GUEST EDITORIAL: Choosing an Alternative to Fossil Fuels: Nuclear or Renewables?
The following editorial from New Scientist-the premier British magazine for the scientifically educated-takes a strong stand against the proposed expansion of nuclear power as a solution to global warming and the imminent energy crisis. The editors' arguments are based on science, security concerns, and fiscal realities. Maybe we ought to pay attention.
Is nuclear power the only way to halt catastrophic global warming? Not if the world puts in a concerted effort towards energy efficiency and renewables.
Nuclear power is back on the agenda in a big way. U.S. President George Bush wants Congress to make it easier to build nuclear plants, the newly appointed UK cabinet is expected to consider plans for a nuclear renaissance, and, at a recent OECD forum in Paris, advocates of nuclear power argued passionately that it is the only way to curb global warming.
Countries in North America and Europe (with the exception of France and Finland) turned their backs on nuclear power following the nuclear accidents of the 1970s and 1980s and rising public concern over what to do with radioactive waste. Today, with global warming a major issue, the fact that nuclear plants generate far less carbon dioxide than fossil-fuel plants has given nuclear companies a new selling point. So should we dust off nuclear power and give it another try?
To answer that question we need to think about what we really want from our energy sources. We want them to have a small environmental impact, yet be able to supply energy on a huge scale. We want costs to be low, the method of generation to be safe, and for there to be plenty of available fuel. The International Energy Agency estimates that two-thirds of the extra energy demand over the next 25 years will come from developing countries, so whatever sources we choose must be tradeable worldwide. Also, in the post-9/11 world, we want energy sources that cannot be abused by terrorists or "rogue" states.
Nuclear scores high on its low CO2 emissions, but it loses out by leaving a nasty legacy: its high-level radioactive waste needs to be secured for tens of thousands of years. Despite 40 years of assurances from the nuclear industry that this is an "engineering problem," no one has solved it. And it scarcely makes sense to generate more waste when we cannot dispose of what we already have.
Another bugbear for nuclear power is that it appears to be expensive. Its costs have never been calculated to everyone's satisfaction, partly because government subsidies have muddied the water and partly because "back-end" costs for such things as waste disposal are uncertain. Nuclear power has certainly not won round free-market investors: no plants have been built within deregulated electricity markets.
Perhaps nuclear's biggest disadvantage is international security. …