We need baseload power. Pure and simple. In order to ensure that electricity is constantly supplied to consumers and businesses its myriad customers during peak load times (usually the middle of the business hours during the warmest times of the day), there needs to be a reliable energy source. Unfortunately, the intermittent nature of solar and wind power do not provide a consistent enough source of energy.
The Vermont state senate recently voted “to block a license extension for the Vermont Yankee nuclear plant.” This suggests that despite President Obama’s move to provide loan guarantees for a new nuclear power plants such as the one in Augusta, Georgia, considerable opposition to nuclear power remains, even with Energy Secretary Stephen Chu in support of nuclear energy as a clean base load power supplement.
One key component of the discussion still revolves around what to do with the waste. With funding for Yucca Mountain as a storage site for spent nuclear fuel cut by President Obama, there is no resolution on how to handle nuclear waste.
Some estimates state that a new nuclear power plant will take up to 20 years to build. This country has not constructed one in roughly 30. Furthermore, the fuel source is finite. Uranium, one of the heaviest elements found in nature, is a nonrenewable resource. The waste produced is radioactive and has a prolonged half-life. It does not decay fast enough, posing a threat to human health and safety. Reprocessing spent fuel is an option, but it has its own drawbacks. While Japan and France currently reprocess their nuclear waste, an article from Forbes last summer listed a few of the problems linked to reprocessing. They point out that this process is very expensive, “the cost of uranium would have to jump by a factor of six to match the price of reprocessed fuel. Though reprocessing nuclear fuel shrinks the amount of waste, it doesn’t eliminate it. And, worst of all, it results in the creation of plutonium, which could be used to make nuclear weapons.” However, the article does point to some advances in the field.
The concern over enriching uranium cannot be overlooked. As the world grapples with the Iranian nuclear program and whether to sanction the government or not, the issue remains that their program has the capacity to generate weapons grade materials from the uranium they have. While it is unclear if Iran has the technology to achieve the levels of concentration necessary, it goes to show that risks associated with nuclear energy (i.e. proliferation) remain. Until these concerns can be alleviated, nuclear fission is a hard sell. Perhaps nuclear fusion will provide the answer. Maybe in 20 years.