After 70 years of development it has become clear that continued development of nuclear energy for power generation is a risky strategy. For many this is not a technology we can control, but rather one which will control us. It does have the advantage of being a non-greenhouse gas producing technology. Fuel is available and often generates by-products that are reusable in nuclear reactors, but massive amounts of radioactive waste are produced over time and in 40 years time we have not yet developed a reasonable program for containing and or disposing of the waste. Thus, it dots the landscape and in some cases leaks not rivers and streams. In the past it was dumped or dried out and blown by the winds beyond where it was initially dumped.
In addition, while the frequency of nuclear power plant accidents is very low, when they do occur they always have quite serious consequences, and the cost of cleaning up after they happen is enormous. The nuclear accidents at Mayak and at Chernobyl in the Soviet Union have never been cleaned up. In the case of the accident at Fukushima, efforts will be made to clean up completely, but the time required to do so has been estimated to be about 40 years and still involves assistance from robots which have yet to be invented.
If we do not give up on the nuclear method of power generation completely, it seems at least clear that the world is prepared to downsize this technology considerably or in some cases give it up completely.
In addition to the now obvious problems we have with nuclear power plants, it is also clear that we have monumental problems with fossil fuels, many of which have also been discussed in these pages. In addition to air pollution and greenhouse gas emissions, we are running out of coal, gas and oil. Some believe there is plenty remaining and that we will find more and more as time goes by, but we are already acidifying the oceans, killing the forests with sulfur dioxide emitting coal and polluting the landscape when the endless coal ash pits that cover the landscape are gradually stripped of their toxic heavy metals that make their way into soil or into the waterways, contaminating our fish and crops. Yet some say that we have plenty of fossil fuels left. What to they have in mind? Do they mean for us to burn it all? It is a finite resource and ultimately we will run out of it.
The major and fundamental problem we have continuing down the line we are on is that the “Captains of Industry” appear to have little respect for the lives of the rest of us. They think that the pollution they create is manageable even while much proof exists that it is not being managed. The landscape is more contaminated with radioactive waste than it has ever been and continuing down the path we are on can only make matters worse. In some places the level of contamination is such that no one can or should live there. In other locations, contamination is excessive and people should leave, but they do not or cannot. They simply live shorter lives — often marked by poor health.
On the matter of fossil fuels, coal leads the way. While new power plants have been helpful in removing waste by capturing it and thus lessening direct pollution of the air, only about three new plants with reduced polluting potential can be built whereas four without such provisions could be built in their place. Thus, improved plants are not always built and as one sees in the Chinese experience coal can still significantly pollute the landscape. The Chinese are working on their pollution, and just in time. They had been finishing construction on new power plants at the rate of about one per day — and many of these plants have been of the dirty, highly polluting variety. They are rapidly bringing their population under severe stess.
In America, many communities are under severe stress by the placement of coal ash in unlined pits throughout the land. In terms of cancer risk, some have suggested that living within a mile of an unlined coal ash pit is equivalent to smoking a package of cigarettes a day. Heavy metals such as arsenic, lead and mercury are leached from these pits and make their way into the food chain. This is a long term continuing threat to the population.
Oil and natural gas are far less polluting, but we are running short on those resources. Gradually we must turn toward clean renewable sources of energy.