The Future Is Nuclear

Written by Jon Schwarzmann on . Posted in Tech

It’s been a very long time since I could say I liked Bill Gates, let alone agreed with him. But in a recent Ted Talk (thanks PopSci), he lauded the efforts of President Obama in pushing for a broader use of nuclear power and even supported the idea. Now, when two people with whom I vehemently disagree most of the time start talking about turning to nuclear power (something I have been saying for years), it deserves a look into why they’re saying it now — especially since these two VIPs come from very “green,” “save the world” backgrounds.

Nuclear power is a very old, very underused, and very misunderstood form of energy.  For 60 years the world was gripped by fear of a “nuclear holocaust,” and the impression this left on the  general psyche of humanity has been far from positive. Also, thanks to Soviet negligence at Chernobyl and American pride at Three Mile Island, actual nuclear plants have been painted as evil, unstable and not worth the “risk” by those of the tree-hugging nature. I’ve always found this opposition to such cheap, enviro-friendly power completely ridiculous. I’m no nuclear physicist (yet), but having studied this alternative numerous times over the past 10 years and followed new technologies introduced to the field, I have to proclaim myself to be well-informed on the matter.

Even older nuclear reactors, dating from three decades and more ago, produce fractions of a percent of the greenhouse gases that current fossil fueled plants do. Yet these gases, if all our environmentalist and global warming proponents are right, are the source of the current climate crisis. So why the vehement opposition to nuclear power? Especially when we combine two new and amazing ideas, namely smaller reactors and traveling wave reactors.  (In the interest of keeping this post short, I’ll expect you to follow those links and read up on it.)

So what are the “negative” effects to using nuclear power?  For one, there is the waste management — it has always been one of the most-heard arguments from the green camp, claiming utter impossibility of storing the resultant waste safely. Yet even the most basic storage of spent rods and waste keeps them sealed away for hundreds if not thousands of years and could withstand a near direct nuclear detonation when buried in bunker-like structures far below ground. With TWRs (traveling wave reactors), however, we are looking at even smaller amounts of nuclear byproducts. In fact, the leftovers from current reactors are the exact fuel needed for a TWR. This would allow a nuclear reactor to operate with extremely minimal waste. Even fears of nuclear proliferation cannot withstand the traveling wave reactor, because they eliminate any possibility of weaponization.

There are various other points of interest in the debate over nuclear energy, none of which seem necessary to hash out at the moment. One thing that can be said of nuclear power, however, is that it has the capability to provide a lot of power quickly and reliably. The same cannot be said of any other alternative energy sources.  In a decade’s time, we could be in a future that relies as heavily on this untapped resource as we do on fossil fuels today. It can happen that quickly.

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