Paul Johnson talks of scare-tactics against the nuclear industry, dismisses Three Mile Island as “a minor accident”, and chalks Chernobyl up to “the old, inefficient, corrupt and careless U.S.S.R.” He suggests that the USA should solve the present oil-shortage crisis and its eternal trade deficit by “becoming the world’s supplier of electricity generated by nuclear reactors”. Unfortunately Johnson appears not to know much about the old, inefficient, corrupt and careless U.S.A; of the unresolved contamination of Rocky Flats, Colorado and Oak Ridge, Tennessee by American nuclear contractors like Union Carbide and Dow Chemical; of the underground tank farm at Hanford, Washington State, which are bubbling cauldrons of transuranic wastes, all mixed willy nilly together so no one actually knows what exotic reactions are stirring their depths.
But it is not ignorance that qualifies this article for the loony bin, it’s the visionary tone, the blindness to obvious dangers, and the hectoring, clumsy attempts to belittle those who would disagree – all of which remind this editor of the proposals made by the late Professor Alexander Abian of Iowa State University, to solve Earth’s climatic problems by blowing up the moon, and to provide more living space for humanity by towing Venus out of its orbit and crashing it (gently) onto the Earth.
PAUL JOHNSON, DRIVELLING ON FORBES.COM
In the past I’ve paid little attention to world oil short-ages and the consequent increases in oil prices because they tend to end naturally, when supply catches up with demand. But in the current instance no such rectification by the market has taken place, so more fundamental remedies must be studied.
As the world’s biggest consumer of energy–as well as the one power with the technical resources, capital and experience in leadership to apply bold measures–the U.S. has a duty to think on the largest possible scale. It should contemplate becoming the world’s supplier of electricity generated by nuclear reactors.
The world’s biggest technical failure over the last half-century has been the refusal to make full use of nuclear power. Following the explosion of the two atomic bombs in Japan in August 1945, I recall vividly the speculation that the peaceful use of nuclear energy would replace the world’s dependence on fossil fuels with a cheaper, cleaner and inexhaustible source of power. But this has not happened. It’s not because the technology or the capital resources are lacking but because public opinion has been stampeded into the antinuclear camp by scare tactics, helped along by a minor accident in the U.S. at Three Mile Island and a major one in the old, inefficient, corrupt and careless U.S.S.R. at Chernobyl. In fact, for the long term nuclear energy is by far the cheapest, cleanest and most trustworthy way to produce power. The safety procedures for nuclear energy can be improved upon indefinitely, while the risks involved in continuing dependence on fossil fuels are intrinsic.
Return to Nuclear Energy
The present oil crisis–the longest on record–is forcing the governments of many nations to drop their craven deference to the antinuclear lobbies and tread the path of realism. France, thanks to the foresight of President Valéry Giscard d’Estaing, has always stuck with the nuclear option. Finland, at one time thoroughly shaken by Chernobyl, is now following suit. Britain has just decided to build a score of new nuclear power plants.
I’d like to see the U.S. not only building many more nuclear power plants but also taking a leap forward in the game, to become a major supplier of nuclear-generated energy to the whole world. The U.S. was the first nuclear power and is still well ahead of other countries in nuclear technology. It is capable of building nuclear generators on a scale hitherto undreamed of and concentrating them in remote areas that would provide the maximum geographical safeguards and, in the unlikely chance of attack, allow for antimissile defenses to be set up.
This is, of course, a long-term plan that would involve colossal capital expenditures and extensive work to produce entirely new supergenerators and long-range distribution systems. But the U.S. has shown itself to be capable of thinking big, for its own sake and for that of humanity. The Manhattan Project is a case in point.
That project was conducted under wartime conditions of secrecy, or it might otherwise never have been accomplished. The doubters, the faint-of-heart and the safety-obsessed are always noisier than are the innovators and visionaries. Yet even under conditions of public debate, great engineering feats can be accomplished. Witness the way in which the U.S. built its first transcontinental railroad and the Panama Canal, or how Britain, even in the Depression-riddled 1930s, built the first national electricity grid.
Meeting Russia’s Challenge
Russia, a nearly third-rate economic power a decade ago, has leapt back into the race through its large-scale export of natural gas and oil. The U.S. could consolidate its superpower status with a Global Nuclear Energy Supply System, which, in time, would not only solve the world’s energy problems but would also generate unimaginably vast export earnings, thereby providing a permanent solution to America’s balance-of-payments deficit.
It’s worth remembering that the U.S. has not entirely neglected the potential of large-scale use of nuclear energy. Its fleets of aircraft carriers and submarines, which form the core of its capacity as the world’s only superpower and are the means of making its global military outreach a reality, are almost entirely powered by nuclear reactors. These have performed over many decades with spectacular efficiency and superb safety records.
It’s already clear that the U.S. will have to take to the nuclear road again. I hope that President Bush and Congress will have the intellectual gallantry and long-term willpower to do so on a gigantic scale, one that will once again put the U.S. a generation ahead of others in what is perhaps the single most important field of economic activity.
Given a decisive lead from the White House and Capitol Hill, the American people can be trusted to respond with energy and enthusiasm.
Paul Johnson, eminent British historian and author; Lee Kuan Yew, minister mentor of Singapore; and Ernesto Zedillo, director, Yale Center for the Study of Globalization, former president of Mexico, rotate in writing this column. To see past Current Events columns, visit our Web site at www.forbes.com/currentevents.