The End of the Line
The myriad risks associated with nuclear power—as recently evidenced by the horrific disasters in Japan—are clearly too great for nuclear power to continue to be heralded as a viable energy option and savior from our dangerous dependence on fossil fuels. As such the time has come to declare, no matter what nuclear supporters may say, the end of the nuclear age. Japan's nuclear disaster illustrates the massively disruptive effects of plant failures, as huge numbers of people have been evacuated from the area around the plant and as most of Japan and even some neighboring countries anticipate public health concerns related to the spread of radioactive material across a wide area. An explosion at a coal-fired power plant does not generate anything close to this kind of fear. Sure, it did take a 9.0 earthquake to damage the reactors—an incredibly rare occurrence, as nuclear energy proponents quickly point out—but because Murphy's law tends to hold true on a global scale, there is no justifiable excuse for the continued use of an energy source whose safety is determined by chance.
And then there is nuclear waste. Remaining unbroken down for thousands to millions of years (the half-life of spent thorium fuel is roughly 159,200 years), the radioactive products of nuclear fission reactors continue for obvious reasons to factor into the nuclear debate. Attempting to store hazardous wastes that are known to last many times longer than the span of human civilization is a disastrous undertaking that has resulted from short-sighted political pressure in recent decades to develop nuclear industries, regardless of potential future costs. The problem of storing nuclear waste for thousands of years has yet to be solved, leaving serious concerns for public health in place of those solutions.
Without doubt, nuclear power will be with us for some time—old political habits die hard, as round after round of fruitless climate change negotiations has confirmed—but it must end. Furthermore, the rosy talk of using nuclear as a “transition” energy source from fossil fuels to renewable sources is a gimmick that allows politicians to indefinitely put off making serious commitments to renewable energy development.
The post-nuclear age is an inspiring concept, the idea of human development finally shedding the last vestiges of one of its own most terrifying creations in pursuit of more sustainable means of creating energy. But where do we go from here? Renewable energy cannot simply be a catch-all term for power sources that don't fall into the category of fossil fuels or nuclear—the term has to mean something.
Solar, wind, hydroelectric, and (in some areas) geothermal energy are the most promising players in the battle for renewable supremacy—though admittedly they are still relatively expensive and difficult to implement on a large-scale as compared to fossil fuels—but the debate over energy policy will not end anytime soon. Biofuels are being heavily promoted by nations such as the United States and Brazil, but their use is also not sustainable. Biofuel production draws disproportionate amounts from corn, sugar and other crop yields, which exacerbates already serious global food security issues. Sacrificing the wellbeing of millions of starving people is no price to pay for energy for the developed world.
There is no foreseeable end to the energy debate approaching, but if the international community takes steps to wean itself off nuclear power and take the lead in developing modern, viable, renewable energy systems, the world will finally be putting itself back onto the road to sustainable progress.