The Societal Implications of Energy Abundance

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  • The Societal Implications of Energy Abundance

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Abstract:

  • We live in a time when we need to consider that many things previously thought impossible might indeed be possible, and that these changes profoundly affect what we can do technologically, and how we live as individuals in human society. Humanity is achieving at a quickening pace its deepest glimpses and understandings yet into the innermost workings of the universe, and with it the potential by which to tap into new energy sources to produce a benign, cheap and inexhaustible power production paradigm. This panel will investigate the implications of this possibility. Major technological change affects the way we live and the way we interact in society. Few inhabitants of this planet in 1890, who traveled to town by horse and buggy, could have imagined that in 60 years time, people would travel the World in jet planes in the span of a few hours. Likewise, in that same time period, the World developed a dense grid of instantaneous telecommunications, first over wires, and then even without the wires to provide greater mobility. In this same timeframe, mankind has sent machines into outer space, studied far away galaxies, gained an entirely new understanding of the Universe, and cured many diseases thought incurable. Today, we live in a time when we need to consider that many things previously thought impossible might indeed be possible, and that these changes profoundly affect what we can do technologically, and how we live as individuals and in society. This panel will investigate the implications of these possibilities.

    Panel Description
    The prospect of abundant or unlimited energy is a real and growing possibility. Unlimited energy was nearly achieved through a nuclear production scheme during the 20th century but the high costs and risks tempered the effort. During the mid-20th Century, research and development into nuclear energy offered society its first plausible opportunity of abundant energy. A sufficient set of reactor designs combined with radioactive raw materials offered to the world for the first time the plausibility of unlimited or abundant energy that could be produced at special facilities and then shipped to consumers nationwide through a complex distribution grid. Yet, there were serious practical limitations that tempered and ultimately curtailed these nuclear energy plans. True enough, nuclear power approaches appeared poised and capable of providing virtually unlimited amounts of energy to fuel all facets of society, but the approach carried risks and costs that were ultimately deemed too high. In short, the potentially devastating side effects included two serious problems: the generation of copious amounts of highly dangerous radioactive waste that would require storage and/or “disposal” and the increasing and ever-present threat that these dangerous radioactive waste materials could or would be weaponized. Ultimately, the appeal and practicality of a 20th Century nuclear energy panacea was greatly reduced with improved appreciation of the extraordinary drawbacks. Unfortunately, recent events around the world continue to remind us of the terrible costs and risks to society posed by nuclear energy, especially when combined with the powerful and unforeseen forces of nature in a world experiencing global climate and atmospheric changes.

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