The original Manhattan Project was President Franklin D. Roosevelt's multifaceted attack on a problem of survival. The goal of the project was for the United States, Canada and the United Kingdom to develop a nuclear bomb before the Axis powers acquired it. This was a question of survival for the Allies.
The energy of the atom's nucleus was understood, but the first stumbling block was the need to separate uranium-235 from natural uranium. Three different paths to separation were available.
The best scientific minds of Europe and America could not predict which would be successful, so all three were tried, one of which yielded the necessary isotope.
Today, we have self-interested, lesser minds trying to decide which approach to energy production is best, rather than taking a multifaceted approach, similar to the Manhattan Project. Rather than trying to pick a single approach to supplying our energy needs, we need to attack the problem on many fronts.
In response to Russia's launch of Sputnik in 1958, President John F. Kennedy was determined to put a man on the moon. While this seems to be a less critical challenge than the survival needs of World War II, it was a challenge to technical superiority during the Cold War. Kennedy rose to the occasion and the space program, with all its technical fruits, was born.
The post-Kennedy responses to energy problems are considerably less inspiring. The solution requires effort by both the legislative and executive branches of government, and my criticism is for politicians in both arenas and both parties.
The 1973 oil crisis saw President Jimmy Carter turn out the lights, turn down the heat, don a sweater and curse the darkness. This early warning regarding energy was ignored, and the intervening years of opportunity were squandered by a failure to act. Since 1973, neither the Democrats nor the Republicans have risen to the occasion.
Earlier this year, the price of gasoline exceeded $4 per gallon with reverberations throughout the U.S. economy from transportation to food costs.
What we had was the pathetic sight of President Bush going to Saudi Arabia to beg for a few more barrels of oil. What we need are politicians who are capable of initiating a new Manhattan Project whereby they unshackle American ingenuity and then get out of the way, resisting the urge to pick winners and losers, thereby lining their pockets with the largesse of those who would be chosen for government subsidy.
When urged to unshackle the oil industry, permitting drilling in Anwar and offshore (where the Chinese will soon be operating), many politicians whine that it will take five years for that oil to come on line. Five years will pass in any case. Do we want some results after five years or just more whining? How many five-year periods have passed since the 1973 wake-up call?
A long journey begins with the initial steps, not an instantaneous conclusion. We don't have the intelligence to pick the winners and losers. What is needed is a multifaceted approach to energy including oil, gas, shale and coal for the near term, and nuclear, solar, wind and many other alternatives for the longer term.
We have centuries' worth of fossil fuels that we can exploit while reaching beyond the near term to alternatives that principally involve the generation of electricity.
The current electric grid is inadequate to handle a wholesale shift to electricity. Time will be required to develop alternatives and expand the capacity of the grid.
Much is made of hydrogen, which is not really a fuel but a delivery system. Whether automobiles will use hydrogen fuel cells or better battery technology is yet to be determined.
Again, we don't need politicians picking the winner here, but merely getting out of the way and letting technology and economics decide which is best.
After reaching energy independence, we need to go further and export all the energy we can produce that is beyond our own needs.
Instead of exporting our patrimony to the Middle East, we can reverse the export of our wealth and begin to acquire the wealth that comes with producing something the world wants and needs. We then achieve not only energy independence but also the prosperity we have seen that comes from selling energy on the world market.
This Manhattan Project for the 21st century will generate real wealth and well-serve this nation. It should have begun in 1973.