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Will the U.S. Lag on Alternative Energy Again?

Politics / Energy Resources Nov 13, 2009 - 02:38 PM GMT

By: Sy_Harding


Best Financial Markets Analysis ArticleAfter being the world leader in nuclear power for many years, the U.S. dropped out and has been huddled in fear since the Three-Mile Island nuclear power plant incident in 1979.

In the 30 years since, the U.S. has added many nuclear weapons to its defense arsenal, which are stored in various unknown locations around the country. The U.S. Navy has continued to build its awesome fleet of nuclear-powered warships non-stop for more than 50 years. Many of those are docked near major populated areas for long periods of time. And there are 104 nuclear power plants built prior to Three-Mile Island still operating in the U.S.

So many of those who fear nuclear power, who form resistance groups every time a new nuclear plant is proposed, have been driving by, living near, or working close to nuclear power plants for decades. The big fear of what to do with spent fuel rods that remain radioactive for generations, has been handled for decades by shipping them across the country to storage facilities without incident.

Only one new nuclear reactor (for peaceful purposes) has been built in the U.S. in the 30 years since Three-Mile Island. Yet as scary as the publicity surrounding that incident was, there were no deaths or injuries associated with it. In 1996, courts dismissed the 2,000 lawsuits that workers and people living around the plant had filed, saying “The parties have had nearly two decades to muster evidence in support of their claims and have not been able to do so.”

Meanwhile, the rest of the world has not been waiting for the U.S. to resume its leadership role. There are now 436 nuclear power plants operating around the world, with 14,000 ‘reactor years’ of safe operating experience, and 53 more under construction, of which only one is in the U.S., while 16 are in China, 9 in Russia, 6 in India, 6 in Korea, etc.

Already France gets 78% of its total electricity needs from nuclear power plants, Belgium 60%, Sweden 43%, Spain and Korea 36%, Germany, England, and Japan 28%. And all are adding new plants. The United States gets just 19% of its electricity from nuclear plants and has no interest in building more.

Meanwhile, the technology has come a long way. Several years ago Chinese nuclear engineers, in an experiment observed by scientists from around the world, tried their darndest to deliberately cause a disastrous failure. Among their stunts they cut off the critical flow of cooling water through the reactor, and then withdrew the fuel rods, a sure way to cause a meltdown. But the reactor simply shut itself down. Observers, including U.S. engineers from MIT, called the experiment dramatic and impressive.

Nuclear power as an alternative energy source seems to be too important an area for the U.S. to sit idly by, worrying about the pollution of fossil-burning fuels like oil and coal, worried about the rising cost and diminishing supplies of crude oil, while the rest of the world eats its lunch.

Yet that’s not the end of the story of the U.S. and alternative energy development.

How is the U.S. doing with wind-power?

The intentions sound good. The government’s stimulus package included $80 billion for ‘green- energy’ related projects, which would include wind power. And in fact the U.S. trails only China at this point in developing wind generation (with Germany and Spain close behind).

But how far behind China? Chinese scientists are projecting that with the technology that is coming along China could actually get 100% of its electricity needs from wind-power by 2030.

That sounds farfetched, but who would have thought 20 years ago that France would be getting 78% of its electricity from nuclear power?

However, complaints are coming from those who would advance wind-power technology in the U.S., that the money promised from the stimulus plan is bogged down in bureaucracy, and destined for large companies that know how to play the government game. Yet this country’s impressive growth and breakthrough technologies have largely been developed and built by entrepreneurs and small start-up companies, the Henry Fords, Bill Gates’s, and Steve Jobs’s of the world, sometimes working in their basements or garages.

So where are the small wind-power entrepreneurs in the U.S.?

Let’s hope Tom Carnahan’s problems are not typical. Carnahan, CEO of Wind Capital Group, says it took him almost a year to obtain funding for his planned 150-megawatt wind farm in Missouri (which is designed to provide the electricity needs of 50,000 homes). After being turned down by U.S. banks he turned elsewhere, and with not a single U.S. bank in on the deal, the loans are being provided by five financial institutions in Europe and Japan.

Electric-powered cars and ‘hybrids’ are yet another area of alternative energy whose time has obviously come. Manufacturers can’t keep up with demand.

In August Congress pushed U.S. automakers to step up their development of hybrids as a means of saving the U.S. auto industry. No attention was paid to the fact that the U.S. has hardly any of the advanced battery technology needed. So nearly all the critical battery packs are designed and supplied by Japan’s Panasonic and Sanyo, and are manufactured in China, Japan, and Korea. Most of the hybrid autos themselves are manufactured by foreign automakers Toyota, Lexus, Honda, and Nissan.

Wake up, America! The U.S. produces 36% of the world’s total emissions of greenhouse gases. (Russia comes in second with 19%). We can’t be satisfied with that.

Nuclear power and other alternative energy technologies not only lower the effects of those emissions on the population, and prevent future generations from being hostage to the ever rising cost (and diminishing supplies) of foreign oil, and provide much needed high tech jobs, but would go a long way toward recovering America’s image of technological leadership.

Let’s get going.

Sy Harding is president of Asset Management Research Corp, publishers of the financial website, and the free daily market blog,

Disclaimer: The above is a matter of opinion provided for general information purposes only and is not intended as investment advice. Information and analysis above are derived from sources and utilising methods believed to be reliable, but we cannot accept responsibility for any losses you may incur as a result of this analysis. Individuals should consult with their personal financial advisors.

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