How will the world meet its
President Don M. Randel discusses the University’s
particular responsibility when it comes to nuclear energy.
Where were you on August 14, 2003? It was
the day of the blackout, and although that date itself may not be
graven in our memories like at least one other of the past two years,
the day’s events will be remembered as having shaped our national
consciousness. Even those of us who were never without power on
that day now think somewhat differently about some crucial features
of everyday life that we had perhaps thought we could take for granted.
Where was the University that day? Fortunately,
the University community and the city never lost power. But as an
institution we have a long history of involvement with issues at
the heart of the nation’s and the world’s energy needs.
And the blackout of 2003 reminded us of the importance of research
and of thinking about what the nation’s energy policy ought
Enrico Fermi and others at Chicago brought into
being the possibility of human uses of nuclear energy, and through
its management of the Argonne National Laboratory, Chicago has been
engaged in research into the peaceful uses of nuclear energy ever
since. Politics and special interests have seriously complicated
the history of nuclear energy, and those complications persist.
But the University’s role continues to be guided by the principles
that govern virtually everything that we do: a belief that knowing
is better than not knowing and that the highest quality of scientific
research ought to be the basis for making important public-policy
decisions—in medicine, foreign policy, urban affairs, energy,
or any domain in which society’s long-term welfare is at stake.
Perhaps because we attended its birth, we have a particular responsibility
in relation to nuclear energy. Perhaps also we have a moral responsibility
to bring to bear our values on an important and complicated set
What are those issues? Energy ultimately underlies
all of the world’s material problems. Without adequate supplies,
it will not be possible to feed or clothe or house the world’s
growing population, much less raise its standard of living and improve
its health and quality of life. We can make reasonable estimates
of what the demand will be. But we also know that current methods
of producing energy cannot satisfy this demand without intolerable
The world’s scientific community now understands
that we cannot continue to produce carbon dioxide at present rates,
let alone at the rates implied by burning enough fossil fuel to
satisfy the growing energy demand. Nor can we tolerate the volume
and character of the waste products of current nuclear technologies.
The Yucca Mountain repository, over which there has been so much
debate, will be entirely filled by existing waste. Absent a fundamental
change, the nation will need a new Yucca Mountain every ten years
or so, and we do not know how such repositories will perform over
the thousands of years in which their contents will remain dangerous.
We also must remain deeply concerned about nuclear
nonproliferation. We must destroy the thousands of tons of weapons-grade
plutonium now distributed around the world, preferably by converting
them into some of the energy that the world needs. And we must inhibit
to the extent possible the production of more such material as well
as materials that could be used in “dirty” bombs.
Renewable sources of energy, such as wind or
biologically based methods, are not capable of meeting the demand,
although we must continue to pursue them. Indeed, some biological
sources produce more carbon dioxide. Thermonuclear fusion will not
be available to help meet demand for a very long time. Neither will
the imagined hydrogen economy solve these problems on anything like
the necessary timescale: current methods of producing hydrogen also
produce carbon dioxide. And the nation is far from having a hydrogen
distribution system that could supplant the system in place for
natural gas and petroleum products.
Absent a willingness to enforce a worldwide divide
among the energy haves and have-nots, there is no solution to the
energy problem that does not include a nuclear component. But we
cannot tolerate existing nuclear technologies either. The scientists
at Argonne are the best equipped in the world to do the research
that can provide solutions that are tolerable in terms of both the
environment and nonproliferation. But this requires a national investment
in fundamental research that takes the long view, unconstrained
by short-term financial interests.
As a nation, we have not been good at taking
such a view. But the stakes are now much higher. In this context
an assertion of Chicago’s values is profoundly important.
At a minimum we have an obligation to help create options before
other nations and other interests foreclose them. At best, we might,
by pursuing our long-standing principles of intellectual inquiry,
produce for the nation and the world the ideas that could reconcile
needs and interests that have largely seemed irreconcilable. Let
us hope that the federal government will understand this and act