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Volume 96, Issue 1

GRAPHIC:  Also in every issueFrom the President
How will the world meet its energy demands?

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 to be.

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 of issues.

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 side effects.

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 accordingly.



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