Yesterday I came across a New York Times front page article from July 7, 1971 titled Nation’s Energy Crisis: Nuclear Future Looms. It is the second article in a three part article on the energy crisis that was capturing America’s attention in 1971 – two years before the Arab Oil Embargo.
The discovery knocked me for a bit of a loop, because the article helps to explain so much of what happened to nuclear technology development in the succeeding years. Here is a picture of the first part of the article.
Aside: I highly recommend a digital subscription to the New York Times. No matter where you fall on the political spectrum, there is incredible value in being able to search the archives of the nation’s “paper of record” all the way back to 1851. Though I believe that statement, I am also making it in hopes that it prevents anyone from being offended by me posting an image of a snippet from the article. (grin)End Aside.
That article continued on for 2200 words under the following, page-wide banner headline.
The article layout included several large graphical images. Again, being a little judicious with my “fair use”, here is just one of the images that accompanied the article.
There is a key quote from the article that caused several thoughts to surface and bump together in my sleep-deprived brain.
Nuclear power is technically difficult, initially expensive, a source of thermal pollution and the subject of acrimonious controversy and widespread anxiety about possible radiation hazards.
And yet to a growing number of technologists, economists, and political leader, it is the only way within the traditional economic system to meet the ever rising consumer demand for a steady supply of reasonably inexpensive power without ravaging the environment.
Thus the Nixon Administration has made nuclear power the keystone of its “clean energy” plan for the decade. And future Administrations, barring unforeseen discoveries, can be expected to follow the same general policy.
For nuclear power, despite its drawbacks, is without doubt more plentiful, ultimately cheaper and relatively less damaging to the environment than other fuels. The alternatives, in other words, could be worse.
The first thought that surfaced was a dimming memory of a mid 1990s talk that I attended at an American Nuclear Society meeting. The speaker was Dr. Patrick Michaels. We were talking about ways to encourage more public acceptance of nuclear energy. Someone from the audience said that they did not understand why the nuclear industry did not do more to emphasize the environmental benefits of an energy source clean enough to power submarines.
Aside: Come to think of it, I might have been the person who asked that question. Maybe not, I used to be a lot more reticent than I am today.
Dr. Michaels’s response was memorable. “Don’t align with the Environmentalists. You tried that in the 1970s. That didn’t work out so well.”
The other thought that came to mind is the one that serves as the title for this post. There is a section in William Engdahl’s A Century of War: Anglo-American Oil Politics and the New World Order titled Taking the bloom off the ‘nuclear rose’. That section continues to haunt me and to inform the way that I understand some otherwise confusing economic and political history.
That section begins right after Engdahl has just explained how he has concluded that there were business and political leaders that saw the Arab Oil Embargo of 1973 as a golden opportunity to profit and also to increase America’s power in the world.
Here’s a quote:
One principal concern of the authors of the 400 percent oil price increase was how to ensure their drastic action did not drive the world to accelerate an already strong trend towards construction of a far more efficient and ultimately less expensive alternative energy source — nuclear electricity generation.
Some very powerful people had strong reasons to be concerned. Quoting again from Nuclear Future Looms:
The trend toward nuclear power is strong. Although only 21 commercial nuclear reactors are now in operation, supplying less than 1 per cent of the nation’s energy needs, more power-generating capacity is now on order for atomic plants than for the conventional types. There are 54 under construction in this country and orders for 42 more. Even a major Texas utility, in the heart of gas country, plans to go nuclear.
Engdahl goes on to name people and organizations that were motivated to slow or stop that trend. He also described how large and widespread the trend was in Europe, the Asian subcontinent, and South America. Here is another key quote:
Clearly, the Anglo-American energy grip, based on their tight control of the world’s major energy source, petroleum, was threatened if these quite feasible programs went ahead.
Nuclear energy represented in the postwar period precisely the same quality of higher technological level, which oil had over coal when Lord Fisher and Winston Churchill argued at the end of the last century for Britain’s navy to convert to oil from coal. The major difference was that Britain and her cousins in the Unite States in the 1970s, held the grip on world oil supplies. World nuclear technology threatened to open unbounded energy possibilities, especially if plans for commercial nuclear fast breeder reactors were realized…
There is no doubt that abundant nuclear energy threatened the grip of petroleum on the world energy market. Nuclear energy may not be able to directly power individual automobiles, but it can certainly displace enough of the other ways that society currently consumes oil to free up vast supplies that would have to compete against each other for customers.
If the rich and powerful individuals and groups that Engdahl credits with “taking the bloom off the ‘nuclear rose’ had failed, the world would be a completely different place. It would be cleaner, more prosperous, have a more stable climate and be less threatened by supply interruptions. There would also be a more equitable distribution of wealth and probably a much better educational system in place.
It’s not too late to do some pruning, move the atomic rose bushes into better direct sunlight, knead some fertilizer into the soil, and take care to spray once in a while to keep the mold from overtaking the rose bushes. (In one of our previous homes, my wife and I once maintained a gorgeous rose garden, following those guiding steps. It might be time to plant another one.)