Nuclear power gets a new chance?
If we want to move away from fossil fuels, there is little choice
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The latest global environmental conference, the UN Convention on Biodiversity, is taking place through Dec. 18 in Quebec. But the best news for the environment isn’t coming from bureaucrats, politicians, or activists, but from the efforts of scientists working hard to discover new things about the natural world. The Financial Times reports on an announcement about a “major scientific breakthrough” on nuclear energy from the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory this week.
The significance of nuclear energy for environmental sustainability as well as economic development has long been overlooked. Decades of bad press and activist extremism have led nations to favor alternative sources of energy like wind and solar as they seek to wean themselves off of fossil fuels. From the beginning, this push to move beyond fossil fuels has been unbalanced. Alarmism about the dangers of nuclear power has dominated the discourse while policy has wavered between radicalism and inaction.
Some governments are waking up to the straightforward reality that the energy sources of the future must include nuclear power. Japan, which suffered a major catastrophe at the Fukushima Daiichi plant following an earthquake in 2011, has reinvigorated its nuclear power program. Germany, which had planned to shutter all of its nuclear power centers in favor of imported natural gas from Russia, has begun to recognize not only the geopolitical but the economic and environmental consequences of such folly. And in the United States, individual states including Michigan are looking for ways to extend the life of currently operating plants or restart old ones.
A major challenge for any of these kinds of efforts, however, is that ramping up nuclear power production takes a great deal of time and investment. It isn’t simply a matter of flipping a switch or signing a regulation. And much of the short-term and concrete opportunities for sustaining or expanding nuclear power generation are dependent on decades-old technology and infrastructure. This is all our fault, because the political class just ran away from nuclear energy. It was a mistake.
To be sure, there are downsides to the nuclear sources of energy that are currently on offer. Fission reactions create waste that has to be handled and disposed of responsibly. Older plants are more vulnerable to natural disasters or even acts of terrorism or war. Some of these concerns could be mitigated by technological improvements. More efficient plants produce less waste and can be constructed in ways that minimize as much as possible the threat of environmental impacts.
But the adverse regulatory regime and consequent lack of investment has meant that America’s share of energy coming from nuclear has declined year over year for decades, as the construction of new plants are put on hold or never started, and older plants are eventually shut down. An in-depth analysis of the past, present, and future of nuclear power by Thomas Hochman and Nate Hochman provide a helpful summary of the complexity of the challenges facing a nuclear revival: “Changing the public’s view of nuclear energy will be an ongoing project for those who recognize its significance as a reliable source of clean energy.”
Modern commercial nuclear energy has exclusively been sourced from fission reactions. But this week’s announcement of a first-ever net energy gain fusion reaction in a lab environment has the potential to shift much of the calculus surrounding nuclear power as a feasible source of energy across the world. Even if the results are preliminary (and they surely are) and the road toward a possible fusion future is long, each step along the way is worth celebrating and comes as encouragement to keep working. God has given us abundant sources of energy that have been the basis for economic development throughout human history. We can be thankful for what we have been given and demonstrate that gratitude by using such gifts responsibly and productively.
The task of responsible stewardship is to leave something in as good or better shape as you have received it when it is passed on to the next generation. The generations alive today enjoy the vast benefits of wealth and economic growth that were sparked to a great extent by fossil fuels and ongoing scientific and technological discoveries.
We have been given much, and therefore we are expected to do much with what we have received. And advances in our understanding of the natural world, especially toward finding inexpensive, reliable, and sustainable sources of energy for a growing and developing population, are a meaningful way of meeting that weighty obligation.
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