Thursday, January 26, 2006

Nuclear Proliferation Has Its Place

Once we’ve all agreed that keeping nuclear weapons in the box they came in is impossible, other options become agreeable, or at least open to discussion. Pakistan having the bomb rather abruptly cut off all serious talk about containment. And that’s probably a good thing. 


So, having cashed-in at least some of our cold-war prejudices, we can get to work on demystifying the old nuclear power bugaboos, one of which has always been what to do about the reprocessing of spent fuel rods. Our Prez has an idea on that. He wants the U.S. to get in the reprocessing business, effectively becoming the world's go-to (and only) source.


Might not be a bad idea. Whether or not the world will accept the parenthetical portion of that intention, we can only wait to see. One can imagine problems.


NuclearreactorThis idea has shaken some members of Congress who consider it ‘an expensive venture that relies on unproven concepts’ that could increase the danger of proliferation. Yeah well, the spread of nuke technology is a given. It’s like trying to keep the secret of steelmaking to ourselves during the industrial revolution. What used to be complicated is now pretty straightforward and making bombs is more a question of money and access to raw materials than it is know-how.


The world certainly doesn’t need more killing-power, but it desperately needs more non-fossil-fuel energy.


Nuclear power is essentially steam-power to drive turbines. It’s been called a hell of a dangerous way to boil water, but it’s become less so with each generation of nuclear plants. Three Mile Island and Chernobyl are no longer even close to the norm technologically and, if we can get over the jumpiness about fuel reprocessing producing weapons grade plutonium, everyone can get down to fine-tuning reactor design.


CoalpowergenerationThe people who think this is a good idea, talk about a process that doesn’t separate plutonium, but whips up a mixed fuel too hot for terrorists to handle. Such a ‘hot mix’ can be used in special reactors that exist in France but not as yet in the United States.


Talk about French fries.


Bush is trying to get on the front-end of the global warming flak he’s been taking, saying "We ought to have more nuclear power in the United States of America. It's clean, it's renewable, it's safer than it ever was in the past." All of which is true and all of would lean us away from our vulnerability to each and every oil crisis.


A strong argument can be made for turning the world’s ink-blot reaction to the word ‘nuclear’ from bombs to energy. A remarkably effective way to do that would be to fund major research into reactor technology, share that research with other nations and lease reactors to economically emerging nations, where the dirtiest energy policies undermine new standards.


The key to that, at least in the short-term, is to control the disposition of nuclear fuel, from inception though the numerous re-processings to final disposal. The Bush plan (which he has not yet signed-off on and which is being shopped around to various allies) would solve that by making the United States the world’s source of re-processed fuel. That will make for some very interesting international shipping problems, as well as land-based transport. But who knows, maybe we'll do it all on a remote Pacific atoll and perhaps the fuel itself will become far less difficult to handle.


Maybe that's a fair share of supposition, but this 21st century will be technologically advanced beyond all commonly held understanding.


What a huge and sudden leap it would be, from the controversy over spent nuclear fuel disposal in the western states, to recycling for profit. Which doesn’t mean there is no controversy. There’s bound to be a huge national debate, as there should be. Everyone comes equally out of denial; the administration that there’s no global warming issue and the public that nuclear in any form is a no-no.


A few decades late, but better late than . . . whatever.
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A bunch more environmental issues muddying the waters on my personal web site.