Sunday, January 3, 2010

nuclear energy

Nuclear energy used to be the next endless energy source.

Tens of years later, that dream failed to materialize and the world has moved on to trying to tap into a host of different kinds of sources - solar, wind, tidal, bio-matter, etc. - and make it economically viable on a large scale.

Nuclear energy is still our next endless energy source.

The reasons for failure in the past decades have political roots. The "developed" nations were involved in the Cold War that centered around stockpiles of nuclear weapons. As such, using nuclear energy for peaceful purposes was relegated to being a front for nuclear arms and there was a huge political impetus to tie together weapons and nuclear energy generation. Power generators were made to use Uranium so they could create Plutonium as a by-product which is needed for nuclear bombs. The problem with using Uranium is that it is not well-suited for energy generation: it needs to be enriched (create fissile U-235 from naturally occuring U-238) in an expensive process, the nuclear reactors are dangerous and need many precision controls, and toxic waste is left over. And before you knew it, nuclear energy became the untouchable: dangerous and with evil intentions.

With some natural progression of history, this is where we find ourselves: the "nuclear" nations have enough nuclear weapons stockpiled, almost everyone has realized that nuclear deterrent is not the way forward, there is an impending energy crisis and a global warming crisis and we desperately need a solution to both.

Thorium tells a different story. This nuclear energy fuel that was discovered decades ago, but shelved because it did not generate Plutonium for weapons. It has already been proven to be a much safer and easier way to generate nuclear power, without any toxic waste and expensive enrichment processes. Scientists are now trying to create efficient and long-lasting reactors that use Thorium for large scale energy generation.

If this succeeds, it will be an interesting turn of events.

There will be some economic upheaval as the economy moves from being fossil fuel-based to being nuclear energy-based: transportation, as vehicle technology, range, capacities change, even energy storage and transportation. The politics are going to be interesting too, as different countries will be able to produce nuclear fuel.

Timelines for large scale nuclear power generation seem to be 20-40 years in the future, which is far too long. Oil is expected to peak in 10 years' time. I can't imagine ocean tides, for example, solving our civilization's energy needs in the coming decades. Governments need to give more impetus to safe and clean nuclear energy.

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