Monday, June 11, 2007

Nuclear Power

Today's article in the Merc got me thinking. The piece was the second of a two part series on green energy. The first focused on the usual suspects (solar, wind, water, etc.), but today's discussed some of the pros and cons of nuclear power, touting it as the "alternative-energy dark horse."

My first thought was a deep one: "Duh." I've often wondered what happened to the promise of nuclear power, especially as greentech companies have been getting more and more funding over the past couple of years. Decades ago, nuclear power was touted as the answer to our energy problems. But here we are today, putting more stock in the sun, water, and wind to power our future.

And I don't really understand why. In my mind, nuclear power is clearly the future. My math might be fuzzy here (or I could just be wrong, feel free to call me out), but I'm pretty sure nuclear power holds a magnitude or two (or more?) more promise than other forms of alternative energy. Quite literally, nuclear reactions release much more power than those that take place in solar cells and windmills. Take a basic quantum class and you realize E=
mc2 means you can get a ton of energy out of a relatively small amount of mass.

Granted, nuclear power is not without its drawbacks. The technology behind current plants, fission reactions, creates radioactive byproducts and is generally hard to control (though many plants have done so successfully). However, as the article points out, these products are limited to small amounts and probably do less damage than all the carbon we're emitting into the atmosphere.

Furthermore, fission power is the tip of the proverbial iceberg. Anyone remember SimCity 2000 (circa 1995ish)? Remember speeding up time so you could get the fusion power plant? Granted, an actual fusion power plant is still far in the future (I think the game put it as being available in 2040), but I'm fairly sure we'll see on in our lifetime. As some of you know, fusion is fission's stronger, cleaner big brother.

(Quick physics lesson being done from memory - correct me if I'm wrong: Fission takes an atom, usually uranium, and pulls it separates it into two atoms while fusion combines two atoms into one. Both reactions release energy corresponding to the loss in mass, according to E=mc2.)

Point is, at the quantum level, energy is abundant. Harnessing these powerful reactions safely is the key to unlocking the potential they hold. Nuclear power is one great example of this, and others will surely emerge as research is done. Perhaps someday, mega-powerful reactions like combining matter and antimatter (referenced in Dan Brown's Angels and Demons) will be commonplace sources of energy.

For the time being, searching the world around us for natural forms of energy is a noble goal. But, in the long run, we're going to need to think small to find the energy we need - so shouldn't we start putting money there now?

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