Relax, this is not a post about filibusters or approving Supreme Court justices. No, this is about nuclear energy.
As you know, oil supplies are peaking, and prices are on the rise. Neither of these questions is really open to debate. We all understand that oil is a finite resource. We can argue about whether supply will peak in 2010 or 2040, but it is clear that it will peak, and thereafter we'll be running out of oil. Any resource whose supply is limited and decreasing is going to become more expensive. [ Mark Frauenfelder had a great link-filled post about this. ]
So what do we do? Clearly there are two paths to follow, and clearly we must follow both of them. First, we must try to reduce our entropy consumption. Second, we must develop alternative sources of entropy.
Reducing entropy consumption is all very exciting, but I don't want to talk about that today. In the end this can only help, but it can't solve the problem. As the worldwide standard of living increases, so, too, does the worldwide consumption of entropy per person. It is worth trying to slow the trend, but it will be impossible to reverse.
So what alternatives do we have?
First, there is certainly hydroelectric power. Can we significantly increase production of energy from hydroelectric sources? Not really. First, all the low hanging fruit has been picked; virtually every big river flowing through a gorge has been dammed. Over time we have to use smaller and smaller rivers, which are harder and harder to dam, and which ultimately produce less and less power. And the ecologic consequences of damming rivers is significant. Other sources of hydroelectric power like harnessing tides are speculative. They might work, but they aren't proven to scale. Furthermore each tends to have some negative effect on its environment.
Next consider solar power. Can solar power be the solution? It can certainly be part of the solution. In sunny areas it is great for small-scale projects like heating swimming pools. On the upside it seems to have minimal effect on its environment. However it isn't efficient enough - by orders of magnitude - to replace oil. The power produced is too low, and the cost of the power is too high.
How about wind? I've considered wind power previously. It really doesn't make much sense; it is inefficient, expensive, and highly detrimental to the immediate environment. Furthermore the number of areas with consistently high wind and large areas of land is small. Maybe someday people will figure out how to generate wind power out on the ocean - a good combination of high wind and large areas - but that's speculative.
Which really only leaves the nuclear option. Nuclear energy is actually the best alternative to burning oil. First, it scales; it is already possible to build big nuclear power plants which produce energy on the scales required. Second, it is relatively clean; although the problem of waste disposal is a problem, it is arguably less destructive than releasing hydrocarbons produced from burning oil into the atmosphere, or damming rivers, or covering vast areas with windmills.
Amazingly, this option seems to be gathering support. FuturePundit reported American electric utilities planning new nuclear reactors, and wondered will most environmentalists decide to support nuclear power? Stewart Brand, founder of the Whole Earth catalog, makes the case for going nuclear. [ via David Pescovitz ]
Perhaps the best recent survey was in Business 2.0: Going Nuclear. One emphasis of this article was on why nuclear energy is safe, and especially why it is safer than it was. Naturally we're worried about disposing of nuclear waste, but we're even more worried about avoiding another Three Mile Island or Chernobyl. The risk is nonzero but low, and getting lower.
This is all good. It seems that intelligent people of all stripes are converging on the nuclear option. Which is terrific, because the alternative - continuing to burn oil until it is gone - is no option at all.