Friday, April 20, 2007


One hundred-five years ago today, Marie and Pierre Curie isolated the element radium. Their Nobel Prize-winning research and that of many others would pave the way for all manner of applications of nuclear science, from weapons, to medicine, to energy.
As we grapple with the accelerating human demand for energy, we must do so with an open mind. Burning things long-buried carries a host of problems. So too do wind, solar, nuclear, biomass, and any other method of generating energy. Each has advantages and disadvantages that may suit it to one application, but make it unacceptable for another. For this reason, environmentalists and industrialists cannot afford to indulge in mindless dogmatism.
Conservation remains a curiously under-used strategy. The consumer can, through simple choices, choose to use less energy without detracting from his or her quality of life. Using compact fluorescent light bulbs, reducing the amount of meat consumed each week, and combining local trips are painless.
The mass-localization of power generation also holds great potential. In many parts of the world, natural conditions support residential electric power generation. In some places this means photovoltaic shingles on the roof, in others this means a few windmills in the back pasture. This puts an important source of capital in the hands of the property-owner, and obviates the need for many long distance power lines, in which large amounts of energy are wasted in transmission.
We must also recognize that there are demands for power that cannot presently be met with the combination of efficient use and mass-localization. Many industrial and transportation power users legitimately need very large amounts of power on an uninterrupted basis. Given increasing concerns over atmospheric carbon and climate, fossil fuels seem a poor solution.
Nuclear energy offers a strong alternative for many applications. Like fossil fuels, like solar power, like wind, like biomass, it is an imperfect solution. For every complex problem, there exists a huge spectrum of solutions, many entirely bad, few (if any) entirely good. The expansion of nuclear energy is, however, worth serious consideration.
Nuclear energy offers a number of compelling advantages. It does not directly produce carbon pollution. Estimates of usable nuclear material suggest that nuclear fuel could last for thousands, if not millions of years. Moreover, the distribution of usable fuels offers the promise of energy independence for many countries.
While efficient use and mass localization remain critically important, we must recognize that there is no magic bullet. Each need for energy is a discrete problem that may require a discrete solution. We must remain creative, open-minded, and we must keep talking.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Hi ERD, that's a very good energy conscious piece for this beautiful Earth Day weekend...and I wish you a happy one...