Energy is the ability to make things happen.
Civilization requires energy. Before about the year 1700, that energy was provided partly by wind, partly by water, but mostly by animals and humans, taking solar energy in the form of food and converting it to muscular effort. Then came Captain Savery’s “engine for raising water by means of fire”, and Newcomen’s, and Watt’s ; and in Birmingham, where Boulton and Watt set up their manufacturing works, the worldwide movement for the abolition of slavery began in earnest. As long as an evil seems necessary, there will be those who defend it to the death, but take away that necessity, and it vanishes like any ordinary nightmare.
So it is today. The evil consequences of the use of combustible fuels — coal miners dying of black-lung, or in mine collapses ; international political turmoil ; poisoning of human beings, of farmland, and of the underlying web of life itself — are undeniable, but many voices cry that we cannot do without them. Is that wrong?
At the present day, the world cannot even be fed without fossil fuels. Not just fuel for the tractors which plough, or the trucks, trains, and ships which move the crops to market : growing enough food for seven thousand millions demands artificial fertilizers, most importantly fixed nitrogen. The Haber process requires hydrogen, and almost everywhere, that is provided from natural gas.
What other choice do we have?
The fundamental power of the cosmos is in our hands. Ever since Enrico Fermi’s Chicago Pile achieved criticality, in December of 1942, humanity has had the ability to release, in a controlled fashion, the energy bound up in the atomic nucleus — the same energy which lights the stars, and warms the core of the Earth. While coal, oil, and gas will all run short, and that before very long, uranium and thorium are plentiful, and yield so unbelievably much energy that they can meet the needs of a civilization which is rapidly outgrowing its planetary nest.
But everyone is against it, so it must be bad!
There are two basic kinds of opposition to atomic energy : ignorant, and principled. The ignorant opponent does not really know what he is against, only that he is against it. The principled opponent wants something else, very likely something which most people (including the ignorant opponent) would not want, if they understood it. But the two mix freely together.
Ignorant opposition comes partly from a simple lack of knowledge, but more from a distrust of the State and business institutions which have become associated with all kinds of large-scale endeavours — a distrust which is not unearned. Atomic energy, partly because of the military uses which have made it an object of secrecy and control, has become a symbol and a focus for that distrust. If governments and corporations lie, then maybe the risks are greater and the benefits are smaller than they say. And so we have the spectacle of Helen Caldicott calling for the evacuation of the entire Northen Hemisphere, even though the Pacific Ocean naturally contains immensely more radioactive material than the damaged reactors at Fukushima.
The clearest anti-nuclear voices of the 1970s were from believers in the “low-energy society” — a utopian vision of a world in which Man would cease to strive against the limits imposed by his environment, and living standards would be reduced to the starvation level. This vision grew out of despair that the idea of “progress” was ultimately suicidal, that the advance of material culture had done nothing more than dehumanize the common man and make possible catastrophic wars. They opposed atomic energy precisely because they understood that it was the most viable option for the future of industrial civilization.
What is the cure?
(Atomic) power to the people! The atom must be democratized. The veil of military and industrial secrecy must be lifted, so that the people can have confidence in subject-matter experts. Likewise, pacts such as the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty must be re-negotiated, to truly advance the cause of peaceful atomic energy. Nuclear facilities must be opened up to the public. Mystery and superstition breed fear ; they must be, not just dispelled, but replaced with knowledge and reason. Those who are propagandized into accepting what they do not understand may reject it just as easily.
A campaign of education is necessary, but fundamental to any campaign is simple openness. Nuclear industry professionals have proven very poor at communicating with the public at large, even (and perhaps most importantly) in their own communities. They must learn! The false claims that atomic energy is strangely dangerous, that nuclear reactors are lying in wait to kill people, that there is no solution to the problem of radioactive waste, must be confronted — the antinuclearite hit squads must be faced down — but that is far from being enough.
The benefits and advantages of atomic power must be explained and illustrated, clearly and consistently, and in a way that builds trust and confidence. The common man must be aided to see how it serves his interests, and the ways his life is made better by it. And all the available choices must be honestly discussed in terms both quantitative and qualitative.
Reality must prevail in public policy. Even the most ardent devotees of the low-energy society should now understand that it is an empty dream. Small may seem beautiful to the children of the rich, but the children of the poor have seen that something else is possible ; they will not be contented, and there are billions of them. Nevertheless, many voices continue to counsel conservation, and “alternative” energy sources which can never meet the real needs of the world.
The importance of cheap, plentiful, safe, stable, and available power must be made a political issue as it has not been for many years, for all the interminable talk about ‘energy security’ and ‘independence’. Depletion allowances, preferential feed-in tariffs, and other measures favouring unsustainable solutions must be brought under scrutiny. The unsound foundations of present decision-making must be exposed and demolished, to clear the way for sanity and progress.