Late last week (to be precise, late Thursday night), the Senate passed what the Washington Post hailed as “a sweeping energy legislation package.” (In truth, with its commitment to bio-fuels and higher fuel-economy standards, the bill is heavily focused on the demand side of America’s energy challenges.) Earlier that same day, President George W. Bush devoted some time to speaking about energy issues. The venue for Bush’s speech—a nuclear power plant in Alabama, where the TVA is revving up the first new reactor to come online in more than a decade—was a not-so-subtle reminder that if Americans want to make real strides toward energy independence, it’s time to exploit the nation’s vast energy assets. And nuclear energy is just one of many such assets.
As the Senate quibbled over new MPG standards for SUVs, Bush laid out the good news and bad news about America’s nuclear energy industry: It already provides 20 percent of the nation’s electrical power; it’s clean, preventing the release of 700 million additional tons of carbon dioxide into the air every year; and it can help break America’s unnecessary addiction to foreign oil.
“In 1985, about 27 percent of our oil came from other countries,” Bush observed. “Today, about 60 percent does.” This forces the American people not just to countenance thuggish regimes from afar, but to go to war for them (as in the Gulf War) or against them (as in the Iraq War), or at least to protect them and prop them up (as in the interregnum between those two wars).
One contributing factor in America’s apparent foreign-oil dependence (we will discuss the oil realities below) is the diminutive size of the US nuclear power industry, which remains too small for a country with the energy needs and appetite of the United States. Bush says that energy experts believe the US needs to build three new nuclear plants per year starting in 2015, just to keep pace with the country’s nuclear energy needs.
Yet the US has not ordered a new nuclear power plant since the 1970s. In fact, there were 112 reactors operating in the US in 1990; today, there are just 104. Bush wants to change that, forecasting construction of dozens of new nuclear plants by the end of this decade. In fact, as Sen. Pete Domenici (R-NM) observed during the Senate floor debate, thanks to the Energy Policy Act of 2004, “over 30 nuclear power plants are in the works…We went more than two decades without a single one applying, and we have now over 30.” Hailing America’s “nuclear renaissance,” he notes that once operational, “these plants will provide enough electricity for nearly 30 million American homes.”
In March, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission approved a site in Illinois for the first of these plants. As USAToday has reported, if built, it will be the first new nuclear plant to be constructed since 1979.
The three-decade delay was caused by three little letters: TMI. The failure of the feed-water pumps and consequent partial-core meltdown at Pennsylvania’s Three Mile Island in March 1979 virtually nuked the US nuclear industry. After the near-disaster, which caused precisely zero deaths and zero injuries, orders for new reactors fell from a high of 41 in 1973 to zero. The fact that the two million residents of the area were exposed to one-sixth the amount of radiation absorbed in a typical chest x-ray was irrelevant. The damage had been done, and more was yet to come.
Seven years after TMI, a fire at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant in the Soviet Union released huge amounts of radiation. More than two dozen workers died within months of the disaster, and thyroid cancer spiked among children.
To be sure, the deaths and lingering effects at Chernobyl are tragic. But the disaster should have forced Americans to redouble their efforts to build the safest nuclear plants on the planet. Instead, we did something uncharacteristic of Americans: We stopped building, stopped inventing, stopped pushing the frontiers of technology.
What if we had reacted in the same manner in April 1947, when a port explosion in Texas City, Texas, triggered a massive fire at an oil refinery and killed 500 people? Should we have stopped drilling, pumping, exploring and transporting oil; should we have reverted to windmills; should we have turned back to firewood?
Together, TMI and Chernobyl staggered and ultimately stunted the nuclear power industry in America. Thus, nuclear power accounts for just 20 percent of America’s electrical energy, while it supplies almost 80 percent of France’s electricity needs; 79.9 percent of Lithuania’s; 55 percent of Belgium’s; and 50 percent of Sweden’s. Energy-hungry China has built nine new reactors since 1991, with plans to accelerate its nuclear power program. And fully half of Ukraine’s energy comes from the atom. That’s right: even the place that bears the scars of Chernobyl recognizes the benefits of nuclear power. (The ironies don’t end there: Recall how an energy-independent Iran—with enough oil and natural gas to meet its current energy demands for 256 years—is going nuclear, albeit for different reasons.)
But going nuclear isn’t the only answer for America. There are multiple paths to energy independence, and as the chaos and wars of the oil-rich Middle East continually remind us it is in the national interest to pursue all of them. That includes nuclear energy, bio-fuels like ethanol, hybrid technologies, conservation strategies like those in the Senate bill—and fossil fuels from right here in America.
If you think the United States has exhausted its own reserves of fossil fuels, think again. The Energy Information Administration, a sub-agency of the Department of Energy, reports that, at this moment, the US has 29.9 billion barrels of oil. In other words, the US actually possesses more oil than oil-exporting countries such as Mexico, Norway and the UK.
Plus, there are vast, untapped oil fields and other energy sources inside the US:
- Just off the coast of Louisiana, Chevron has found an oil field—the “Jack 2” well—with 15 billion barrels of oil.
- The nonpartisan research firm RAND estimates that Colorado, Utah and Wyoming sit on a goldmine of oil-shale deposits, once thought to be too expensive to convert into petroleum. These states hold between 500 billion and 1.1 trillion recoverable barrels. As RAND’s James Bartis explained in 2005, “We’ve got more oil in this very compact area than the entire Middle East.”
- As The Economist has reported, drillers have discovered a billion barrels of oil in Sevier County, Utah, alone.
- Plus, the so-called Greater Rocky Mountain Region holds between 165 trillion and 260 trillion cubic feet of natural gas, which explains why geologists are calling this swath of the US, “the Persian Gulf of natural gas.” (Iran, by way of comparison, sits atop 26.7 trillion cubic meters of natural gas.)
In fact, when we add America’s existing proven reserves to the new finds along the Gulf and in the Big Sky states, the US possesses more oil than all the smug, petroleum-producing headaches of the world—combined. More than Saudi Arabia, more than Iran, more than the UAE, more than Venezuela, more than Russia.
In short, contrary to the mantras of forlorn politicians and newsmen, the “energy crisis” is more a crisis of will than of availability/quantity: The future-fuel alternatives are there—in nuclear power and hybrids and, further down the road, hydrogen. Do we have the will to exploit them? And the fossil fuels are there today—in the Big Sky states and the Gulf and Alaska. Do we have the will to extract them?
The National Center for Policy Analysis (NCPA) has found that “There is no evidence that the world, in general, or the United States, in particular, is running out of fossil fuels.” The very opposite may be more accurate:
- In 1874, geologists in Pennsylvania (then the major oil-producing state) predicted there was only four year’s worth of oil remaining in the US. Yet by 1945, proven reserves of oil in the US amounted to 20 billion barrels.
- Between 1945 and 1994, the US produced 135 billion barrels of oil domestically—“more than six times the entire amount known to exist in 1945.” Today, US reserves alone could sustain domestic oil needs for 38 to 75 years.
- In 1920, the US Geological Survey estimated total world oil supplies at 60 billion barrels. In 1950, the experts pushed that number to 600 billion. By 1990, world oil supplies were estimated at 2 trillion barrels. By the mid-1990s, the estimate was higher yet—2.4 trillion. And by 2000, it was even higher—3 trillion barrels of oil supply.
The reason for this constant upward readjustment is technology. NCPA notes that before the first US well was drilled in 1859, “petroleum supplies were limited to crude oil that oozed to the surface.” But thanks to technological advances, oil is being discovered in new places; and trapped oil is being extracted from old places, as with the oil-shale deposits in the western US.
At a consumption rate of 20.6 million barrels a day, America’s substantial oil reserves are not an endless supply. But they are enough to carry us, comfortably, to what might be called “the post-petro economy.”
 US Nuclear Regulatory Commission, “Three Mile Island Accident,” www.nrc.gov.
 See Energy Information Administration, “World Proved Reserves of Oil and Natural Gas, Most Recent Estimates,” www.eie.doe.gov.
 Jennifer Talhelm, “Study Reveals Huge US Oil-Shale Field,” The Seattle Times, September 1, 2005.