VIRGINIA BEACH – The problem of long-term energy sources has been drifting towards crisis for decades. Indeed, the catastrophes in Japan might finally achieve what decades of conflict in the Middle East have not: compel governments to invest in the research required to develop viable energy alternatives.
The immediate political response to the Japanese disaster will be to make small re-adjustments among known energy sources, including wind and solar. But the current options that many governments wish to embrace will not do the job. Production of the materials used to capture and store solar electricity, for example, can cause just as much environmental damage as conventional fuels, and existing wind and solar technology cannot easily meet the needs of large populations.
Of course, fossil fuels, mainly coal and natural gas, remain important, but their extraction and use is tied to groundwater pollution and carbon-dioxide emissions, especially in North America and China. The tragedy in Japan reminds us that, though nuclear energy emits no CO2, it is toxic in other ways.
If there was ever a time for a massive investment in research into long-term energy sources, that time is now. We need something on the scale of the Manhattan Project (which created the atomic bomb), or the Apollo Program (which put a man on the moon).