Sustainability Made Easy? R&D and Energy Technopolitics

Wind turbine

One of the 120 Acciona wind turbines of the Tatanka Wind Energy project (DOE/NREL, Todd Spink).

Petroleum has become virtually synonymous with energy. In the United States energy crises typically seem most urgent when the price of gasoline increases. The country’s unique dependence on gasoline for transportation has provided politicians with a way to appeal to voters’ desires for low-cost commodities. In the early part of the 2008 U.S. presidential campaign, the energy crisis was a dominant theme for both major candidates and the rising cost of gasoline was their chief rallying cry.

But the United States (and the rest of the world) has potential access to other forms of primary energy. In the 21st–century United States, when politicians talk about public energy, they hold that their goal is to develop a variety of sources (nuclear, wind, biofuels, and solar are commonly mentioned) and to provide plentiful, clean power. They claim they will achieve this goal while sustaining the American way of life and making the country energy-independent. It has become a virtual truism that advanced technology can help meet this uncompromising objective, but such enterprises are complicated by many factors. Not least of these is the historic absence of a comprehensive U.S. energy policy beyond a general commitment to secure abundant supplies as cheaply as possible. Since the end of World War II, there has been a vast gulf between politicians’ stated goal and energy R&D policy.

Nuclear Energy

The U.S. government has influenced the direction and pace of technological progress, both as a consumer and as a partner in R&D. Beginning in World War I, the military ordered vast quantities of vehicles equipped with the fossil-fueled internal combustion engine (ICE). As a result of these orders the ICE became further entrenched as the dominant power source for practically all forms of automobile transport. The technology quickly became the keystone of American industrial power and, by virtue of its reliance on petroleum, ederal geopolicy in the 20th century.

But government did not involve itself in energy R&D until the invention of nuclear power. Although it was originally developed as a military naval power plant, Washington strongly encouraged the technology’s adoption for civilian use.

Economically, however, this policy didn’t make much sense. In 1954 Atomic Energy Commission chief Lewis Strauss infamously predicted that civilian nuclear reactors would produce electricity “too cheap to meter,” a claim that has haunted the industry’s proponents ever since. With fossil energy cheap and plentiful in the 1950s, there was no demand for nuclear power. Only massive subsidies, particularly the cap on private insurance liability provided by the Price-Anderson Act of 1957, enticed the private sector to invest in the first civilian reactors.

Over the next half-century, nuclear power was the chief preoccupation of federal energy R&D. But this work has not yet succeeded in reducing cost and risk to the point where the industry can flourish without government-backed loan guarantees, production tax credits, and insurance indemnity. The question of cost is, of course, relative. Proponents note that a fully amortized nuclear plant produces very cheap electricity. Conversely, detractors claim that actual costs are much greater once fuel mining, reactor construction, maintenance,waste storage, and decommissioning are accounted for. Plans by private manufacturers to massively expand the number of reactors may be unrealizable; it would require huge public investment at a time when economic conditions are less favorable than at any time since before World War II.

This is not to say that nuclear power won’t play a role in American power production in coming years. But operating the existing 104 U.S. reactors presents major problems that further R&D may not be able to quickly solve. Often touted as a limitless energy source, natural uranium is in relatively short supply. Proven reserves amount to around 3.5 million tons, enough to fire reactors for 50 years at the current consumption rate. The industry’s preferred solution is to close the nuclear fuel cycle by reusing spent fuel. A chief candidate is mixed-oxide (MOX) fuel, an amalgam of plutonium and uranium. But the facilities required to produce this substance could also easily be used to manufacture weapons-grade materials. Given the global reach of the nuclear power industry, the Carter administration committed to permanently store depleted nuclear fuel. The 20-year gestation of the still-unfinished Yucca Mountain repository in Nevada shows just how expensive, technically difficult, and unpopular this venture is.

Much is made of"Generation IV” reactors, a range of advanced designs including several types capable of “breeding” more fuel than they consume by using neutron bombardment to transmute materials that cannot sustain a chain reaction like uranium-238 into fissile materials like plutonium 239. Under study by the Department of Energy, these costly and complex power sources are more volatile and difficult to control than conventional pressurized water reactors. And they are highly controversial—in effect they would bring about a plutonium economy, creating new problems of safely transporting and disposing of large quantities of this highly toxic element.