The International Writers Magazine: After Oil?

James Skinner

In July 1973, crude oil was at $3 a barrel. During that same month, oil producing Iran’s 20 year agreement with the foreign oil companies came to an end and the then reigning ‘Big Wheel’, Mohammed Reza Pahlavi, better known as the Shah decided to up the prices by 70%. He was dead keen on bettering his social program for his people and improving their standard of living. Ring an international bell?

This caught the Western gas guzzlers with their pants down. World monetary instability and hyperinflation followed. Meanwhile, in October of the same year, Egypt and Syria decided to attack Israel. The Yom Kippur War had started. In retaliation, the Arab contingent of OPEC, the Organization of Oil Exporting Countries, decided to jump on the bandwagon to hammer Israel and by December had upped the prices of a barrel of oil another 120%. For the first time in modern history, the world economy was completely turned on its head and every citizen, particularly in the developed world realised the undisputable and dangerous dependence on oil as the one and only real source of energy.

I was on the Cayman Islands at the time, having an after-office-hours beer with a few of the local lads, in an isolated pub called ‘Welly’s Cool Spot’. Welly’s was a typical West Indian breezy bar tucked away in and open space within the tropical jungle surrounded by palm trees. The shanty shack was equipped with sloppy wooden chairs and tables, the air cooled and flushed around by a rusty ceiling fan. It was miles away from civilisation. No television, no phone (although I was about to install one for him) no honky-tonk music player, just a fridge full of beer cooled by large blocks of ice. I remember Welly asking me, ‘what’re we going to live on boss, now that we ain’t got any gas?’ I took a swig of my Heineken and answered, ‘I’m going back to England in a few weeks. That’s were we’ve got a real bitch of a problem.’ He looked perplexed. ‘Welly; you guy’s have got it all, coconuts, mango trees, fish, lobsters and plenty of good weather to go with it. You don’t need oil!’

Ironically, I was in Iran two years later to exploit the fruits of Western investment thanks to the oil hike. But the ball had already started in the depths of our world thinkers. Oil not only had an unstable price tag, it was in the hands of a group of countries that would continue to hold Western civilisation and democracy to ransom. It also had a timeframe. Someday the black gold would run out. Thirty years later, the scene hasn’t changed much, except that the political arena has altered. Islamic terrorism has thrown a wrench into the works and not only is the world economy threatened because of new and increasing oil price hikes, the instability of the civilized world is about to collapse unless an alternative energy solution is brought about.

Enter nuclear power.
Without going into a thesis on the design and development of this energy source, suffice to say that it is clean, non-polluting, and efficient and has the output capacity to eventually supersede oil as the main supplier of electrical power for present and emerging industrial world countries. Nuclear engineering design and development has been going on for decades opening the doors for nuclear power plants to be installed in many countries around the world. They have been successful in proving an alternative to gas guzzling electrical power plants. However, they do present three major problems.

Like all man made inventions, no nuclear installation is fool proof. In April, 1986 due to human error in maintenance procedures, one of the Russian nuclear plants in Chernobyl exploded and was set on fire. Despite a ‘hush-up’ by the Russians, radioactive material had been blasted into the atmosphere (it is still up there) and was detected by scientists as far away as Sweden. It did not take long for an international outcry to be heard across the continents as hundreds of Ukrainians began to suffer the after effects and die of nuclear radiation. Thus the first issue against these types of energy suppliers is their relative safety in case of a major failure.

The second disadvantage is the age old question of what to do with nuclear waste. Like any other fuel consumption, there is always the left over residual material to take care of. We humans tend to be a dirty lot of animals and are experts in producing rubbish. We burn it, bury it, sometimes recycle it and if possible convert it into other substances such as, in the case of petrol, turn it into contaminating carbon dioxide gases. But with the nuclear stuff we have a serious problem. It will continue to cause a possible radiation problem for millions of years. Ever heard of the atomic half-cycle? In other words, every time the garbage collector turns up at one of these plants, he has to take the muck away and bury it in a super concrete and steel box supposedly for thousands of years. At least that is what were are told by the experts. Therefore, if the world eventually converted to nuclear power, it is obvious that the danger of radiation due to either an accident or eventual leakage of one of these nuclear coffins would increase exponentially over the next few centuries.

The third drawback is the old story of the parallel use of nuclear technology that can be used in the development of large nuclear bombs. The proliferation of these destructive gadgets, especially by unscrupulous countries could easily threaten the very existence of life on this planet should a nuclear holocaust ever take place. At this moment in time, if we look at the world political arena, there is ample evidence to prove that this fear is real, and what is more, it is growing. North Korea has been rambling on for years that it will have a go at its neighbour down south. India and Pakistan both have bombs and continue to argue over borders. Any one of them could press the trigger. And now we have Iran defying the Western world, breaking all the rules and going full steam ahead to develop their own nuclear capabilities, whatever they may be.

If we introduce the time element, humanity takes on a double whammy of risk. Other types of energy are emerging but they cannot replace the vast needs of the planet for many decades. To transfer over from oil is going to take years of planning and development. You cannot switch from petrol engines to other means overnight. And then we have the political infighting, not to mention the environmental issues or the international terrorist threats. Britain says there is no future unless they build nuclear power plants. France has them already and intends to build a few more. Spain has started to shut down all theirs with no future energy plan in place. These are just a few samples of the discussions going on at the moment at top governmental levels in Europe. The ‘old’ continent’s nuclear program, the peaceful one, is upside down. So, what’s the answer? Do we bite the bullet and go for nuclear? Do we continue down the oil pipeline until it runs out? I haven’t even spoken about many other ramifications such as transport, construction, industry in general and the plethora of other smaller derivatives that would be affected by a dramatic change in the world energy supply. The whole lot is in the boiling pot of uncertainty. Nevertheless, I know what my answer is!
I’m going back to Welly’s Cool Spot!

© James Skinner. May 23rd 2006

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