Peak Oil News: The sands of Nye County time

Wednesday, May 25, 2005

The sands of Nye County time

Pahrump Valley Times


The Current Era: 1970-2005

This most recent period of Nye County history is characterized by two trends. The first is the growth of Pahrump from a tiny farming community to a small rural city, substantially altering county demographics.

The majority of Nye County residents now live in the Pahrump Valley. The second trend, if it can be called that, is the application of modern open-pit mining methods to mineral deposits first discovered 70 or more years earlier. The current huge gold mining operation at Round Mountain is the best example of this trend. Open pit mining north of Tonopah in the 1980s and at Rhyolite in the 1990s are the two other important examples.

Ranching and farming in Nye County have declined due to unfavorable economics. The availability of water, but not land, will likely set the upper limits of Pahrump's growth. Inevitably, the gold deposit at Round Mountain will be exhausted and they will need a new economic engine.

Nye County's future: After 2015 and the end of oil

Predicting the future, which is history that has not yet happened, is a dangerous game. But here goes.

Most people don't yet realize it, but the world is on the fast track to depletion and eventual exhaustion of oil supplies. Experts believe world oil production is going to peak soon, perhaps this year, and just at a time when world needs for petroleum are rising dramatically - think China and India.

It is almost inevitable that oil supplies will fall precipitously in the coming generation. Shortages at the anticipated magnitude likely will shock, perhaps profoundly, the U.S. and world economies. Nothing like this has ever happened to industrial society before, experts who have looked at the problem say.

Analogous disruptions have hit the economic bases of non-industrial societies in the past, and those societies have either completely collapsed, or, if they did survive, never regained their pre-shortage levels. Keep in mind the U.S. currently uses about 21 million barrels of oil per day, approximately 25 percent of the world's oil production, roughly the same volume as the entire world consumed daily only four decades ago.

Considerable quantities of natural gas remain - enough for 50 years, but supplies are likely to become tight, even unpredictable, and prices will probably be high and volatile in the coming decades.

Unfortunately, North America, including Mexico, possesses less than 2 percent of the world's gas deposits. (Russia and Iran together hold about 50 percent.) Further, gas is detrimental to the world's climate, though not as bad as oil or coal, which is the worst of all. Great quantities of coal remain, but its use will become increasingly risky due to its negative effect on the world's climate.

Difficult as these changes may be for so many, they hold the opportunity of a new dynamic economy for Nye County. The anticipated oil shortage in the years ahead and the increasing recognition of the dangers of global warming almost certainly will lead to a growing emphasis on nuclear power. Increasingly, nuclear power will be recognized as a "green" energy source, one that is clean and cost-effective, producing minimal pollution and, crucially, having no negative effect on the earth's climate.

Moreover - and this is of critical importance for Nye County and the future of nuclear power - technology is on the horizon of solving the nuclear waste storage problem. Spent nuclear fuel from nuclear power plants will soon be reprocessed, then transmutated into forms that can be "reburned," reducing the original spent fuel volume by 90 percent, and leaving residues that are dangerous for only 300 years, as opposed to the 10,000 or more years now required.

Science is solving the nuclear waste problem. Processing nuclear waste in a transmutation burner produces vast quantities of heat, which can be turned into large amounts of electric power for use by society.

Any number of new technologically advanced nuclear power plants and transmutation burners can be constructed in Nye County. We have the Nevada Test Site and an abundance of federal land on which to place them. They will produce enormous quantities of safe electric power for use throughout the West, just as a prolonged world energy shortage grips our nation's economy.

The revenue and the number of high-paying jobs that will be created under this scenario could potentially transform Nye County into an island of prosperity.

And, even more inspiring, at least for me, is that the presence of such power-producing facilities can lead to Nye County becoming a world center for energy research where the best scientists in the world explore new ways to produce and store energy.

Readers of this column might recall that John S. Herrington, Secretary of Energy under President Ronald Reagan, proposed a multi-billion dollar research facility "that would employ more Nobel Prize winners than any university on Earth," for the Nevada Test Site - Nye County - nearly 20 years ago, according to former Nevada Sen. Chic Hecht. So this idea is not new.

Such research would take place at Science City, the city on the hill, located in Nye County, where the best of humanity will be expressed.

Keep in mind that whether Nye County contributes or not, the world's energy economy is going to have to be reinvented in the next 40 years. The potential exists for Nye County to play a significant role in this reinvention. If we pool our energies and make this the next stage of Nye County history, our children and grandchildren will thank us. And I know that every miner, rancher, and farmer who ever tried to make a dollar in this place would be damn proud of the result, or, as an old miner would put it, "how it assayed out."


Nicholas D. Kristof. "Nukes are Green." The New York Times, April 9.

James Howard Kunstler. "The Long Emergency." Due out May 15; excerpted in "Rolling Stone" April 7.

Paul Roberts. "The End of Oil: On the Edge of a Perilous New World." New York: Houghton Mifflin Company, 2004.

Kamil Tucek. "Neutronic and Burnup Studies of Accelerator-Driven Systems Dedicated to Nuclear Waste Transmutation." Doctoral Thesis. Department of Physics, Royal Institute of Physics, Stockholm, Sweden. 2004. Available through the Los Alamos National Laboratory, Los Alamos, New Mexico Web site.


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