It’s politically incorrect to talk about nuclear energy as a viable means to maintain our standard of living. But that’s largely a product of misinformation, ignorance, and fear-mongering. Here’s why we need to take a much closer look at nuclear energy.
In the December 2010 issue of the Canadian Nuclear Society Bulletin, Prof. Peter Ottensmeyer argues for the development of fast-neutron reactors. In his words, “In Canada the currently stored used nuclear fuel would create $36 trillion of carbon-free electricity in fast-neutron reactors while its long-term radioactive burden would at the same time be reduced 100,000-fold. Even the resulting fission products would become an accessible source of rhodium, palladium and rare earths worth over $100 billion.”
See what I mean? At the moment, the nuclear waste (“used nuclear fuel”) is scheduled to be stored somewhere far away for pretty much the rest of time. This waste will decompose very slowly – taking thousands of years to become harmless. So we are on the verge of investing god-knows-how-much money to sequester this waste for hundreds of generations. Talk about a money pit!
This very same waste could be used to generate carbon-free electricity – lots of it. And the “waste” from that generation would yield materials that are essential for consumer and other electronics, corrosion-free metal alloys, fuel cells, and other significant technologies. And for every 100 kilograms of spent fuel reused in fast-neutron reactors, we end up with a single gram of actual nuclear waste out the back end.
What’s not to like about this solution?
If we want to capture this essentially free energy – free because the materials are already available and we only need a reactor able to use them – then we need to design and build fast-neutron reactors. Such reactors are not experimental; there are a variety of them in operation today. And while every nuclear technology has its own problematic areas, the fact is that we’re on the verge of tossing trillions of dollars of energy down the toilet – or at least into abyss of a storage area – and dumping the responsibility of caring for that storage facility to countless generations of our progeny.
This doesn’t sound like a particularly sanguine course of action.
Granted, nuclear energy is definitely not the best answer to our energy woes. But I think it’s an essentially important way to buy us time to figure out a more permanent solution. It appears that nuclear energy is better than many other forms of energy, especially if we can reuse nuclear waste to make even more energy, and end up with usable rare earths for yet other technologies. Indeed, this strikes me as a particular “natural” solution exactly because the waste product of one process becomes immediately useful in another, just like nature does it (without the radiation, of course). Using nuclear energy, at least for a while, will help us improve our sustainability while we figure out how to lower consumption without losing too much “quality” of life, and develop even cleaner ways to generate electricity.
Those against nuclear energy, who aren’t total crackpots, tend to resort to a single word to cover all their concerns: Chernobyl. True, the failure of the Chernobyl reactor was a very real and deadly lesson in what can happen when nuclear energy goes wrong, but one must be willing to look more closely at the situation that led to the accident before categorically eliminating nuclear energy as a viable technology. Indeed, it is very bad form to let one instance stand for a whole class of things – it is weak argumentation that leads to many irrational conclusions generally. Yet this is exactly the kind of argument used by the anti-nuclear zealots.
The fact is that the Chernobyl reactor was simply the worst-constructed reactor facility, ever. There is absolutely no chance that any reactor designed and built by the Europeans, the Americans, the Canadians, or most anyone else could possibly be as pathetic as Chernobyl was. (Some may mention the Three Mile Island accident as another example, but that argument won’t work either because, quite frankly, nothing really bad happened as a result.)
To say that all reactors are dangerous because of Chernobyl, is like saying that all apples are green because the one you see is green. Clearly, people who maintain such arguments are ignorant, devious fear-mongers, or both.
So people, let’s stop all the uninformed crap and stick to the facts. One of the straightest paths to a sustainable future passes through nuclear energy. We should use it – we must use it – or we will very likely suffer, and so will our progeny for hundreds of generations.