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January 17, 2006

The New York Times When It’s Wrong

Having grown up in a NY Times home (at least on most Sundays), it pains me how poor the thinking often is on the editorial page.  The premise in last Sunday’s editorial Energy Impasse, which first cites Iran’s nuclear backsliding and the difficulty of getting the world to confront bad behavior from a major oil producer, is impeccable:

“America cannot win President Bush's much-vaunted war on terrorism as long as it is sending billions of dollars abroad for oil purchases every day. It cannot establish democracy in the Middle East because governments rich in oil revenue do not want democracy. And it will never have the geopolitical leverage it needs as long as it is dependent on unstable foreign sources for fuel.”

Amen.

But the prescription doesn’t fit the diagnosis.  After disavowing any further drilling in Alaska, the Times suggests: “A much better answer would be a national commitment to more efficient vehicles and to the rapid deployment of new energy sources like biofuels.”

Yeah.  Take two aspirin and call me in the morning.

If the editorial writers would read the news pages more carefully or even pay more attention to columnist Thomas Friedman, they would realize that the world’s appetite for energy is going to continue to accelerate even if we all start going to work on roller skates.  Biomass, at best, will meet only a tiny fraction of that need – there just aren’t enough acres available to plant with the right crops.  In fact, the Times also ran a story on how food prices are increasing because of the use of corn to produce ethanol which the editorial writers might have missed.

The hard truth is that the United States cannot afford continued unilateral nuclear (power) disarmament. France gets the majority of its power from nukes (give praise where it’s due); North Korea has some claim that it needs nuclear power even if they can’t be trusted with it; the Germans are reconsidering their plans to decommission existing nukes and forswear new ones; the Chinese are not hesitating to build nukes as well as dam rivers.  The Iranians don’t need nukes with all their oil but want them (or the by-products) so badly that they’re building them anyway no matter what anyone thinks.  And, in the United States, nuclear power is so politically incorrect that it isn’t even MENTIONED in a NY Times article about energy independence.

Not that the Times is alone in sticking its head in non-nuclear sand.  Michael Moe blogging on AlwayOn tells of super-VC John Doerr saying that the real issue is “How do we create a sensible long-term energy plan?”

OK. And the answer?

“Alternative energy such as wind, solar, and hydro are key to this as are fuel cells and biomass.” In just 15 short years, the post says, wind farms can go from providing energy for 1.6 million homes today to 16 million homes.  Gee.

I’m not against wind, solar, or even biomass – although a farm devoted to energy would be more efficient if it just had solar collectors and/or wind mills on it rather than having to be planted, fertilized, irrigated, harvested, and distilled. These and fuel efficiency are all part of the answer.  I really think wind mills off the Jersey shore or on the Vermont mountains would be attractive and ought to be built despite NIMBY opposition.

Fuel cells are not a device for creating energy; they’re used for storing it.  Like batteries, they have to be charged.  But fuel cells will be a very important way for storing and transporting energy generated by nuclear power plants – and hydro and wind and other sources – in a form that can be used in cars.  This is important because we can’t carry little nuclear power plants in our cars and really would like not to be using fossil fuels for transport as we do today.

In order to have safe nuclear plants, we need to store nuclear fuel.  We’ve already decided on a safe place to do that in Nevada but don’t have the political will to overcome understandable local opposition to both the storage and the transport.  The storage of nuclear waste – there really is only a tiny volume of it – is not a technical problem.  It’s a political problem we haven’t solved.

There is plenty of room for debate on nuclear power and how it can safely be generated.  But I can’t take a discussion of alternative energy seriously which doesn’t mention nuclear as an alternative – even if that discussion is in the New York Times.

I posted about the NY Times being right here.

And more about fuel cells and nuclear power here and here and about how China may beat us to the use of that technology here.

To maintain my green credentials, I also wrote favorably about home solar here and here. But I haven’t finished my project of solar panels on our NJ beach house.

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