To the Editor, Physics Today,
Responses in the November 2004 issue to the July articles on energy and population seem to fall into two main categories: those who believe the population problem is already solved through declining birth rates, and those who believe the energy problem is already solved because we have nuclear power and continuing energy efficiency improvements. Both of these views are falsely optimistic and minimize the tremendous technology development problem we have ahead of us, to provide sufficient energy for a prosperous world in the 21st century and beyond.
On population: even with the most dramatic conceivable drop in birth rate, the only way population will decrease sufficiently in coming decades to make much difference to the energy question is with a correspondingly dramatic increase in death rate. I am surprised so many physicists seem willing to accept this option.
Nuclear energy has 4 basic obstacles that may prevent it from ever being scaled up by the factor of 20-50 needed to address world energy needs: cost, incompetence, corruption, and waste. No breeder reactor, a technology necessary for nuclear fission to be a long term solution, has ever been successful in the marketplace. Due to the enormous energy content at each plant, staff incompetence can lead to much more serious disasters than for other energy sources, even for reactors billed as "inherently safe". A world filled with breeder reactors would necessarily include large-scale traffic in plutonium; just one criminal in the supply chain could trigger a nuclear holocaust. And the long-lived accumulative character of nuclear waste justifiably frightens many educated members of the public. Billions have been spent on nuclear energy research, with little progress on resolving any of these issues at the scale that would be needed.
Energy efficiency improvements can only slightly mitigate the continued growth in world energy demand, as developing countries advance. The energy problem we face is an immense one - trillions of dollars of energy infrastructure will need to be replaced, in coming decades, with alternatives of one sort or another. All the renewable energy options face cost issues both in production and in transmission and storage of energy that put them out of reach of large-scale deployment, without significant research investment to bring those costs lower. This is a problem on the scale of the Cold War, but we are not treating it as such. It is past time that the US Secretary of Energy was given the same respect, if not the same budget, as the Secretary of Defense, and charged with resolving this critical problem for the nation and the world.
Nobel Chemist Richard Smalley has been speaking on the energy problem around the country; I heard him recently at Brookhaven National Lab. His specific suggestion is a "nickel and dime" solution: a 5 cent/gallon gasoline tax and perhaps similar carbon taxes on other fossil fuels, to raise about $10 billion/year for alternative energy research. That's the scale we need, not the miserly $80 million solar energy gets in the current US budget. And we need physicists and engineers to energetically tackle the critical problems, just as they did 60 years ago for the Manhattan project. Every year of delay in developing these alternatives further threatens the future well-being of humanity.