Early in the 2008 U.S. Presidential campaign, then-Sen. Barack Obama stated in a CNN-hosted debate that, “We should explore nuclear power as part of the energy mix.” This was in direct contradiction to his then rival Sen. John Edwards. Sen. Edwards declared “cellulose-based biofuels are the way to go” and was critical of nuclear power. While both candidates’ positions have merit, only President Obama is in a position do something about America’s growing energy needs. Wisely, he has chosen to support a practical part of a solution for today’s energy challenges.
What was key to Obama’s answer was his acknowledgement that, “There are no silver bullets.” Over one year into his administration, the same remains true. Neither carbon-based, nor nuclear, nor renewable energy alone can solve all of America’s energy problems, much less the world’s. But nuclear power, when used responsibly, can help meet America’s growing need. It is a method which has been proven worldwide. But this method should have responsible oversight and forethought before being implemented.
A quick look at the sources for U.S. energy will tell you that we are a largely carbon-reliant society. Whatever your take on climate change, all must acknowledge that the big three (coal, petroleum and natural gas) are finite resources. There is no time to diversify like the present. And if you accept that carbon emissions are contributing to climate change, then the need to diversify from carbon-based energy is prescient.
Long since the CNN debate, President Obama was true to his word. His decision to fund the construction of 2 nuclear reactors, despite being part of his platform from the beginning, has drawn some criticism from those who could be considered his base. For a long time, in the American sociopolitical sphere, the word “liberal” and “nuclear” were veritable antonyms. But that era of nuclear fear needs to be re-examined, in light of the potential threat from climate change.
While forms of renewable energy hold much potential, the reality is that nuclear energy is a proven solution and one which can have its impact on the environment controlled. What’s more, it is the solution which will help America in the near future and India, many years down the road. Carbon emissions are extremely difficult to cap – Hence, some of the reasons you saw such frustration from India at Copenhagen.
Responsible use of nuclear power involves three elements:
One, the start-up costs must be reasonable and must be justified over the long haul. Designing and constructing nuclear power plants is an expensive proposition and since it has not been done in decades, it is difficult to calculate precisely how much a average KWh will cost. So, no country should casually enter the realm without ensuring that consumers of the energy will be able to pay for their needs.
Two, waste management needs to be done in a responsible manner. The scientific community is still resolving what the most responsible method is for waste and some controversy over the proposed and rejected site at Yucca Mountain in Nevadaepitomized the controversy. However, there are responsible methods for nuclear waste reprocessing which can be used.
Fortunately, however, there are mechanisms in place to regulate the processing of nuclear materials – and toxic materials in general. This has been effectively implemented through the London Convention, which was initially created in 1972 and refreshed in 1996:
Three, it is a complex, but small step from nuclear power to nuclear weapons. Bodies like the IAEA need to be given the proper authority and supported by all nations wishing to thrive on nuclear power to ensure that the power of the atom is not placed in the hands of those who would wish the world harm.
Whatever method of energy America or the world uses, it needs to start thinking outside the box. And for a nation that has mothballed the construction of nuclear plants for decades, this constitutes thinking outside the box. While nuclear power is not perfect; when it is responsible, it is proven.