7-1: Is Nuclear Power Worth It?

The two readings that we were assigned for this week both focus on the use of nuclear technology for civilian power production. The article by Glaser and Socolow gives a very well balanced presentation of nuclear energy. It discusses positive attributes and potential benefits to the environment from nuclear energy, as well as its shortcomings and inhibitors.

The general idea that I took home from the article is that a lot needs to fall into place in order for nuclear power to be prevalent and beneficial in our society. Although lower in carbon emissions, nuclear energy comes with its own brand of harmful waste. The waste in itself provides a significant obstacle to overcome, but it does not stop there. As with any network of energy production and consumption, there is inherent interest in recycling this waste. However, when dealing with masses of plutonium large enough to power a nation, it is difficult to keep track of masses small enough to make a bomb. Due to the military nature of the technology, this creates suspicion that something unscrupulous is being done with the recycled material, and decreases confidence in nuclear energy as a whole. Similar suspicions can be aroused by privately owned uranium enrichment facilities, some of which can easily be adapted to producing bomb grade materials. Multinational participation seems like the only immediate solution to these qualms. Finally, nuclear energy has massive startup costs, and would be difficult to establish on a global scale, especially in undeveloped regions or regions of unrest.

The most fundamental question that arises from these considerations is whether or not nuclear energy is even worth it. In a world where climate change is imminent, nuclear energy is an idea that does work. However, in a world where there are many other options that could have equivalent benefits, is it the most effective or the most practical option?

Should the world invest long term in nuclear energy? It seems risky. There is already a public stigma against nuclear technology due to its military connections and past accidents. With such an energetically powerful technology, one mistake or accident could invalidate all previous developments in a matter of seconds. If we want to use nuclear energy as a way of combating environmental damage, it could make sense to invest short term and reevaluate the technology in a few years.

However, again, is this worth it when there are other forms of energy that can be invested in immediately and which present fewer risks? Perhaps. A quick glance at a few government energy websites can tell us that, with the exception of hydroelectric power, nuclear energy is among the most inexpensive per kilowatt-hour, even when the cost of startup and decommissioning is accounted for. However, nuclear energy has far more political and technological hurdles that have nothing to do with operating costs. Considering this, renewable forms of energy do seem like the easy way out in this situation. In the end, its origins and close ties to nuclear weapons are the ultimate nail in the coffin for nuclear energy. Decoupling the two just does not seem worth the effort when other perfectly good forms of energy do not have such an inhibitor. No red flags are going to be raised if wind farms begin popping up all over Iran (this is something that has been happening in recent years, but is perhaps not as newsworthy as their nuclear program).

For those who want to jump right into discussion without necessarily reading the entire post:

  • Is nuclear energy worth it, considering all the hurdles preventing it from becoming well established?
  • Is there a less complicated way to decouple nuclear weapons and nuclear energy?
  • In a world where climate change is an imminent danger, what forms of energy do you see establishing themselves?

Nik