Atomic Show #235 – Energy and Empire by George Gonzales

Energy and Empire coverDr. George Gonzales is an associate professor of political science at the University of Miami. In 2012, he published a book titled Energy and Empire: The Politics of Nuclear and Solar Power in the United States.

In his book, Professor Gonzales recognizes that the development of nuclear energy poses an obvious threat to the continued dominance of fossil fuels, but he also describes how the historical record provides evidence that the fossil fuel industry was deeply involved in the development of commercial nuclear power and did not seem to oppose it.

He postulates that the political and economic elites in the US saw nuclear power as another tool that they could use to maintain hegemony over other nations. He goes on to hypothesize that the reason that solar and wind energy were not as strongly supported at the national level — at least until the late 1970s — was that they could not be as readily used as a tool of domination.

He recognizes and describes how the US government and the economic elites that had so strongly supported nuclear energy development for its first 25 years stopped supporting new nuclear plants at about the time of the Arab Oil Embargo of 1973. He recognizes that it is almost counterintuitive that the US reaction to a quadrupling of global oil prices and the exposure of our vulnerability to global supply challenges was to halt development of nuclear energy.

As regular Atomic Insights readers know, I’ve found many of the same historical facts but interpreted them through a different experiential lens. I’ve witnessed how capable nuclear energy can be in terms of both fuel economy and mechanical reliability. I’ve seen waste storage systems, done financial analysis, and recognized the vast gap between the public perception of what nuclear energy can and cannot do and reality.

My direct experience with wind and solar energy along with a good deal of formal study of the engineering aspects of the technology also shows me that there is a tremendous gap between the marketing-based overly optimistic perceptions of their capabilities and the reality of their limitations.

My thesis is that the economic elites recognized that there was far more profit to be made and power to be wielded by maintaining the hydrocarbon economy while actively working to slow the introduction of a “plutonium economy” that would provide abundant, almost limitless supplies of power for people by recycling and reusing slightly used nuclear fuel.

Aside: I support a shift towards an actinide economy that enables people to choose the best-of-the-above energy source for any particular application. I foresee little possibility of ever finding a better fuel for aircraft or long range personal transportation that kerosene or gasoline/diesel fuel. Conversely, I cannot currently imagine a better fuel for generating grid-scale, clean, reliable, affordable energy than one of three available actinide superfuels. End Aside.

However, Professor Gonzales and I share a common perspective about the way that economic elites have successfully dominated the energy discussion and implemented policies that are not necessarily beneficial to the rest of us. We both recognize that many of America’s political decisions since the end of WWII have been driven by an Establishment that had a deeply held desire to remain a superpower and, if possible, to become the world’s only superpower.

My experience as a participant in the Cold War and Dr. Gonzales’s education as an observer and researcher of politics during the Cold War makes for some interesting contrasts and perhaps surprising agreements.

We met for a lively discussion on February 25, 2015. I hope it was just the first of several opportunities to engage. I also hope that you enjoy listening in on our conversation.

PS – During our conversation, I referred several times to a book that I also recommend to anyone interested in the topic of oil politics – F. William Engdahl’s A Century of War: Anglo-American Oil Politics and the New World Order. It is available in a Kindle edition for less than $10.00 and would be well worth the investment.


Atomic Show #234 – Update from South Australia

Ben Heard of Think Climate Consulting and joined me for a discussion about the nuclear fuel cycle in Australia. In early February, the South Australian government announced the formation of a royal commission to investigate the state’s future role in the nuclear fuel cycle.

As Ben explained, royal commissions are fairly rare and only formed for the most important questions. They are held in high regard and staffed with credible, unbiased members. They often spend a year or more reviewing evidence covering all aspects of the issue or question they have been formed to review. They have the power to gather evidence and take testimony. They are generally trusted to provide a factual basis for in depth discussions.

Ben also described his efforts as a PhD candidate to build functional models that quantify the potential penetration of weather dependent power sources whose output cannot be fully controlled by human beings or automated control systems. We talked at length about his view of the potential benefits of fully developing sources like industrial wind and rooftop PV and the clear need to be more specific about what is included within the “renewable” energy brand.

We spoke about the unrealistic notion that it is possible to devise a power grid that approaches 100% renewable energy; part of his thesis work will be developing models that realistically show what the limitations really are. Neither one of us believe that the number is 50% or greater, but we are not sure how much above 20% it might be. That answer will vary with geography and local weather conditions.

We discussed the habitat and land use impacts of large scale development of power sources like hydroelectric dams, wind turbines and solar panels. We mentioned the recent paper by Barry Brook and Cory Bradshaw that investigated the effects of energy system development on ecology and biodiversity conservation.

Ben will be visiting the US soon; he is scheduled to visit New Mexico and Idaho. He is looking forward to meeting up with some of the people who often read Atomic Insights.


Atomic Show #233 – Innovators discuss advanced reactor development in US

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Slowly accelerate fast reactor development

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