Tuesday, March 27, 2012

The Future of Nuclear Energy in the World

Recently there have been some intriguing articles in a variety of publications about renewable and alternative energy sources. I subscribe to both The Economist and The Wall Street Journal and took note of articles in both focused on the future of nuclear energy. This topic is particularly relevant to me as a science educator as I have seen it as a topic of study in my classes.

By now it's no news to anybody that finding alternative energy sources is essential to our health as a planet. Not only do we have carbon dioxide levels rising to dangerous levels but we have political problems gaining access to the world's supply of fossil fuels so desperately needed to maintain our energy demands in the United States. (Believe it or not when I was a child the concept of global climate change was a liberal notion of crazy, out-of-touch people.)

One thing I have only become familiar with in recent years is the theoretical amount of energy that can be harvested from nuclear sources. I had no idea that, theoretically, nuclear energy should be able to provide for all of our energy needs, and them some more after that. This is probably why people like Bill Gates bring up nuclear power as the key to energy demands of the future. Bill Gates, the entrepreneur turned business man who achieved the impossible with his power-buster software company of the 1980's that came to dominate the marketplace in the decades that followed. Bill Gates, one of the richest men in the world. Bill Gates who can afford to take risks, dream big and think in theory. It's just that theory, in this case, could also mean the end of the planet.

In theory nuclear energy is very appealing. If properly developed, a nuclear plant could solve all of our energy problems. But the realities are discussed very nicely in a recent focus-section of The Economist on nuclear energy. In reality, nuclear energy is too expensive, takes too long to develop and is too risky to really be a viable solution to our energy problems. While it looks viable on paper, nobody has been able to develop a really safe, inexpensive nuclear facility that unleashes this theoretical energy is a usable form. The risks are too high and the payoff, so far, has been too low.

There are political concerns as well. The proliferation of nuclear energy has caused international dissent about how and where nuclear energy is developed and used. Iran, for example, is developing its nuclear capabilities, and for all we know, those capabilities are to make a dangerous bomb. From reading The Economist I gather the majority of the dispute is over exactly how much of Iran's nuclear capability is energy related and how much is in the actual development of a bomb. The difference is subtle. It doesn't say this in the article(s) but I'm figuring that the only way to really tell would be to inspect the nuclear plants very, very carefully. And I suspect Iran does not allow us to do this. So we really don't know exactly how far along they are in unleashing a bomb. For all we know they are creating nuclear power to power the electricity of their citizens. We can't tell the difference from afar.

So as we march forward in our quest to develop renewable energy sources and other ways to replace fossil fuels, we know that we are not meeting our goals fast enough. The Economist outlined the rate that we are currently replacing fossil fuels as compared to what we would need to do to keep carbon emissions under check. With current progress we are falling short. This is disturbing considering the consequences to continued fossil fuel use and carbon dioxide production. But- nuclear energy, according to them, is not the answer.

Maybe they should talk to Bill Gates for some inspiration.