By Chet Yarbrough
Narrated by Pete Larkin
In Richard Muller’s book, Energy for Future Presidents, there are hard truths to accept or reject.
Few argue with the belief that energy is among the most critical issues of our time. Muller, an American professor of physics at U of C Berkeley, tackles three controversial issues; not as a politician but as a scientist. His first issue is analysis of recent energy disasters; second is current energy condition, and third is future energy opportunity.
If Energy for Future Presidents is the only Muller’ book one reads, he/she may close it in disgust after two chapters. Disgust comes from a nascent, clinically sterile, review of recent energy disasters.
Two famous cases, the BP oil spill off the Louisiana coast
and the Fukushima nuclear disaster in Japan, are inferred by Muller to be overblown media events that killed few people and unfairly damaged the contribution made to society by both industries. One begins to feel like Muller is an apologist for the oil and nuclear industry.
Muller argues that the Fukushima disaster was terrible; not because of nuclear radiation but because of a tsunami that followed the 7.3 magnitude earthquake. Muller argues that based on past nuclear disasters (Chernobyl and Three Mile Island) and the physics of nuclear radiation, less than 100 people will die from the Fukushima nuclear accident. He compares radiation exposure of most Fukushima residents to natural exposure in Colorado.
By the end of the book, appreciation of Muller’s analysis persuades some that this is an important energy story. (Muller acknowledges that even one death is horrible but he contextualizes the number of deaths in the history of past disasters.) This is a book for everyone to read; not just, the next President of the United States.
Muller acknowledges that global warming is a real thing and that its primary cause is human habitation. (Muller was an early denier of global warning. He changed his mind after further research.) Muller believes carbon dioxide, partly generated by carbon-based fuel consumption, is changing the ecology of the earth. He suggests the largest contributors to carbon dioxide build up are developing nations; particularly the state of China. With one coal-fired plant being built in China every week, over a ton of carbon dioxide is added to the world’s atmosphere.
The hard truth is that big oil, the nuclear industry, and coal production are consequences of the desire to make life more livable for the world population.
One can argue with Muller’s analysis of deaths and economic destruction caused by BP or Fukushima but the truth is—energy production is essential for the advance of world civilization. Any nation’s leader that ignores the importance of energy dooms their country to economic and social collapse.
Muller systematically analyzes current energy sources, environmental consequences and future energy opportunities from the perspective of science and academia. He acknowledges the importance of politics but explains that politics are not within his field of expertise. Muller focuses on the science of energy and leaves political decisions to present and future leaders of the world.
Muller argues that oil is a contributor to global warming but not in proportion to its benefit for society. Carbon based fuels, like oil, coal and gas are plentiful and will continue to be important, if not primary, sources of energy for the world. Muller persuasively argues that conservation of energy will significantly extend the life of carbon based fuels. Developed nations will continue to require improved mileage standards, more energy-efficient building codes, and reduced or contained carbon dioxide emission.
Muller believes vehicle mileage standards will achieve 100 mpg. Muller quantifies how much energy cost is saved by mundane building code improvements like insulation. Muller argues that science will find a way to mitigate or store carbon dioxide to reduce its ecological impact. All of these efforts will increase the viability and use of carbon based energy sources; including coal.
Muller offers a layman’s tour of nuclear energy and the science of fission and fusion. He argues that fission is relatively safe based on nuclear history and the latest nuclear research on plant modernization. Muller believes science will solve the puzzle of fusion within the next twenty years. Muller notes there are dangers in nuclear energy failure but not in the catastrophic sense of fictional stories like “The China Syndrome” which suggests a nuclear plant can become a nuclear bomb.
Nuclear plants can have uncontrolled nuclear chain reactions but they cannot reach the explosive force of a nuclear bomb. The fissionable material of a nuclear plant is not pure enough. A nuclear plants explosive impact is limited and their radioactive consequences are, in Muller’s opinion, manageable.
Muller believes abandoning the Yucca Mountain disposal site in Nevada (near Las Vegas) is a mistake. He argues that it should be re-opened and expanded. He believes politics have gotten in the way of scientific truth.
Muller argues that potential for nuclear contamination of ground water is negligible based on the physics of nuclear energy, earth’s natural levels of radiation, and safety design features of modern disposal sites. He believes Harry Reid and Barrack Obama are making political rather than science based decisions about Yucca Mountain. Muller argues that more disposal sites should be developed to accommodate spent nuclear waste.
Muller believes some alternative fuels will be economically viable based on continued research and development. He believes Tesla is destined to fail while Hybrid vehicles are likely winners in the automobile sweepstakes.
Muller argues that an all-electric car is impractical because of battery limitations and actual costs. Muller believes all-electric cars cannot be competitively priced to capture enough of the market to stay in business. A more practical solution lies in alternative fuel sources like biofuel produced from Miscanthus or other cellulose rich plants like switchgrasss.
Muller believes the hydrogen car is a non-starter even though Honda has produced one with the FCX Clarity. The two problems with the hydrogen idea are the weight for the required container, the limited distance that can be traveled, and the relative unavailability of filling stations. Muller argues a better alternative is a Hybrid gasoline/Compressed Natural Gas vehicle or conversion of gasoline engines to CNG systems.
Muller believes improvements in gasoline production from Shale Oil deposits and fracking will hugely reduce or eliminate imported oil needs in the U.S. He believes the environmental concerns over Shale Oil production and fracking can be safely regulated by heavily penalizing private industry for unsafe or environmentally damaging energy production.
Muller briefly reviews solar, wind, and geothermal power but suggests that wind and geothermal power are geographically limited and solar power requires further technological improvement.
In the end, a layman wonders whether Muller is deluding the public or assuaging one’s fear with solid scientific analysis. The hard truth is science needs politics to mitigate quantification of life, a science without conscience. On the other hand, the death of one by ignorance of truth is one too many.
Muller wisely only offers advice. He does not set policy–another reason why, democracy remains the best system of government in the world.