A New Manhattan Project for Clean Energy Independence: The United States Must Marshal Its Resources and Talent to Tackle the Challenge of Coping with Climate Change

By Alexander, Lamar | Issues in Science and Technology, Summer 2008 | Go to article overview

A New Manhattan Project for Clean Energy Independence: The United States Must Marshal Its Resources and Talent to Tackle the Challenge of Coping with Climate Change


Alexander, Lamar, Issues in Science and Technology


In 1942, President Franklin D. Roosevelt asked Sen. Kenneth McKellar, the Tennessean who chaired the Appropriations Committee, to hide $2 billion in the appropriations bill for a secret project to win World War II.

Sen. McKellar replied, "Mr. President, I have just one question: Where in Tennessee do you want me to hide it?" That place in Tennessee turned out to be Oak Ridge, one of three secret cities that became the principal sites for the Manhattan Project.

The purpose of the Manhattan Project was to find a way to split the atom and build a bomb before Germany could. Nearly 200,000 people worked secretly in 30 different sites in three countries. President Roosevelt's $2-billion appropriation is the equivalent of $24 billion today. According to New York Times science reporter William Laurence, "Into [the bomb's] design went millions of man-hours of what is without doubt the most concentrated intellectual effort in history."

I returned to Oak Ridge recently to propose that the United States launch a new Manhattan project: a five-year project to put America firmly on the path to clean energy independence. Instead of ending a war, the goal will be to enable the nation to deal with rising gasoline and electricity prices, the threat of climate change, challenges to national security, and the need to protect air quality, efforts that will benefit not only the United States but all the world's countries.

In 1942, many were afraid that the first country to build an atomic bomb could blackmail the rest of the world. Today, countries that supply oil and natural gas the rest of the world. By independence I do not mean that the United States would never buy oil from Mexico or Canada or Saudi Arabia. By independence I do mean that the United States could never be held hostage by any country for its energy needs.

Not a new idea

A new Manhattan Project is not a new idea, but it is a good idea and fits the goal of clean energy independence. The Apollo Program to send men to the moon in the moon in the 1960s was a kind of Manhattan Project. Presidential candidates John McCain and Barack Obama have called for a Manhattan Project for new energy sources. So have former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, Democratic National Committee chairman Howard Dean, Sen. Susan Collins of Maine and Sen. Kit Bond of Missouri--among others. And throughout the two years of discussion that led to the passage in 2007 of the America COMPETES Act, several participants suggested that focusing on energy independence would force the kinds of investments in the physical sciences and research that the United States needs to maintain its competitiveness.

The overwhelming challenge in 1942 was the prospect that Germany would build the bomb before the United States could and thus win the war. The overwhelming challenge today, according to National Academy of Sciences President Ralph Cicerone, is to discover ways to satisfy the human demand for and use of energy in an environmentally satisfactory and affordable way so that the United States does not become overly dependent on overseas sources.

Cicerone estimates that this year Americans will pay $500 billion overseas for oil--that's $1,600 for each citizen--some of it to nations that are so hostile that they are bankrolling anti-U.S. terrorists. Sending $500 billion abroad weakens the dollar. It is half the U.S. trade deficit. It is forcing gasoline prices over $4 a gallon and crushing family budgets.

Then there are the environmental consequences. If world-wide energy use continues to grow as it has, between 2000 and 2030 humans will inject as much [CO.sub.2] into the air from fossil-fuel burning as they did between 1850 and 2000. The United States has plenty of coal to help achieve its energy independence, but there is no commercial way (yet) to capture and store the carbon from so much coal burning, and the country has not finished the job of controlling sulfur, nitrogen, and mercury emissions. …

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