Go nukes?

Can we nuke our way out of peak oil?

Published February 23, 2006 6:51PM (EST)

Worried about future employment prospects in a globalized economy? Maybe you should consider studying nuclear engineering. Because like it or not, boom times are coming back for nuclear power. Physics Today is reporting that some two dozen power plants are scheduled to be built or refurbished during the next five years around the world -- China alone has plans for 30 new reactors by 2020. And you can bet your last petro-dollar that as oil prices continue to rise, nuclear power (which, by the way, does not generate carbon emissions) will just get more and more popular. Renewable energy technologies, conservation, more efficient use of power -- none of it will be enough. Nuclear is going to be in the mix.

Which raises some interesting questions. Can we nuke our way out of the peak oil trap and global warming? Or will we just run out of uranium in short order, as is supposedly imminent with fossil fuels? And what about those little old problems of waste disposal, potential meltdowns, and terrorist access to plutonium?

As one might expect, such questions are hot topics in the online discussion areas where apocalyptic visions of the future are batted around like so many volleyballs on the beach. And they certainly aren't going to be resolved in any single blog post. Take, for instance, the basic question of uranium resource scarcity. Noting that uranium prices have already tripled since 2004, a peak oiler will tell you that at most there is enough uranium in the world to last us 50 years -- and much less, if plant-building really accelerates. In response, nuclear energy fans will argue that as prices go up, there will be more exploration and more uranium discovered, that fast breeder reactors will generate more fuel that they can use, and new techniques will allow for uranium to be harvested from seawater. And heck, 50 years! Why, that's more than enough time to perfect cold fusion and have more energy than we know what to do with!

How the World Works is going to refrain from taking a position on such questions at this time -- there's a lot more to learn here about nuclear power. But one point seems obvious. In the U.S., the fact that the nuclear power industry was brought to its knees by the environmental movement (with a little help from Three Mile Island) is soon to be an artifact of history. As oil prices rise, and as the reality of peak oil becomes ever more manifest, questions of waste disposal and potential meltdowns are going to take a back seat to providing modern industrial civilization with the power it craves. That's already abundantly clear in countries like China, and it's hard to see how it is not going to happen in the U.S. as well.

The peak oiler "doomers" may well still be right. Even with a massive increase in nuclear power generation, we may not be able to escape the coming energy bottleneck. But humans are a tough species -- we'll use every tool at our disposal to fend off disaster, even it means chanting, "Go Nukes."

By Andrew Leonard

Andrew Leonard is a staff writer at Salon. On Twitter, @koxinga21.

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Energy Globalization How The World Works Nuclear Power Peak Oil