With the Fukushima situation in Japan still slowly growing further out of hand, discussions about the pro’s and cons of nuclear energy abound. Whereas some governments like the one of Angela Merkel in Germany take the opportunity to shut down the local nuclear industry, others like France can’t wait to assert the safety of their plants, even though he declared nuclear dead some time before.
What’s frustrating in all this, is that it’s really hard to get any good facts to base an opinion on. Am I pro or con? Not quite sure. But very recently, I read an interesting editorial (Dutch paper newspaper, NRC Handelsblad) with a viewpoint that changed my outlook.
Clearly, we need to move away from fossil fuel, that’s a given since it’s starting to run low. We could move to burning biomass, but with the whole carbondioxide situation that doesn’t seem like the way forward either. Such technology is great to keep other technology around that depends on it, like airplanes and other machines that require combustion engines and won’t run on hydrogen – for now. But for our other (mostly electrical) energy needs, I think we need to look elsewhere. So, nuclear or truly renewable sources like wind, wave or solar. Or possibly not quite as renewable but seemingly endless sources like hydro or geothermic? Or even invest in exotic and futuristic like fusion or space-based solar?
Since I prefer my feet on solid ground, I’ll leave fusion and spaced-based energy sources up to futurists and those willing to spend their fortune on projects that pursue it. I don’t mind some tax money going to ITER or ESA for research, but I’m not counting on them to solve our energy crisis anytime soon. And hydro, wave and geothermic won’t provide sufficient energy for all of us, so they’re only partly a solution. And in the case of hydro, some complex humanitarian and ecological issues come into play.
To me, the choice is mostly between nuclear and renewable. Or rather, between using nuclear until we perfect renewable energy on the one hand and skipping nuclear altogether on the other. And then problem is back to arguments about nuclear. Nuclear is bad because of the dirty mining of uranium. Nuclear is bad because energy plants are a really nice cover for producing the most horrific weaponry known to mankind. Nuclear is bad because of the radioactive waste, transport, the (im)possibility of safe storage and the time it will be around for are all serious issues. Nuclear is bad because of the vulnerability to disaster, like we’ve seen in Japan. Even though the effect on most people in the area will be little worse than the added risk of cancer of a secondhand smoker, it’s not a risk they chose for themselves.
But for all those arguments, fairly convincing counterarguments exist. One could argue that with a little research, we should be able to take uranium (and therefore plutonium) out of the mix in the long run. You have to invest in technology to perfect it, right? And transport, storage, disaster safety are all problems that can be solved if we throw enough money at it. Also, nuclear disasters are terrible, but are they really unacceptable when you look at the bigger picture? It’s not like coal or oil don’t hurt and kill thousands on a yearly basis.
But this is where an important argument enters the discussion. Due to its complicated nature and the high risks involved, nuclear energy is likely to remain a technology that can only be succesfully exploited in the hands of either governments or extremely large, international corporations. And even if you live in a democracy, or hold some of the shares, we all know that organizations of that scale tend to have a will of their own. And even if you manage to downsize the technology itself, the means for producing it will always be in the hands of the few.
Personally, I’d prefer a means of generating energy that would not require a government of multi-billion euro corporation to run it for me. I don’t have to run it myself per se, but knowing anyone could start a small company tomorrow and start producing energy with readily available technology and resources is a very safe idea. Also, it gives me greater confidence that a capitalistic approach will actually work, since issues like “too big to fail” and limited access to very limited resources do not play into it. Same goes for fusion using He3 from the moon, for that matter. Or solar on the moon.
I don’t see nuclear evolving to a scale where you or I could start an energy plant tomorrow, but with solar and wind, this is already a possibility and it will only get easier and better from here on out. So, instead of getting lost in endless discussions about the ecological and security issues, I prefer to make choice based on a far more important principle: I prefer energy technology that is most freely available and is likely to be the most democratic in its nature. And right now, wind and solar seem to have all the right cards, with some support from hydro, waves and geothermic wherever that works.