DOE does have a role

American energy policy takes another lurch; again, in many ways, for the worse, thus confounding some opinions that surely the United States must already be at the bottom.

Arguments were made in the early to mid 1970s against forming a Department of Energy - for example, the danger of weakening other departments and agencies whose activities were naturally and intimately associated with energy use. Just as the old Atomic Energy Commission of the 1950-74 period failed to consider nuclear power in adequate context, so might DOE treat all energy.

Those arguments were germane (and unheeded) a decade ago. But now DOE has lived four years and debate should turn to how to make it responsive and effective, not just to demolish it in a fit of market-economic pique.

Consider solar energy and conservation. In 1972, one advisory committee to the National Science Foundation recommended, inter alia, that those programs then meagerly supported only by the National Science Foundation be substantially expanded. So it came to pass. Solar energy expenditures more than doubled annually for several years. To be sure, such rapid growth attracted some strange adherents; sometimes it seemed that anyone who could see the sun at midday could get federal support. But now that the solar program stands on its feet and starts to turn out good work, though much is still far from commercialization, it is in danger of being wiped out.

Even more with conservation: the Reagan administration now leaves it to the marketplace, thereby ignoring a basic imbalance. The supply sector, seemingly complex, is simple compared with all the energy end-use activities in society. The former is well organized to provide its service and receive its benefits now , while many of its broad social costs, such as environmental ones, fall on a poorly organized public, far in the future. On the other hand, rational and effective energy use - conservation, as it is called - involves a complex set of uses and behaviors, generally requires costs now, with larger public benefits later. Elaborations of that disparity have traditionally impeded conservation. Market forces aggravated the problem and government action must ameliorate it.

The industrial sector reduced its energy use per unit of dollar output in the period 1972-78 (corrected for inflation) by about one sixth. That performance has been cited as evidence that ''conservation has taken hold'' and, therefore, that either the government's program has been effective or that the market will do the job.

Closer inspection of the reductions shows something else: about 40 percent of it represents continuation of a trend extending back for decades toward higher industrial efficiency; another 40 percent is a shift from making things that require a lot of energy to those that require less, sometimes accomplished by economic hardship; only 20 percent seems to arise from new conservation technology. The signals are ambiguous and complex, adjectives abhorred in the search for simple answers.

Again, regarding conservation, the administration proposed to dismantle the outreach programs to state and local agencies, whereby technical and other assistance is made available for home energy audits and so forth. Considerable progress has been made here, but much remains to be done. One recent assessment states that ''audit participants are not (yet) a cross-section of the general population: participants have higher incomes . . . probably have more energy-efficient homes. . . .'' As with solar energy, just as these programs find their feet, the rug is pulled from beneath them.

On the supply side, rumors abound of coal being returned to the care of the Department of the Interior, a prior location where its languor and invisibility contributed to forming the Energy Research and Development Administration in 1974.

But all this is as nothing compared with ideas now being proferred about nuclear power. Apparently, under the delusion of providing a benefit to that beleaguered sector, certain major items are to be singled out for full federal funding, by an agency devoted to the task. That has made nuclear power stand out as a target of free-market advocates on the right, of antinuclear groups of many persuasions, and of those in the middle who fear simplistic solutions. Even that we might excuse as innocent delusion, but not this: to reprocess commercial spent fuel now in order to recover plutonium, apply the emerging laser isotope separation technology to extract the weapons-grade isotope plutonium-239, and use it to make nuclear bombs.

Such proposals seriously made, let alone adopted, would go far to destroy any base for believing in rational, peaceful civilian nuclear power and would not only signal to the rest of the world that proliferation of nuclear weapons is acceptable, but also suggest how best to do it from civilian spent fuel.

For years, many of us associated with energy in general and nuclear energy in particular have argued that the peaceful and the warlike atom were not necessarily connected. Nations intent on developing weapons could do so quite apart from any civilian programs and, in fact, would most likely take that separate route. Peaceful nuclear power, properly conceived and watched, could be a selective but substantial global good. Then we could turn to ameliorating fundamental, global economic and social disparities, thus removing reasons why people ever wanted to build bombs in the first place. But nowhere did we ever argue that nuclear power and nuclear weapons could not be joined.

In the Middle Ages, bronze could be used to cast church bells or cannons, and Pliny in the first century argued that iron, used for arrows and lances, should never have been discovered. Whether it is used for plows or swords is a matter of intent. In the present case, as before, the evil lies not inherently in the phenomenon of nuclear fission or any of the chemical elements, all of them part of creation, but in the nature of man who can choose to build toward heaven or toward hell.

To avoid more energy confusion, especially to avoid an inadvertent Armageddon , we need a more holistic and sensible discussion of these activities and the appropriate role of the government in them, not decisions based on too-narrow assessments.

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