Energetic thoughts

It’s been a bad spring for big energy producers. An oil rig blowing up in the Gulf, an awesomely bad spill. Dozens dead in more coal mine accidents. The beat goes on. America churns forth. And continues to ignore the one energy production method that could well make a significant and positive difference in our immediate future.

I’d love to think that we could get off the oil habit by building loads and loads of wind turbines and solar farms. But it would take a massive effort, and it appears that at least a few of the early attempts to build such projects will keep getting tripped up by NIMBYism. Exhibit A: In March, the town of Morrison, Wis., voted 245-18 to reject a wind farm facility. One of the major reasons citizens were against the turbines—visual blight.

Well, swell. Protect your precious viewshed. But if we keep voting down the very projects we need to build …

While we talk of “big picture” energy mosaics comprised of various combinations of oil, natural gas, coal, solar, wind, tidal, cow flatulence, etc., nuclear energy sits in the shadows, ignored by a country that remains traumatized by both Three Mile Island and The Simpsons. (Mr. Burns has not been a good ambassador for the nuclear industry!) How much longer can we afford this self-inflicted blindness? There are strong points to make in favor of nukes. While guys die on oil rigs and in coal mines every year, it’s a fact that not one American has died at a nuclear plant in the 55-year history of the industry, not even at Three Mile Island. In a world increasingly concerned about burning carbons for fuel, the burning of uranium releases almost zero greenhouse gas into the atmosphere. The amount of electricity made by a thick line of wind turbines running along a 2,000 mile path could be equalled by four nuke plants occupying four square miles of land. The amount of uranium available for nuke fuel is estimated to be somewhere between 100 and 200 years.

Which brings us to the plutonium waste. The world’s worst stuff. The most vicious poison. I wouldn’t dare to pose a serious reconsideration of nuclear energy if we were going to continue to build plants that would churn out thousands of pounds of plutonium. But with one word, we can at least talk about nuclear power again. That word is reprocessing. Yes, it’s intense and expensive. What ain’t? But with reprocessing of plutonium, you’re talking about something that could reduce the mass of nuke waste by 95 to 97 percent and reduce its radioactive lifetime by 95 to 98 percent. That is seriously significant neutralization. Is it significant enough to allow us to once again consider “the friendly atom?” Or do we just plow forth into a future where the American lifestyle is indeed negotiable, and forced to contend with rolling brownouts?