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Is nuclear power the future?

16 January 2019

If you've ever read any of those old Popular Science or Popular Mechanics magazines from the 1950s and 1960s, you'd be forgiven for thinking that by now (2019), the world would be almost totally nuclear powered.

The predictions were that nuclear generators would become so small, compact and affordable that we'd be using them in cars, planes and our houses to produce an almost endless supply of clean, non-polluting energy.

Of course, as we all know by now, that's just not the case and it is unlikely to happen, ever -- at least as far as nuclear fission is concerned.

Fission is a nasty process that produces highly toxic spent-fuel rods that become a very long-lived problem in terms of their handling and disposal. But is fission our only hope in the battle against climate change?

There are plenty of people who think we must adopt widespread use of nuclear fission if we are to reduce carbon emissions sufficiently to ankle-tap the rise in global temperatures.

Whilst renewable energy sources such as hydro, wind, tide and solar are all well and good, they don't provide sufficient continuity of supply and can have issues of their own that adversely affect our environment.

In countries like New Zealand, our latitude and levels of cloud-cover in winter mean that solar outputs in winter are far from ideal. We also have long periods of calm at certain times of the year which can adversely affect the ability of wind-power to meet energy demands.

In arid countries, hydro may not be an option due to the lack of rainfall and suitable river schemes so there are certainly good cases for ramping up the use of nuclear generation as a replacement for coal, gas and other fossil-fueled systems.

Hell, if a fission-reaction generator is good enough for the New Horizons probe, it's got to be good enough for us... right?

Well no, at least not in my humble opinion.

New Horizons is never going to come back and require us to deal with the nuclear ash that remains when its reactor fuel is spent -- but all those reactors here on earth will.

I gather that spent fuel rods were useful in the manufacture of nuclear warheads back in the era of the cold war -- but even that use is now somewhat redundant (or at least I would hope so). All we can do with this stuff is bury it deep underground where thick layers of rock and soil will provide adequate shielding from its nasty radiation.

However, we also have to face the fact that there's probably only so much fissionable material readily available from the earth's crust and in that regard, the shift to an energy infrastructure that's highly dependent on uranium and such is simply creating a new problem of supply and demand.

At best, nuclear power can only be considered a short-term, interim solution to the problem.

So what's the best bet? How can we cope with an ever-increasing demand for energy without wrecking the planet?

Well the first and most effective step will be to focus on energy efficiency.

Why use energy unnecessarily? A KW/H saved is a KW/H earned!

Perhaps we need to completely re-evaluate our society and cut back on some of the unnecessary stuff. Is "personal transport" really needed in our urban/suburban areas? Wouldn't a more effective, more efficient form of public transport save huge amounts of energy?

Is it time to have a forced phasing out of inefficient electronic and electrical devices? Old fridges, washing machines, freezers, heaters and such waste enormous amounts of energy when compared to their more efficient replacements.

Should fossil-fueled cars be forced out of existence in favour of EVs at the earliest opportunity? Yes, EVs require electricity but, even if that electricity comes from coal or oil, the thermal efficiency of a multistage turbine generation plant is way ahead of the internal combustion engine in your car so there's still a much lower carbon footprint involved.

And, even though solar isn't going to solve the problem, how about mandating that all new houses have to include at least a small PVA and battery so as to allow existing generation capacity to cope with the growth in demand.

I'm not a fan of nuclear power (Chernobyl... cough cough, Fukushima) for a number of reasons... but I do appreciate that we have to do something to address the climate change we're seeing. Even if climate change isn't man-made, we have a chance to reduce the impact by drastically reducing our carbon emissions -- so why not?

What do readers think will be the most effective way to achieve this and is it worth taking the long-term hit of nuclear fission generators in the hope that we develop some other, better technology before we kill ourselves?

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