Nuclear Energy and the Military


Nuclear Power Needs Leadership, but Not from the Military

Nuclear Power Needs Leadership, but Not from the Military,” by Michael J. Ford, Ahmed Abdulla, and M. Granger Morgan (Issues, Summer 2018), describes many negative aspects of having the military lead the nation into a new nuclear power era. Based on history, many of these adversities would likely occur. So, they propose only a modest role for the military that might help the industry, but these would not likely make the changes needed to revitalize this industry in the United States. They haven’t given us a better idea. They have mostly just complained about the military idea.

The world faces an enormous challenge in providing sufficient, reliable electricity without simultaneously emitting greenhouse gases. Numerous recent assessments cast severe doubt on the ability to decarbonize the power sector using only renewables. Getting emissions to near zero while meeting energy demand at a reasonable price will require flexible, nonemitting power with high capacity factors. Nuclear power represents one of the most potentially feasible technologies to meet this need. We should not throw this technology under the bus.

Ford and his coauthors make a strong case that today’s normative world might not provide the nuclear option in the United States. We live in a complicated world with a lot of history and reasons why things are structured and done the way they are. But these structures and processes got us where we are today, and climate change demands that we reexamine how we do things. If the military can’t be changed successfully to solve this problem, what can? What changes to the nation’s policies and economic structures would? The imperative for change exists. So many of the arguments raised by the authors relate to the norms of the last century. We face different circumstances. What should the new norms be? The old saw, “where there is a will, there is a way,” comes to mind. Primarily we need a change in societal will and leadership. Until then we are stuck with mere tweaks such as those recommended by Ford et al.

Once we get serious about this issue, we will have to make significant changes. For one, I would argue that the US government created a “department of energy” that is not really much about energy at all. It is the place to keep weapons work in civilian hands. Traditionally, the spillover funding from the Department of Energy’s work on nuclear weapons did benefit civilian energy research, but the agency’s focus is not primarily on the key issues we face in energy today. The United States, which uses 25% of the world’s energy, does not have an agency focused entirely on having carbon-free, reliable energy. Why is that still in the public interest?

Does the nation need a Public Works Administration for carbon-free energy? Is there an energy version of Harold Ickes who can provide goal-oriented leadership? Should we have the equivalent of the agricultural extension service to help local and regional governments find low-carbon pathways? Let us not stay stuck in the modes of the past that cannot solve the problems of today. Let’s try some new ideas.

There is an old story about US soldiers lost in the Alps during World War II. One found a map in his pocket, and the group used the map to get to safety. But the map turned out to be for a different part of the Alps. The point was that they moved forward responding to their situation. Had they stayed in the same place, they surely would have stayed lost. We don’t have the right map either, but we have the obligation to strive for solutions, not tweaks.

Oakland, California

Cite this Article

“Nuclear Energy and the Military.” Issues in Science and Technology 35, no. 1 (Fall 2018).

Vol. XXXV, No. 1, Fall 2018