Green nuclear power is the only practical solution to simultaneously (1) ameliorate global warming, (2) avoid dependence on foreign oil/gas, and (3) overcome oil/gas depletion. Only two prime energy sources, coal and uranium, can affordably deliver terawatts of "mother" electricity for: (a) heavy industry, i.e. manufacture of automobiles, ships, airplanes, bridges, etc; (b) power for vast fleets of future electric plug-in autos; and (c) production of portable synfuels (hydrogen and ammonia) and biofuels to replace oil. However coal worsens global warming and should be preserved as raw material to make plastics and other organics when oil/gas is gone. This leaves uranium as the only "big-mama" green energy source, an "inconvenient truth".
Popular solar and wind energy are very useful for small-quantity power generation in select locations. But at terawatt levels, immense areas of land and/or sea would be needed, requiring enormous maintenance operations, spoiling scenic land- or sea-scapes, and destroying local ecosystems. As scientifically documented in "The Nuclear Imperative - A Critical Look at the Approaching Energy Crisis" (ISBN 1-4020-4930-7), by 2050 when petroleum fuels are basically exhausted, only uranium and thorium can affordably sustain global energy needs for some 3000 years, using proven fuel reprocessing and advanced reactor technology. A serious in-depth analysis of our future energy shortage by engineers (not by anti-nuclear hand-waving philosophers) reveals that nuclear power is essential to rescue our children from a future economic collapse. For the USA, 500 additional nuclear reactors are required, built on 9000 acres (@ $1.5 trillion), compared to 1,500,000 windmills with storage batteries on 6,000,000 windy acres (@ $4.5 trillion). Ten times these numbers are needed for the entire world. (Costs are in 2005 dollars; for later years, these costs must all be multiplied by the dollar inflation factor).
A stale anti-nuclear lament is "what do we do with all the long-lived radioactive nuclear waste". The volume of waste amounts to one aspirin tablet per year per person using nuclear electricity, compared to tons of air pollutants and globe-warming gaseous CO2 emitted by coal or fossil-fuel combustion. Nuclear waste can be easily stored and safely transported, as the US nuclear navy has done for half a century. Contrary to allegations that uranium and plutonium in spent fuel elements pose a problem because of million-year half-lives, they are separated from fission products by reprocessing and burnt as fuel in future fast-breeder reactors. They will not be dumped. This reduces 50,000 tons from ten-year accumulation of spent fuel to 500 tons (with shorter decay lives) of fission products, taking centuries instead of decades to fill the Yucca Mountain repository in Nevada. The notion that long radioactive lifetimes are undesirable is also erroneous. The longer the decay lifetime, the less the radiation emitted per gram of radio-isotope. Most elements that make up our bodies (hydrogen, oxygen, nitrogen, etc) have infinitely long decay lifetimes. All humans are "hot" because everyone has radioactive potassium-40 (K-40; 0.012% abundance) in his body, which continuously emits beta particles with a half-life of one million years! Man successfully evolved in this environment, and there are even indications that low levels of radiation benefit health (called hormesis). The hue and cry about possible terrorism and "dirty bombs" is also highly exaggerated. By the reasoning of anti-nuclear activists, we should stop flying 707 jets because they can be used as weapons to kill thousands of people.
Energy is man's third most important need after water and food. Those who hinder expansion of nuclear power will be viewed as irresponsible neo-luddites by future generations. Any further delay of a committed worldwide nuclear energy program will cause certain impoverishment and death of many people by 2050. Those responsible will and must be held accountable for this. Without greatly expanded nuclear power, desert cities like Las Vegas and Phoenix will become ghost-towns. Originally the US had planned to have 300 reactors by the year 2000, but instead there are only 104 today. After the Three-Mile-Island (TMI) reactor meltdown in 1979 in the US (with 0 casualties) and Russia's Chernobyl accident in 1986 (with 57 fatalities), public hysteria fanned by fear-mongering antinuclear activists caused cancellations and moratoria on construction of new nuclear plants. While the USA was once the leader, most US businesses with reactor manufacturing know-how closed. Instead France, Russia, Japan, South-Korea, India, and China are now in charge. Zealous anti-nuclear lobbyists and a mal-informed government have created the pending energy crisis. We are entering a war-like energy-deprivation period as serious as WW-II or Al-Qaida. Strong Manhattan-project-like leadership is now needed to reverse the short-sightedness and follies of prior administrations.
Jeff W. Eerkens, Ph.D
Adjunct Research Professor,
Nuclear Science and Engineering Institute
University of Missouri, Columbia