Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions
I read with great interest your OpEd ad "Calculating the true cost of energy", NYTimes Tuesday, October 19, 2004, page A29. My response is belated, but surely not out of date.
I was pleased to see you set forth the hidden costs, both in kind (effect upon the environment) and in cash (defense spending, increased healthcare expenses, lost productivity of forests and fisheries, etc.). I once made a rough estimate of the subsidy to gasoline provided by the USNavy in assuring the security of maritime navigation. I found it was ten cents a gallon, but my cousin who works for EPA, using different assumptions, concluded that it's more nearly a dollar a gallon. But I have always believed that any discussion of costs is rather meaningless in view of all those invisible and visible subsidies thrown out to all producers.
I certainly agree that we must use fossil fuels more efficiently, especially oil for transportation. Cleaner coal, yes; but "clean coal" is certainly an oxymoron. CO2 sequestration, maybe, but it's terribly costly and hard to hide.
Finally, I take the liberty of noting a significant error and a significant omission in the "creative mix" of renewable resources. In my view, unwarranted emphasis is put on wind power and other sources "not yet invented", while nuclear energy, already invented, alive and kicking, is completely eclipsed.
Nuclear energy today provides 20% of the electrical power in the USA, safely, reliably and efficiently. Nuclear energy is barely 50 years old, and can hardly be called a mature technology. Railroads were 50 years old before 1900 and the airplane was 50 years old before jet aircraft were put into commercial service. A comparison between our present nuclear power and Generation IV nuclear power, now on the drawing boards and likely to be implemented before mid-century, would be similar to a comparison between the Douglas DC-3 and the Boeing 7E7.
Of the six conceptual schemes of Generation IV, four are fast neutron reactors, otherwise known as breeders. They will enable us to use the abundant energy of uranium-238 (99.3% of uranium mineral) and thorium (three times more abundant than uranium), which are unavailable to us in our present thermal neutron reactor technology.
Furthermore, with fast neutron technology it will be both economically and energetically feasible to recover the uranium dissolved in the sea. That uranium is a thousand times more abundant than mineral deposits and in principle it is renewable. By that I mean that uranium extracted from the seas would be replaced by uranium eroded from the crust of the earth and washed down to the sea in rivers.
I hope your new generation of students will be made aware of the environmental and economic virtues of clean, safe and reliable nuclear energy, especially as a potentially sustainable source.
The writer is an American physicist (AB Harvard '48 and PhD Hopkins '53) and an environmentalist. Until retiring he was a senior science and science education officer at the Paris headquarters of UNESCO. He is a member of the Scientific Committee of the not-for-profit international "Association des Écologistes Pour le Nucléaire" and president of EFN-USA. He drives a Toyota Prius. Internet site <www.ecolo.org>