholder is going to have to spend all their political capital digging the nation our from under Bush's fiscal mismanagement and preparing us to take the fiscal hit (Medicare/Medicaid health costs and Social Security) of the retiring boomers in 2011. There will be no spare change to invest in the kind of basic energy research that's needed to make most alternative energy sources a viable option.

Barring a lucky discovery by a genius scientist, there's little chance we're going to move off our current energy path--we're just not making the investments in the science that would make it possible. Oil will become more and more expensive, and our solution will be substitutions of less desirable energy sources (mostly nuclear) at the margins of consumption. Ironically, we'd be better off if we were going to run out of oil on a set date--we need a major technological breakthrough to maintain and improve our current standard of living, and without an impending crisis, it appears we are unwilling to make the investment necessary to create this breakthrough.

It took FDR's leadership and the terror of Nazi triumph to make the nuclear breakthrough. What's it going to take for us to make the next one?


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