If oil fields and refineries are burned or bombed in the Persian Gulf war, what consequences could be expected here at home? And over the long haul, what alternative sources of energy could be developed? For answers, a reporter dropped around the other day to see James D. Watkins, secretary of the Department of Energy. Watkins, among other things, is an expert on nuclear power.
Oil supplies are not about to run dry. The world is experiencing a glut of oil. Inventories in December were more than 150 million barrels above average stock levels of the past four years. Other producing nations have more than replaced the 4.3 million barrels per day that have been lost from Iraq and Kuwait. The torching of oil facilities in Kuwait will have little effect. Saudi Arabian wells can be protected against significant permanent damage. There is no need to panic because of the war. There is no need even to become anxious for the foreseeable future.
All the same, as Watkins recently has emphasized, abundant supplies of oil are vital to the global economy. Coal may provide an alternative to oil in some instances, but in many manufacturing processes oil is irreplaceable.
Simple prudence suggests that the United States reduce its vulnerability to the volatility of the international oil market. Alternative energy sources must be promoted and made more efficient. Adm. Watkins has sent President Bush a national energy strategy built around these elementary premises. What alternative sources is Watkins talking about?
Nuclear power above all else. It's his field. The admiral got out of the Naval Academy in 1949, went through the usual assignments of a young officer and then earned his master's degree in reactor engineering at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory. With the encouragement of Adm. Hyman Rickover, he went into nuclear submarines and then served for three years in the Atomic Energy Commission as Rickover's assistant for naval nuclear propulsion.
Granted, the nuclear power industry has had a rough time of it in recent years. The 110 atomic plants in operation produce 20 percent of the nation's electric power, but no new plants are under construction. If a plant were started tomorrow, it would be 2003 to 2005 before it came on line. Twenty-nine of the existing plants will run out of waste storage capacity by 1998. Ways must be perfected to bury waste for 100,000 years. The industry has its problems.
The problems are not insurmountable. Watkins expects to see a single plant design approved by the end of 1992. General Electric and Westinghouse are competing for authorization to put a new 650-megawatt plant on line by 2000. By 2010, if all goes well, nuclear plants will provide 30 percent of our nation's power. Someday, perhaps by 2025, nuclear fusion will become commercially feasible.
Meanwhile, Watkins takes a realistic view of other alternative sources. Except in Hawaii and a few places on the mainland, wind power will not amount to much. Research continues on oil shale, but shale will not be competitive for years to come. The admiral is encouraging the private sector to continue work on geothermal ventures. What about solar energy? Watkins believes there is "real potential" yet to be tapped. By 2000 solar power should be competitively priced.
That leaves the prospect of improving the efficiency of hydroelectric power from dams. This could provide an additional 20,000 megawatts. The incineration of municipal waste could become "a major growth industry," but complaints about noise, odor and ash must be resolved.
All in all, says the admiral, the nation's energy future looks pretty good. Sensible conservation and imaginative research will lessen our dependence on oil and enhance the environment. Watkins is enthusiastic. Full speed ahead!