Imagine how different the world political stage would be if oil was just another commodity instead of being seen as THE vital ingredient in the world’s economy. Whole power structures and economic arrangements would shift dramatically. No longer would we be treated to the spectacle of democratically elected leaders groveling to despots that just happen to control a bit of oil bearing sand.
Under our current paradigm, consumers are so dependent on the services that they get from oil powered equipment that they put extreme pressure on their leaders to work to ensure low cost oil at all costs. The “leaders” – wanting to ensure reelection – figuratively hold their noses and deal with terrorists, thugs, self-indulgent billionaires, and ignorant peacocks just because they feel that high cost petroleum would equal an outraged and energized electorate.
When compared to uranium, thorium or plutonium, there is no way that oil can compete in any objective contest. Those heavy metals are 2-3 million times as concentrated, they can be adapted to a wide variety of uses, and they do not release a single gram of polluting gases when they are used. They do not require tankers, pipelines or terminals. They are abundant in places like Canada, Australia, and the United States. A few hundred kilograms can fuel a powerful ship for its entire 30-year lifetime. A few tons would suffice to power New York until the 22nd century. Right now, uranium sells for about $26 US dollars per kilogram. That is the equivalent of a few pennies per barrel.
Forty-seven years ago, when Nasser closed the Suez Canal and precipitated one of the many outbreaks of violence in the Middle East, President Eisenhower sent an envoy to Saudi Arabia’s King Saud and Prince Faisal. That representative was directed to tell Saud and Faisal that the United States had developed cheaper and more efficient sources of energy than oil. The emissary’s message was that if the canal remained a tool of blackmail that American would make nuclear technology available to the Europeans and destroy the value of Saudi oil. (See page 488 of Daniel Yergin’s The Prize: The Epic Quest for Oil, Money and Power.)
Eisenhower had the technology right, but he chose the wrong messenger. Robert Anderson was a wealthy Texas oilman who must have realized that if SAUDI oil had no value, neither would HIS oil. His message may have been muted by this realization. Unfortunately for the world, there have been plenty of people in positions of power during the past fifty years that have had similar ties to the existing fossil fuel business. Like Gulliver in the land of the Lilliputians, the remarkable power stored in heavy metals has been tied down by many strings by the people who fear its effects on their positions and wealth.
In today’s resource constrained world, heavy metal power should be celebrated, but it is instead made an object of fear by “conservative” leaders more concerned with maintaining the status quo than positively leading to a new prosperity made possible by abundant, clean, cheap, concentrated atomic energy. As Eisenhower said in his famous Atoms for Peace speech to the United Nations almost exactly fifty years ago –
The United States knows that if the fearful trend of atomic military build-up can be reversed, this greatest of destructive forces can be developed into a great boon, for the benefit of all mankind. The United States knows that peaceful power from atomic energy is no dream of the future. The capability, already proved, is here today. Who can doubt that, if the entire body of the world’s scientists and engineers had adequate amounts of fissionable material with which to test and develop their ideas, this capability would rapidly be transformed into universal, efficient and economic usage?
I am almost ashamed to admit it, but the United States is no longer leading any efforts to make atomic power a “great boon, for the benefit of all mankind.” We need to examine our world paradigm and realize that the interests of energy consumers and potential energy consumers far outweigh the interests of energy producers. We should not be taking actions that favor producers over consumers and we should no longer be trying to restrain the growth of atomic energy knowledge and development.
It is time to revive Eisenhower’s message with a real understanding of its revolutionary impact. Oil cannot compete against atomic energy; countries that depend on oil should – rapidly – develop an alternative power base. I recommend education and an honest respect for the value of human beings as sources of innovation and wealth. Perhaps if this vision can be realized, there will be fewer veterans to memorialize for members of our grandchildren’s generation.