Energy in the real world

March 13, 2000
Petroleum industry calendars this time of year swarm with conventions and conferences.

Petroleum industry calendars this time of year swarm with conventions and conferences.

This week in Atlanta, it's the Gas Processors Association. (See the Focus on Gas Processing, p. 51.) In February, it was the US Pipe Line Contractors Association.

Such events afford attendees opportunities for learning new information, skills, or strategies. Occasionally, however, a speaker shows up who leaves listeners scratching their heads.

Such was the occasion when Pulitzer Prize winner Richard Rhodes addressed the PLCA.

An anomaly

Rhodes broke with past talks to this group.

He didn't rail against government regulation. Nor did he make grown men weep with a hushed account of surviving Mt. Everest by following to safety a snowy vision of his family. Nor did he entertain with dated Clinton-Lewinsky jokes.

But the ardent proponent of nuclear power was so clearly out of his element that many pipeliners wondered why he had been invited.

Rhodes' message: Despite its bloody wars, humankind in the 20th century dramatically improved the quality of life, as epitomized by the western revolution in health care. The benefits from and spread of that revolution will eventually defuse the population bomb.

Sustaining and disseminating in the 21st century the improvements in human welfare wrought in the 20th require one element above all others: energy. It "builds and lights schools, purifies water, powers farm machinery, drives sewing machines and robot assemblers, stores and moves information."

And for Rhodes, the 20th century's key energy development was the 1938 discovery of nuclear fission that "provided humanity with an essentially unlimited source of energy at reasonable cost."

Fossil fuels, the current means for generating energy, are inefficient, said Rhodes, threaten the environment, and cannot hope to meet the rapidly growing demand envisioned.

Nuclear power is far more efficient, and the technology for using it and controlling its wastes is known and tested.

Oh, yes: cost

What keeps nuclear-generated power from sprinting to the lead in the race to meet the world's energy demands? Fear, said Rhodes; "antinuclear phobia."

And cost?

Rhodes conveniently ignores the fact that, in a marketplace devoid of government subsidies, the cost of nuclear power-when amortized capital costs are factored in-dwarfs the cost of power generated by fossil fuels.

In light of political realities, not idealized conditions, the (phobic) public has insisted on such massive safeguards as to make unsubsidized nuclear power noncompetitive.

Witness France, Belgium, and Spain, whose nuclear power programs once made great strides. The focus of recent years' efforts there, however, has been to secure supplies of natural gas, not nuclear capacity, for electric power generation.

Petroleum and natural gas industries since 1980 have made great strides in reducing the cost of bringing their products to market and in protecting people and the environment.

Technology has driven those efforts and will continue to do so, keeping pipeliners and gas processors busy for a long time.