- The Washington Times - Saturday, November 20, 2004

A perfect storm of global events — attacks on gas refineries and pipelines by insurgents in the Middle East, hurricanes in the Gulf of Mexico region damaging oil rigs, and political turmoil in oil-producing Venezuela, Nigeria and Russia — sent the price of oil soaring to unprecedented heights.

American consumers felt the pinch as gas prices at the pump jumped to $2 and higher per gallon. Home heating bills could increase as much as 30 percent this winter.

By 2030, according to the International Energy Association, world oil demand, led by emerging economic giants such as China and India, will grow 50 percent. Experts fear that, at current rates of oil consumption and production, we could face devastating petroleum shortages in the next 20 to 30 years.

The message is clear: Find substitutes for oil now, or face sure economic slowdowns if not major contractions in the future.

Americans have responded to high fuel prices by buying out existing inventories of gas-electric “hybrid” engine vehicles such as the Honda Insight and the Toyota Prius that get upwards of 40-60 miles per gallon. The waiting lists for such cars are now longer than those for organ transplants, according to the Sierra Club.

Eventually cars running exclusively on hydrogen, like the experimental DaimlerChrysler F-cell, will be available. And Nevada-based Clean Energy Inc. promises to introduce in two years a novel device that will enable current combustion engines to run on clean-burning hydrogen. Such cars will need a national infrastructure of “hydrogen filling stations” to service such cars. (California promises a statewide “hydrogen highway” by 2010.)

While widespread adoption of such vehicles will slash our dependence on oil, we will still be challenged to develop alternative fuels to produce the electricity to heat our homes and power our factories in the post-petroleum era.

In the short run, according to a recent report by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, nuclear power stands as the best “clean” energy source to meet U.S. and world energy needs. It is cheap, runs on abundant materials such as uranium and thorium, and emits no greenhouse gases.

China, India, South Africa and other countries already are embracing nuclear fission with unabated enthusiasm. At least 27 nuclear power plants are being built worldwide, with more on order. And soon, new, safer, more efficient and more proliferation-resistant nuclear reactors will be available.

The Bush energy bill, languishing in committee for months, calls for building such new-generation nuclear plants in the United States over the next decade. Having solidified its hold on the executive and legislative branches in the 2004 elections, the Bush administration has a golden opportunity to get this energy bill enacted into law. Westinghouse, GE and Atomic Energy of Canada Ltd., or AECL, are prepared to construct this new generation of nukes at various already selected sites throughout the U.S. once they are officially authorized.

It is imperative we quickly pass an energy bill that enables America to utilize sources such as nuclear power so we can reduce our dependence on oil. At the same time, we must plan for our long-term energy future by developing ever more powerful sources of fuel.

Most experts believe this long-term solution is nuclear fusion, the “power of the sun,” in which atoms are fused together to create energy.

According to Stan Milora, director of Oak Ridge National Lab’s fusion energy program, nuclear fusion is a virtually limitless energy source, mainly because the primary fuel is water.

Unlike current fission-based nuclear reactors in which atoms are split to release energy, fusion reactors produce no radioactive waste. So we won’t have to store that radioactive material.

The United States joined Canada, the European Union, Japan and the Russian Federation in the International Fusion Project (ITER) in 2003, to test the feasibility of nuclear fusion as a source of electricity. Princeton University’s Plasma Physics Laboratory will lead U.S. participation in the project.

By 2050, nuclear fusion is scheduled to become part of the global energy grid. For centuries to come, fusion will serve as the world’s major energy source.

As the world energy needs continue expanding dramatically, it is imperative that we invent and quickly put into effect the next generation of energy technologies that will fuel global prosperity throughout the 21st century and beyond. We cannot hope to solve future energy crises by reducing our driving, limiting factory production, and “turning down the thermostat” in our homes and offices. Such “solutions” will only stunt economic growth.

The clock is ticking on our energy future. The time to act is now.

MICHAEL G. ZEY

Professor, Montclair (N.J.) State University School of Business.

([email protected]

www.zey.com)

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