Could Nuclear Power Be the Answer to the Energy Crisis?
Don't know if you've noticed or not, but lurking in the shadows of all the talk about renewables such as wind and solar power, there's another form of energy that many people—green people even—are fighting for. It's nuclear. And, yes, we know it sounds scary, but indeed there are more than a few good reasons why we should think about giving it a shot.
With coal at the top of the cheap energy hog pile--and staying there--it's important o understand what that means to health of the environment. A coal-fired plant releases 100 times more radioactive material than a nuclear reactor does, according to an article at Wired ("Nuclear Now!"), and that pollution goes directly into the air, not into some spiffy underground holding tank. And while nuclear plants have to account for every radioactive atom of waste, coal plants are busy dumping loads of deadly shiz right into the atmosphere at no cost. The point is, the more seriously we think about global warming, the more may want to seriously considering the benefits of nuclear power. Radical, we know, and not without pros and cons, but here goes...
Renewables, as great as they sound, are still seemingly unfeasible in terms of providing the real amount of power we need to sustain the activity of our world. And with the possibility of worldwide energy demands tripling in the next 50 years (think China), the question is, will renewables be able to keep pace? Solar and wind are expensive and land-intensive energy sources and not cost-competitive with natural gas, oil, or coal. Or nuclear for that matter. And, sadly, the proportion of renewable energy that the U.S uses has fallen 2 percentage points over the past 15 years, according to the same Wired News article.
Nuclear power, on the other hand, could replace coal, and could function easily with our existing grid. And thanks to improvements in reactor design, reactors would be much safer than in the past. New generators are more fuel-efficient, safer, and could be cost-competitive to build, compared with coal plants. (We admit the idea of another Three Mile Island accident does still totally freak us out.)
Admittedly, there are some major drawbacks, aside from the gnarly pr rap that nuclear's already got. Say, for example, the lack of places to put radioactive waste. Even if we built huge, underground, concrete casks for the stuff, we'd still have to ensure that they could last the hundreds or years or so it takes for the stuff to break down, or count on the fact that we'd be able to figure it out what to with it by then.
Understand that despite the concerns, many enviros have already crossed over to this side. The co-founder of Greenpeace, Patrick Moore (he's since left due to his nuclear stance) and Gaia theorist James Lovelock are two big names that have hopped on the nukes bandwagon. We've even heard some people argue that you can't call yourself green unless you're considering nuclear power as a viable alternative.
Here's what those in favor, according to Wired, say needs to be done in order to make it happen: First, we need to regulate carbon emissions, i.e. make sure every form of energy producer is held accountable for their pollution (see coal pollution, above).
Then, recycle nuclear fuel. A bunch of countries—France, Japan, and the U.K. among them—already do this. (Quick fact: In the U.S, nuclear energy accounts for 20% of the energy market, compared to France, which uses 77% nuclear power.) Here's why: spent nuclear fuel, the kind the U.S. insists be holed up, actually retains 95% of its energy content. 95%!! To paraphrase Wired, Imagine what a car could do if 95% the gas that passed through it could be reused. Whoa. That would solve the problem of what to do with the majority of nuclear "waste." On the other hand, reprocessed nuclear fuel=enriched uranium, and now you see why it might not be such a good idea to leave it lying around—that's the stuff atomic bombs are made of, of course. Not so good. In fact, perhaps a little dangerous without the proper precautions.
Next, we'd have to rekindle innovation in the nuclear field. That is, beef up the research that's going on, and get nuclear a better reputation. And finally—and this is a good one—replace gas with hydrogen. Nuclear reactors create 1) electricity and 2) wicked high temperatures—the same two things needed to produce hydrogen, and so far, producing hydrogen has been the biggest obstacle to getting fuel-cell cars on the road. Case in point: One lab showed that a new nuke generator could produce in hydrogen the equivalent of 400,000 gallons of gas everyday. Bingo.
There are, as you might imagine, still many enviros that cringe at the talk of nukes. It's not surprising, and we're not totally convinced yet ourselves, but if the industry could find a way to ensure against nuclear weapons, increase safety, secure waste, and clean up the messy business of mining for uranium, the movement might have a chance.