Last night (May 22, 2006) I had the opportunity to listen to Jeremy Rifkin, the author of The Hydrogen Economy: The Creation of the Worldwide Energy Web and the Redistribution of Power on Earth.
The talk was hosted by The DoD Under Secretary for Acquisition, Technology and Logistics and the Office of Force Transformation as part of a continuing series of “conversations” about energy issues.
Surprisingly enough, I found that I share a lot of basic concerns and philosophies with Dr. Rifkin. We both recognize the importance of energy in the development of human civilization, we both believe that the current distribution of power in the world is grossly uneven, we both believe that human energy use is having an impact on the global weather patterns, and we agree that oil production is nearing (or possibly just past) its peak.
We are miles apart, however, when it comes to our understanding and acceptance of atomic energy. Throughout his talk, Dr. Rifkin repeatedly lumped uranium with fossil fuels despite the fact that heavy metal fission is fundamentally different from hydrocarbon combustion. He does not agree that it is worth considering the possibility that fission could be the source of power that makes a hydrogen fuel cell storage based energy economy possible.
Instead, Dr. Rifkin, who started his talk with an interesting historical perspective that included a discussion of how the ancient Samarians depended on energy from natural flows (rivers, winds, sun, and crops), advocated an energy system for the future that would return to dependence on those same flows. His only recommended changes after more than 5,000 years of technological development are the addition of hydrogen fuel cell energy storage devices to make up for some of the inconsistencies of supply along with somewhat improved devices for capturing the energy from the natural flows.
For those of us that were listening very carefully, Dr. Rifkin acknowledged that an energy system based on only natural flows would not be able to support a human population that is already more than 6 billion people with a growth rate that makes it likely to approach 9 billion in the next 50 years or so. He talked a bit about a gradual reduction in the world’s population but did not seem concerned by the drastic changes in human behavior that would be required to turn our population growth rate into a population reduction rate. Perhaps he would like the rest of the world to adopt China’s one child policy.
I took the opportunity provided by sitting in the front row in a rather small room to ask the first question following Dr. Rifkin’s talk. (As an aside, I am sure that others in the room noticed my fidgeting while waiting through at least three separate “finally I want to talk about. . .” from Dr. Rifkin. He managed to stretch his talk long enough to only allow for about 4-5 questions.)
When I asked why he ignored the potential of fission, Dr. Rifkin said (paraphrasing here) that three factors made fission a non starter for him. He thinks that there is no solution to nuclear waste, that nuclear power is not separable from nuclear weapons proliferation, and that nuclear reactors are too vulnerable to terrorist attacks to allow new ones to be built.
Apparently, he is not reading this blog or the many other great sources of up to date information available on the web.