Friday, June 20, 2008

The international price of nuclear power

With oil prices and CO2 on everyone's minds, America is looking for other sources of power. Nuclear energy is one option that comes up a lot: it doesn't pollute the air, and we know how to make a lot of it economically and ubiquitously; the latter can't yet be said of wind, hydro or solar power. There are of course concerns about safety — accidents are rare, but they're devastating when they happen — and nuclear waste, but there's another issue I haven't heard much about.

America is the world's superpower, and where it goes, others may follow. But nuclear technology can be used for bombs as well as power plants, and the line separating them is neither wide nor necessarily visible. Every time America has accused Iran of pursuing nuclear weapons, Iran has countered that it's only after power plants. The technologies are close enough that proving either side right has been difficult. Nuclear bombs and power plants use the same ingredients, enriched uranium and plutonium, and plutonium is in fact synthesized in nuclear reactors. Even without enriching nuclear fuel to weapons-usable quality, a country could easily use radioactive fuel or waste to make dirty bombs.

If America touts nuclear energy as its energy solution, it will be in a tough place telling other countries they can't do the same. Iran and other countries will have much greater political leverage for pursuing a strong nuclear energy program, and that would put them within dangerous reach of developing a nuclear weapons program.

Even if no country uses the nuclear bombs it develops, we run the risk of coups, corruption, under-the-table support or even just bureaucratic negligence putting bombs in the hands of those who will. And nuclear waste will be around when every government now in existence is long gone; it's irresponsible to leave it for the terrorists and governments of the 60th century to find. Soviet Russia wasn't all that careful in cleaning up its nuclear waste, and who are we to say that no new nuclear power would be as bad?

We need to develop alternatives to energy other than fossil fuels, yes. But we need to examine each option carefully if we're to avoid jumping out of the frying pan and into the incinerator. It may be worth spending a bit more time and money developing the truly clean and safe technologies instead of investing heavily in a technology that could bite us hard later.

1 comment:

Andrew Beckwith said...

I used to be very pro-nuke power, but lately I have been a lot more ambivalent. I agree with some of your points. It's especially bad that we can't safely get rid of the waste (although we are developing technologies to greatly reduce the amount of waste produced).

Also, I maintain that there's a distinction between us developing nuclear technology and Iran doing so. Iran has threatened to wipe Israel off the map. They're crazy!

Still, if it's a choice between taking a chance with nuclear power or suffering the consequences of extreme climate change, I'd probably pick nuclear power.