Infernal Ramblings
A Malaysian Perspective on Politics, Society and Economics

Nuclear Power, A Medium-Term Solution

Written by johnleemk on 5:48:56 am Apr 16, 2007.

Nuclear power is one of the more controversial sources of energy out there. Though it was once touted as the energy of the future, nuclear power plant disasters that occurred in the 1970s and 1980s, such as Chernobyl, killed off its political viability in many countries.

Green power supporters often seem skeptical of nuclear energy, even today. Although countries such as France have been utilising this relatively clean and efficient source of energy for decades without mishap, the perception persists that nuclear power does more harm than good.

There are obvious problems with nuclear energy; that must be conceded. One very apparent problem is that nuclear energy is not renewable; like petroleum, uranium too has a finite supply. However, the energy that can be extracted from uranium is significantly higher — and unlike most nonrenewable sources of energy, uranium is generally clean.

We say "generally clean", of course, because a disastrous meltdown, as occurred in Chernobyl, could occur. Advances in technology since the Chernobyl incident, though, have made such an occurrence much more unlikely; France, for instance, has never had a meltdown despite relying almost entirely on nuclear fission as a source of energy.

There is also the risk of human error or terrorist attack. However, such costs are also present with other possible sources of energy. Hydroelectric dams, for example, are prone to terrorist attack, but does that automatically render them an unviable source of power?

One clear problem is that the radioactive uranium, once used, has to be disposed of. This poses a security risk if not done correctly (though this remains a mere hypothetical in much of the world that uses nuclear energy; only the former Soviet Union has suffered such thefts, if I am not mistaken).

There are also long-term problems associated with disposal of nuclear waste — and when we say long-term, we are talking on a scale of millenia. This radioactive waste could kill our descendants if we are not careful.

It seems to me, though, that this problem is also present when it comes to carbon sequestration, a popular method for reducing our impact on the environment. The idea behind carbon sequestration is to pump the carbon dioxide emitted by coal-burning power plants into the ground. If this carbon dioxide escapes, people will die, but that hasn't stopped us from seriously considering the proposal. Again, we must conduct a careful cost-benefit analysis.

I believe we can't afford to be picky about choosing power sources. The harmful effects of coal-, gas- and oil-burning power plants are well-documented (and we aren't even talking about the possibility of global warming yet). Hydroelectricity has potential, but the effects on the ecosystem make it impractical for greater expansion.

Wind, tidal and solar power are definitely technologies we can afford to utilise in the future. But they are not ones we can use on a large scale now. The costs are simply too high to make them practical at present, and further work has to be done to bring down the cost of generating energy through this sources.

We need a medium-term source of energy — a bridge to the future. We can't afford to stay on this side of the river, with our polluting power plants, but we can't immediately cross over to the other shore with its green and renewable power sources. We will have to take an intermediate step forward, and I think nuclear energy is well-positioned to be that bridge.

There are of course costs associated with nuclear fission as a source of energy, and we can't use it forever because uranium is not a renewable resource. But it is even more costly to stick with polluting nonrenewable sources of energy, and it is too impractical to implement renewable green sources of energy on a large scale at the moment.

For these reasons, it seems wise for governments to start seriously considering nuclear energy if they want to start weaning themselves off the nonrenewable pollutants that are our present sources of energy. Nuclear energy isn't the long-term answer to our energy problems, but it will help us get to where we want to be.

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Infernal Ramblings is a Malaysian website focusing on current events and sociopolitical issues. Its articles run the gamut from economics to society to education.

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