Crank of the Week - December 15, 2008 - Jimmy Carter

With Barack Obama vowing to free America from dependency on foreign oil while combating global warming, a voice from the past is offering him some presidential level advice. Jimmy Carter, a president most people would like to forget, has offered the incoming top executive these words of wisdom: “Try to inspire Americans to see the virtue in making energy sacrifices.” Of course this approach worked so well back in 1976 that today the US is “free from the tyranny of foreign oil”—not!

You may not have been around or simply don't remember when Jimmy Carter took office in 1977. Americans were still traumatized from the interminable gas lines and soaring prices of the 1973-74 Arab oil embargo, a ploy by Saudi Arabia and other Arab countries to use oil exports as a weapon against the US in retaliation for American support for Israel. Just two weeks into his presidency, Carter gave his famous “fireside chat” on energy. Wearing a scruffy yellow cardigan that now hangs in his presidential museum, he called on Americans to save energy by lowering their thermostats to 65 degrees during the day. In the coming months, he would call the energy crisis “the moral equivalent of war.”

Later, Mr. Carter announced a massive program to boost solar power and make synthetic fuel from coal. He vowed the U.S. would never again import more oil than it did in 1977. That speech, dubbed the “malaise speech” by his critics, ended up a symbol his whole dismal time in office. Hardly anyone remembers that Mr. Carter had 32 solar-energy panels installed on the White House roof. He boldly predicted that they would either show the way toward a new energy future, or become “a museum piece.” President Reagan later removed the solar panels, two of which can be found on display in the Carter museum.

Perhaps the most egregious thing that Carter did was to found the Department of Energy. The Department of Energy was signed into existence in 1977 with a mandate to free America from dependence on foreign oil. Thirty one years later the department's budget is $24.2 billion a year, supporting 16,000 federal employees and more than 100,000 contract workers. Seeing how well the DoE has worked, President Obama would do well to ignore any advice from the garrulous goober. Perhaps most tellingly, it was Carter, a trained nuclear engineer, who was responsible for the decision to use what is called the “open fuel cycle” for all US nuclear power plants.

In the broadest sense, there are two nuclear fuel cycles—open and closed. The open or “once-through” cycle treats the spent nuclear fuel as a waste without any attempt to reclaim the remaining 235U or newly created 239Pu. The spent fuel is then held in on-site storage or disposed of in a geologic repository, possibly to be held for thousands of years. Only about 5% of the fuel is converted into usable energy. In all, using the open cycle is like only burning the bark off logs in a fireplace and then having to store the charred logs for the rest of your life.

In contrast, a closed fuel cycle utilizes reprocessing of the spent nuclear fuel and retrieves approximately 99% of the leftover fissile material. As much as 94% of the radioactive material in the original fuel can be transformed into usable energy in this way, leaving behind a much smaller amount of spent waste that needs to be stored. Also, the resulting waste consist of materials that are less toxic and/or have a shorter half-life the the waste produced by the open cycle. Apologists will say that the technology was not as advanced in Carter's day and that the decision made sense because it helped prevent nuclear proliferation, but that is no longer the case. Such reprocessing and reuse of nuclear fuel is practiced in many nations outside of the US today including France, Japan, the UK and Russia.

Our advice to President Elect Obama is to ignore any and all advice from the feckless former president. Carter was one of the 20th Century's worst presidents: a national embarrassment and a leader who acted as a sort of anti-king midas—everything he touched turned to dross. Jimmy, consider this Crank of the Week as a lifetime negative achievement award.