I can’t help but feel that there are some technologies out there that just get hit with a bad name once and are then driven underground because of it. Cold fusion was a great example of this since the scientists who were experimenting with it first didn’t follow proper scientific method but now any serious research into this area is immediately hit with disdain, even though there are some results that require further investigation. This becomes all the more painful when something that is proven to work gets the same sort of reaction. I am of course referring to nuclear power, or fission reactors.
Now what’s the first thing that comes to mind when someone mentions nuclear power to you? Is it a clean source of energy or do you get images of Chernobyl, Three Mile Island and nuclear weaponry? It seems the majority of the world is stuck in the latter mindset, only remembering the horrors that nuclear power brings to the world. The truth of the matter is that not only is nuclear power completely safe, it’s also a lot more friendly to the environment than any other fossil fuel based means of generating power.
The first round of questions I usually get concerning nuclear power is “Doesn’t it produce highly radioactive and toxic waste?” and the answer is yes, it does. However, per kilowatt of power produced a coal plant will release around 100 times more radiation into the surrounding environment. Additionally most of the waste produced by a nuclear plant that comes out radioactive means it’s still usable as fuel for a reactor, it just requires some more handling. This is done using breeder reactors which I do admit carry with them a small risk of proliferation. This can be easily offset by modifying the breeder to render the weapons grade stuff unusable, keeping the risk well within acceptable levels.
One country that has been listening to people like me is France, producing well over 85% of their electricity from nuclear sources. They’ve also only had 2 incidents arising from their use of nuclear power and breeding reactors, giving them an amazing track record for safety. You would think that if there was such a high risk in using nuclear power that the French would have had a multitude of accidents, but they haven’t. Clearly nuclear power is a lot safer than what the general public believes.
To give you an idea of just how bad public opinion is here’s a graph showing the number of nuclear reactors over time:
Image used under the The Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike License Version 2.5 from Global Warming Art.
The Three Mile Island incident was a pretty minor affair technically and nuclear power continued to grow afterwards. However Chernobyl tarnished the world’s view of nuclear power and it hasn’t really recovered since. The fact of the matter is the reactor responsible for that disaster was known at the time to be an unsafe design and modern reactors are quite capable of shutting themselves down before such a disaster can occur.
It’s the old saying of once bitten, twice shy. The world suffered through a major accident with nuclear power and from then on anyone peddling it as the solution to the world’s energy problems has to work past lobbyists, politicians and the society at large. It’s hard to convince everyone that the risks are far lower than what they used to be, and for some reason the mythical idea of a clean coal power plant seems like a better idea than proven nuclear technologies. Australia as a nation, who’s uranium reserves are the largest in the world, is well positioned to take advantage of this technology. With so much unarable land available there’s no reason for us not to set up large reactors away from major population centres, keeping the “risks” to the population even smaller still.
So hopefully the next time you talk to someone about nuclear power you won’t see the green glowing boogey man that seems so ingrained in everyone’s heads. One day nuclear will be one of our few options left, and it is my hope that we begin working on implementing a nuclear based power infrastructure before its our last option.