Richard Rhodes: Energy Sources, and a Second Look at Nuclear Power

Richard Rhodes (right) discussed the history of energy with guest moderator Harry Atwater (left).

Taking a long view of humanity’s need for and development of energy sources, Richard Rhodes said that shifting from one energy source to another has always taken a long time.  In addition, historically, we have always found a new source of energy first, and only later have addressed the problem of how to clean it up said Rhodes, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of The Making of the Atomic Bomb. He also said that the US should “take another look” at nuclear power.

“If there is any take-away from energy development of the past 400 years it is that it takes a long time to move from one energy source to another – classically it has taken 100 years.”  Speaking at a LAWAC Global Café breakfast on June 7th, Rhodes said that the reason it takes so long is that one cannot simply invent a new machine or find a new energy source – “you need the whole infrastructure.”  He pointed out that when Elon Musk decided to build an all-electric car, he also had to make a new battery, set up charging stations and so on – “which is why it is mostly limited to California.”

Rhodes pointed to the long transition from burning wood to burning coal in Elizabethan England – which became pressing as England was running out of trees to cut down to burn.  But without proper chimneys many people found they were being choked on coal smoke, and it was called “the devil’s excrement.”  However when King James I ascended to the throne and began burning coal, the common people began to follow.  But what a king can achieve may be challenging for elected politicians – “energy transitions are not glamorous and politicians are not too interested in rebuilding infrastructure, something we know all too well in the US,” said Rhodes.

Two of the main drivers to developing a new energy source are – either finding something that costs less, or running out of something.

Rhodes also insisted that if one looks at the scale of the non-carbon energy sources that humanity will need for development and to counter global warming, “we are going to need any non-carbon energy we can find – nuclear has to be part of that.”  Rhodes said that nuclear power produces energy from a small amount of material and is very reliable – “people aren’t building Chernobyl-type plants anymore.”  He said that part of the problem for nuclear power advocates is that it was born by the burning down of two cities. “Nuclear power is clearly associated with nuclear weapons, and that is why it is the ‘devil’s excrement’ of the 21st century. I would say – take a second look.” 

Rhodes pointed out that France gets 75% of its power from nuclear energy, (compared to 20% in the US) – and has some of the cheapest electricity in the world. The French made all decisions centrally – starting under President de Gaulle – and so each nuclear reactor was the same and problems were easy to spot and solve. “They have done it very elegantly, and they have done it right.” By contrast the US had a decentralized approach, each reactor was essentially a one-off, and so lessons learned at one installation didn’t necessarily transfer to others. This has led to a general lack of support for building new nuclear plants in the US, even as we search for alternative energy sources. “When I tell people I am pro-nuclear, they think I am a conservative Republican – which I am not,” said Rhodes.  As for where the debate on climate change and energy sources was going, Rhodes quoted Yogi Berra, “It is tough to make predictions, especially about the future.”

Thank you to our moderator, Dr. Harry Atwater, Howard Hughes Professor of Applied Physics and Materials Science at the California Institute of Technology.