Is 'energy independence' a chimera?

Many Americans probably expect the United States to be free of dependence on foreign oil by the year 2000. After all, it was a prime goal of President Carter. And though President Reagan has changed Mr. Carter's energy program, he continues to insist that energy independence can be achieved his way.

But Dr. Robert N. Schock, earth sciences division leader at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory here, disagrees. He says he feels current energy policies are likely to keep the United States heavily dependent on Mideast oil right up to the year 2000. And that, he points out, is a precarious situation.

Dr. Schock's division of the Livermore Lab (operated by the University of California at Berkeley, under contract with the federal government) is not nearly so well known as the nuclear weapons design division. Nor, it appears, is its work as highly valued by the Reagan administration. The projected fiscal 1983 budget will cut funds for energy programs in the earth sciences division from the current $15.5 million to $13.5 million. Funds for nuclear weapons research and development will rise to $236 million from fiscal 1982's $207 million.

Though he doesn't like the prospect of losing programs as well as employees, Schock says he is more concerned about the risky energy situation for the US in this and coming decades -- a situation the current world oil glut is causing a lot of people to ignore.

Projecting the nation's energy needs for the year 2000, Schock puts it at around 110 quads. A quad is 1 million billion British thermal units. Schock's projection assumes a gross national product growth rate of 2 percent - just a hair above recession.

His estimates of where that energy would come from are based on figures in a November 1981 report of the Energy Research Advisory Board's research and development panel. Schock says 18 quads would come from domestic oil, 18 quads from domestic natural gas, 40 quads from US coal, 12 quads from nuclear power plants, 10 quads from renewable resources such as hydro and wind -- and 10 quads from imported oil. In 1979, he points out, US energy use totaled 80 quads and came this way: domestic oil 21 quads, domestic gas 19 quads, domestic coal 15 quads, nuclear 3 quads, renewables 5 quads, and imports 17 quads.

There are at least a couple of imponderables in the year 2000 projection: There are limits on how much of its coal resource the US can utilize and the amount of nuclear generation that may be available 19 years hence.

Schock is among those who feel that the US could be too quick to see its huge coal reserve as a cushion against loss of other energy sources. His apprehension is heightened by the fact that among programs he heads here that face cutbacks -- and possibly shutdown -- is research into and testing of methods for ''gassification'' of coal while it is in the ground. The earth sciences division also is conducting research into extraction of shale oil and storage of nuclear waste. The shale research faces cutbacks; the radioactive waste research probably doesn't.

Schock points out that the nuclear component of the domestic energy resource is perhaps the shakiest, with three weak legs: increasing cost, the problem of handling radioactive wastes, and the safety of reactors.

The cost problem is one that labs like Lawrence Livermore aren't tackling, at least not directly.

Researchers here and at other facilities say they feel they have virtually worked out the waste disposal problem. A Lawrence Livermore project, now in its third year, has advanced the technology for storing nuclear waste underground. Another Lab project has developed a means for stabilizing radioactive waste in ''synrock'' -- literally a synthetic rock. Its developers claim synrock surpasses the borosilicate glass developed elsewhere and currently favored by federal agencies for immobilizing high-level nuclear waste.

Noting that the administration is considering a tax on utilities to pay for further testing of nuclear waste storage methods, Schock says this seems a fair approach. But he does not share the President's confidence that private companies can be relied on to pick up other programs, such as alternative energy sources.

He sees the public concern over safe operation of nuclear power plants as a ''political'' problem. But he believes that if the government regulated nuclear safety as closely as, say, airline safety, the public might be satisfied -- as well as protected to a much greater extent than at present.

Looking again at his projection of energy sources for year 2000, Schock points out that should the supply of oil from the Mideast be disrupted, the US is bound by agreements to share its petroleum with Japan and Western Europe.

He agrees with other observers of the current state of the nuclear power industry that the construction of plants already planned may never take place.

Yet his projection of sources two decades hence assumes a significant nuclear contribution in order to hold imports to the amount needed to produce 10 quads. If that should be cut off, Schock warns, ''You can park your auto in the garage and forget about driving it.''

Meeting US Energy needs (in guadullions Btus) 1979 2000 Domestic oil 21 18 Domestic gas 19 18 Domestic coal 15 40 Nuclear 3 12 Renewables 5 10 Imports 17 10 Total 80 108 Source: Report of the Energy Research Advisory Board Research and Development Panel; November 1981.

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