National Geographic : 1981 Feb 28
year, according to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. All told they would increase nuclear megawattage by 25 percent. But nuclear energy bears the handicap of worry over radioactivity-a worry that has been sharpened by Three Mile Island. The breeder reactor conjures up fear that the plutonium it produces might increase prolif eration of the nuclear bomb. Coal also poses serious handicaps. Unfor tunately it contains sulfur and other unde sirable substances, such as heavy metals, which are only partly removed from burning emissions despite costly and difficult proce dures. The sulfur emissions damage human lungs; they combine with moisture in the at mosphere to form acid precipitation that de faces monuments and buildings and kills the life in countless lakes. Of far greater portent is the accumulation in the atmosphere of carbon dioxide from burning coal and other fossil fuels. Carbon dioxide tends to trap heat on the earth's surface; in sufficient concentration it could create the dreaded greenhouse effect. Studies in both the United States and the United Kingdom forecast that the concen tration of carbon dioxide by the middle of the next century will be double what it was before the industrial revolution. Such a concentration, say some scientists, could increase average global temperatures by two degrees Celsius, and polar tempera tures by as much as seven degrees. That much warming, slight as it may seem, would seriously affect distribution of rainfall and could create deserts of much of the Northern Hemisphere breadbasket. It would be an irreversible catastrophe of unparalleled magnitude, affecting all mankind. Other energy sources offer their own pe culiar problems. Synfuels involve extensive strip mining, enormous cost, and demands for water that may be prohibitive. Solar electricity also will be costly. And it may run into interesting legal problems: New Mexico is the only state that protects a solar collector from being blocked by another structure. Wind turbines will have to be given sites with great care to avoid aesthetic problems. The noise they produce has proved to be objectionable in some cases, and in large numbers they may create interference with communications. Alcohol from agricultural products for use in cars raises the specter of food versus fuel. As Lester Brown, president of the Worldwatch Institute, warns, "The poten tial demand is virtually limitless: even con verting the entire world grain crop to alcohol would not provide enough fuel to operate the current world automobile fleet." Finally, the burning of biomass, favored by some environmentalists, greatly worries others. They fear that there will be rapid destruction of forest lands and serious dete rioration of agricultural soils if they are de prived of organic matter. There is, indeed, no free lunch. 5. The energy problem is global; what we do affects everybody else. Americans, who spend more than a quar ter of the world's energy output, have been called a consumption-drugged people. The average U. S. citizen uses the energy equiv alent of a barrel of oil every six days. "The rest of the world looks with virtual disbelief" at our energy failures, says a pre liminary report to the National Academy of Sciences' Committee on Nuclear and Alter native Energy Systems, which led to the ma jor study Energy in Transition 1985-2010 (the CONAES Report). And even Saudi Arabia, our strongest OPEC ally, is said to be disappointed in our conservation efforts. Heavy U. S. demands for oil are of imme diate consequence to other nations: Western Europe must get 55 percent of its energy from oil; Japan gets 75 percent. And since most of these nations have little or no oil of their own, U. S. competition in the oil mar kets of the world is significant. A new competitor may soon complicate the situation further. The Soviet Union now regularly exports part of its 12 million bar rels a day to its satellite states in Eastern Europe as well as to the West. But according to estimates of the U. S. Central Intelligence Agency, Soviet oil production is about to peak and will soon drop; by the mid-1980s the Soviet Union will be an oil importer. What covetous advances the Soviet Union might then make toward the rich oil sands of the Middle East can only be guessed, but it is a matter of grave concern to many nations already scrambling to keep their oil tanks filled.