Can nuclear power get us out of this mess? I am working on a series on nuclear power for the near future, but I’m totally tipping my hand by starting with uranium supplies.
The International Atomic Energy Association’s projections in 2000 showed possible shortages as early as the late 2020’s/early 2030’s if there were dramatic increases in the use of nuclear power. This has more to do with mining and processing than actual lack of uranium at that point, so their suggested solutions involved more and more aggressive exploration. But the amount of uranium in the earth’s crust is limited, and finding it is going to get harder and harder, and retrieving it is going to get more and more expensive. It’s like writing a recipe for doing the same thing over, only more so…
Our current energy system is built on hydrocarbons. These are fossilized prehistoric animals and plants, maybe tens or hundreds of millions of years in the making. When we burn them, the atoms in the fuel recombine to form other chemical compounds. It is tremendously disruptive to our atmosphere and, as we come to the end of our “traditional” reserves, it relies on more and more complicated technologies with all their associated risks and consequences – oil spills, explosions, pollutants, toxic waste, CO2… feel free to add to the litany in the comments. You know the story. You probably are also familiar with the issues surrounding peak oil and the likelihood that we are on the verge of running out of (at least) the freely available oil that greases the wheels of our economy.
Nuclear. No carbon emissions. Good baseline source. Mature technology. It seems so obvious, given our unrelenting need for more and bigger power stations (or at least it did until a month ago). But the unsustainable part of nuclear power is something fundamentally different from the unsustainable part of fossil fuels. When we “burn” uranium in a nuclear reactor, we aren’t making Uranium oxide compounds; we’re pushing along the (naturally occurring) decay processes that turn the uranium into something fundamentally different: the nuclear processes eliminate the uranium atoms, replacing them with other types of atoms.
And in case that doesn’t give you a moment’s pause, let me remind you where uranium comes from.
To get more uranium, you need to build a new solar system. I’m just saying, that might want to enter into the debate before we decide to build the next energy system on a foundation of nuclear reactors out of faith that we will find the fuel necessary to run them. Maybe?