What You Should Think About Nuclear Energy

For 50 years, nuclear power has been a solution in search of a problem.”

–George Monbiot

Born into the 70s, making my first efforts to comprehend “the grown up world” in the 80s, my earliest perceptions of atomic power were shaped by a blend of rosy corporate propaganda and bleak doomsday dramatizations. By the time I was ready for my first political debate, concepts like “control rods” and “implosion triggers” were already familiar to me. Even setting environmental risks aside, my teenaged self could not break associations between constructive and destructive applications unleashed by discoveries in nuclear physics.

As time advanced, so did my views. Much more importantly, scientific understanding has advanced as well. Today the world finds itself in an interesting place vis-à-vis nuclear energy production. It was not so long ago that consensus views favored “cheaper” alternatives. Yet resource depletion, soot production, and greenhouse gas emission are all real costs associated with fossil fuel consumption. A market that demands one industry protect the public commons while making no similar demands of others may indeed place alternatives to nuclear power at a lower price per unit. Yet a more circumspect analysis reveals that polluting enterprises ultimately exact their true price one way or another — whether or not it is reflected in utility bills.

To be sure, nuclear power poses pollution concerns of its own. Chernobyl is now a household word precisely because of the extreme dangers associated with radioactive contamination. Heck, even thermal pollution is an issue with nuclear power. Clearly any sensible nuclear power program demands stringent and redundant oversight. Operating with a flawed design or sloppy management practices creates a very real risk that no nation should tolerate.

Also, there is the security issue. Yet that is an issue that cuts both ways. Every additional nuclear facility is a new target for terrorists intent on stealing material for radiological attacks or even staging a deliberate environmental disaster. On the other hand, every additional petrochemical facility drives up demand for a commodity that is partially under the control of aristocrats involved with promoting religious fundamentalism and financing terrorist organizations. This would seem to suggest the American energy sector should be heavily invested in alternatives to either approach.

Yet those alternatives, as they exist today, fall short. Nature offers up light, wind, water, and earth all as methods of collecting energy from sources that renew themselves. In time the yields and costs of solar arrays may improve to the point where that approach would merit a place as a mainstay of American energy. Yet just when that time will occur is unknown. Windmills, tide mills, and dams are only appropriate in locations that satisfy specific conditions. Surprisingly enough, geothermal resources can be depleted by overuse, and they also depend on an appropriate site to achieve commercial yields.

As demand for fossil fuel resources rises and awareness grows of the hidden costs associated with burning ancient carbon compounds, nuclear power provides an alternative with generating capacity independent of local natural features. At the very least, it merits consideration as a supplement for meeting demands when clouds or calm or cooling produce shortfalls from other methods. Given responsible government oversight (a legitimate worry if pursued under the present administration,) nuclear power has the potential to bridge the gap between what we can harness from natural forces and what is required to sustain economic progress.

Yet nuclear power also offers much potential for innovation. Nuclear fusion research has yet to produce anything like a device for generating more energy than it requires, but new approaches do hold some promise. Decades ago, the scientific establishment abandoned the idea that an intersection of powerful laser beams could be used to contain the intense pressure generated by fusion reactions. A new approach, less like a turbine engine and more like a piston engine, might make it possible to sustain serial bursts of fusion reaction with lasers only active for the briefest of instants. The dramatic reduction in energy cost is just one of several innovations that could pave the way for productive fusion power plants.

Then there is the prospect of breakthroughs in fission as well. European scientists are developing precursor technology with an eye toward constructing energy amplifiers. The concept involves using a powerful particle accelerator to outright disintegrate nuclear fuel. It would require elaborate facilities, but it offers many advantages. Energy amplifiers are “subcritical” nuclear reactors, meaning that they can produce power from reaction masses that are not susceptible to meltdown in the event of unexpected technical problems. They can be used to safely destroy dangerous nuclear materials produced by conventional fission reactors. This includes the world’s stockpiles of weapons grade plutonium. Also, they can derive power from thorium — a substance both much less radioactive and much more abundant than traditional nuclear fuels.

Of course, scientific breakthroughs are unexpected by nature. Low cost, high yield solar panels may emerge at some point in the future. Also, there is plenty of ground to be gained by applying energy conservation to building and product design. Society does well to invest in any avenue of progress that might address a mounting crises related to energy demands and existing fuel supplies. Yet without having already achieved such progress, we have no choice but to make due with what we have.

Considering the overwhelming mix of security and environmental concerns, giving private corporations broad latitude to expand America’s nuclear power industry seems like unacceptably risky business. Yet only politics obstructs the pursuit of a nationalized atomic energy industry that serves the common good while benefiting from tight controls that no nuclear facility should be without. As with other public sector enterprises, free markets and innovation could continue to play vital roles in areas ranging from component manufacturing to facility maintenance.

Personally, I’ve long questioned the merits of letting the whims of profit-seekers create turbulence in a key sector that serves as a foundation on which almost all other economic activity must rest. Entities like Enron operated contrary to the national interest not only because they were managed by dishonest crooks, but also because it was their business to seek profits through playing games with energy itself. When it becomes possible to generate revenue by deliberately choking off the economic lifeblood of a region, clearly a failed paradigm is in place.

Yet it is not my intent, today, to argue for the nationalization of the entire energy sector. Instead it is my contention that only in the context of nationalization can we expect the safest and best results from massive expansion of America’s nuclear power industry. Without the need for any technology yet to be discovered, that context makes it possible to safely generate energy enough to satisfy the needs of a large economy that (hopefully) will continue to grow through the years ahead. Given that numerous problems caused by fossil fuel consumption are already bad and likely to get even worse, I don’t believe it takes a visionary like Albert Einstein to point out that we would do well to make greater use of our capacity to split the atom for peaceful purposes.

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