Working from the assumption (see dissenting opinion below) that current renewable energy technology is insufficient to provide a reasonably cost-effective solution to the incredibly high demand for electricity, I thought it was time we talked a little bit about the practicality of our situation.
Dissenting Opinion: it's a faulty assumption, because there's no way to accurately quantify the economics and technological breakthroughs a radical increase in society's demand for residential Solar systems could bring about, but I'll let Steve continue with this discussion. For now.
I think most of us are aware of the huge difference in the amount of energy produced in a nuclear vs coal scenario—they're not even in the same league. On an atom-to-atom burn(?) comparison, nuclear produces something like a million times more energy. But there's a catch, right? Okay, there's several catches, so let's talk about them.
Item #1 (on my list, anyway) is Nuclear Proliferation, or the increased production of weapons-grade plutonium as a byproduct of the fueling process. Dangerous stuff, and not to be taken lightly. But here's the thing—we used to have a reprocessing capability, but back in the Seventies that plant was shut down in the hopes that other countries would follow suit, and the fear of plutonium would force the peoples of the world to abandon nuclear power altogether. So now we drop our spent fuel rods into a pool of water and try to keep them cool until we can figure out what the hell to do with them.
Item #2 is all of the toxic and radioactive wastes associated with nuclear power, including the hot little spent rods. As of now, we (in the U.S.) have accumulated over 1.1 billion pounds of depleted uranium alone, not to mention the thorium, radium, radon and lead that are byproducts of this stuff. What's our solution to this surplus depleted uranium? we recycle it into ammunition for weapons, of course. But that's a story for another blog. Suffice it to say that we are way behind the curve in solving the problem of toxic and radioactive wastes, and their legacy will be with us for tens of thousands of years.
Item #3 has to do with dangers associated with human factors such as greed, complacency and just plain incompetence. In the news recently we've had an earthquake that brought a Japanese nuclear power plant to the brink of catastrophe, revealing not only flaws in design, but seemingly casual disregard for rules and procedures in an effort to cut costs. We've also seen a Tennessee facility that had to be shut down due to a leak of radioactive material, and the subsequent public meeting seems to have been purposely concealed in an effort to avoid pesky questions. We've also seen the GAO pull a sting on the NRC where they were able to gain a license to handle radioactive materials and order all the stuff they would need to build a dirty bomb, and all they had to do was sit at their desk and make a few phone calls and faxes.
In closing, I will say this: we desperately need to make drastic reductions in our carbon emissions. We're killing our planet a little more each day. But as long as the nuclear power industry continues to operate the way they do, that's not a solution we (and our descendents) can live with.