Coal is almost dead. Long live nuclear - and safely. That is the underlying meaning of the marathon coal strike for the country's energy problems. So it is good news that there is being announced this week a new technique that divorces all-out nuclear production from proliferation of nuclear weapons.
For several years now coal has been at the center of the country's energy strategy. Thurston Morton, the top energy man in the last administration, called it "America's ace in the hole." President Carter's National Energy Plan prescribes a substantial increase in coal production by 1985.
But the strike demonstrates that the extensive practice of underground coal mining is not truly consistent with the sensibilities of an advanced industrial - or, as Daniel Bell puts it, a "post-industrial" - society. The work is dangerous, dirty and hard. Those who undertake it demand privileges that go beyond the usual reward of high wages.
The coal miners seek old-fashioned, individual freedom. They don't want to be pushed around by management or labor or government. That is why there is an anarchic union forced by its members to demand the right to have wildcat strikes without any serious penalty against wages, employment or health and pension benefits.
The post-industrial society affords tolerance, if not universal support, for these demands. So the Taft-Hartley law couldn't be made to work, and a seizure of the mines would have encountered - and still might encounter - strong congressional opposition. The president in these circumstances has had as his chief weapon patience, and a prayer that after the operators gave way, the miners would accept their surrender.
Theoretically the problems of eastern coal could have been solved by western coal. For the seams in the Rocky Mountains lie close to the surface and do not require underground mining.
But a feature of the post-industrial society is sensitivity to environmental problems. Another feature is high concern about unemployment.
These two concerns have combined to shape the latest clean-air regulation.
The new rules require that 90 percent of the sulfur content be removed from coal before the waste is emitted. That discriminates against western coal, which is so low in sulfur content that it would not ordinarily need any special treatment. As a result western coal will not be competitive east of the Mississippi. There will be no western coal rush.
Nuclear power, by contrast, is free from all these social constraints. It is cleaner, cheaper, safer and more reliable than coal. The most progressive power producers in the country have long since gone over to nuclear reactors. A notable example is the TVA, which - having led in hydroelectric power during the 1930s and coal-fired plants in the 1950s - is now going nuclear in a big way.
Association with nuclear weapons, to be sure, has generated a good deal of public apprehension about nuclear power. Though polls and referendums show an overwhelming part of the population favorable to nuclear power, many citizens and political leaders of unquestionably high motivation oppose - and successfully oppose - locating nuclear power plans in major population centers.
But that problem can be met by placing the plants on government reservations or in nuclear parks. Thus the Hanford Nuclear Reservation in central Washington is being used for building three reactors that will provide power to the populous areas around Seattle and Portland. California could also have a piece of that action if Gov. Jerry Brown would be sensible about his state's overwhelming energy difficulties.
A second worry is disposal of nuclear wastes. There has been unquestionable sloppiness in disposing of the nuclear wastes from military programs. Though no damage has been done, some of the radioactive material has leaked from containers stored at Hanford. But that can easily be remedied - and indeed is being remedied - in a crash program for stashing the stuff in new containers.
The problem becomes much smaller if this country begins moving toward reprocessing plants and breeder reactors that use spent fuel to generate more nuclear fuel. President Carter had turned away from the path because reprocessing generates weapons-grade material and thus might promote proliferation of nuclear bombs. His hope was that if the United States went slow. France, Britain, Germany and Japan would follow suit.
They have not - but the delay has yielded a dividend. Scientists in Britain and this country have developed, and are announcing this week, means for going through the whole reprocessing cycle without producing weapons-grade material.
That development is a special boon for President Carter, whose past emphasis on nonproliferation was going nowhere. The president would be well advised now to seize the opportunity for proclaiming this country's full entry into the nuclear age.