As we struggle to deal with greenhouse gas pollution, it's easy to treat the search for alternative fuels as a secondary issue, as a way to resist global warming, ocean acidification, and such.
But I see it differently. I think we need to do it ASAP for lots of reasons that are even more pressing than global warming, because we're going to run out of cheap oil and coal in the relatively near future. When that happens, the consequences for us, our descendants, and the environments we live in could be devastating, potentially escalating rapidly from frustrating inconvenience to a cause of increased poverty, famine, social unrest, ecological degradation, and/or war. Reducing climatic impacts is a great side benefit to this important issue, but even those who deny a human role in climate change can get behind the search for lucrative new energy sources.
At the moment, at least as much governmental-scale attention also seems to focus on reducing energy usage, mainly by trying to make it too expensive to use as we do now. But there's much political resistance to that idea, and although I worry about climate change I think that trying to use economics to artifically choke off fossil fuel consumption is short-sighted and will harm too many people who live at or below the poverty line.
Some say that rich nations could avoid that pitfall by subsidizing less wealthy nations for the increased costs, but I seriously doubt that it can be done without millions of innocent, struggling folks falling through the cracks. What are we going to do; simply send millions of compensatory dollars to some "wonderful" government head like Robert Mugabe to disseminate fairly among all impoverished Zimbabweans, then watch him use it to fill his pockets and those of his supporters? And what about the impoverished folks who happen to live in the rich nations - how will they all be found, evaluated, and compensated? And what about the resultant inflation in the prices of fertilizers, plastics, or anything that needs to be imported from another country, not to mention the fuel costs themselves... anyway, you get the picture.
As far as I can see, the only way to treat the whole political, social, and economic spectrum of humanity fairly, effectively, and with a minimum of controversy is for a new generation of sustainable, cheap, non-carbon fuels to come on line soon and naturally replace the fossil stuff.
This is where "green nukes" come in.
The only environmental action I ever took in college was protesting the use of nuclear power plants in New England. My uncle, aunt, and cousins stayed with my family as refugees of the Three Mile Island accident. And I remember being told to avoid reindeer meat in the grocery stores when I lived in Sweden because the free-range commercial herd was contaminated with Chernobyl fallout. Not surprisingly, the first word that arises in my mind when I hear the words "nuclear power" is "no," as in "no nukes."
Imagine my shock when arch-environmentalist Bill McKibben recently began to tout nuclear power as an energy source that emits no greenhouse gases. What? Has he drunk so much of the global warming Koolaid that he's now talked himself into making a pact with THE DEVIL????
But now I'm starting to come around, too, thanks mainly to my geologist friend David Franzi. We were exploring the Altona Flatrock in the northeastern Adirondacks this past summer, looking for wetlands that might contain long climatic records in their underlying peat and mud deposits. In the course of conversation, he mentioned a new kind of nuke that lacks most of the problems that have made "regular" nukes so objectionable.
They're called "thorium reactors." Unfortunately, there doesn't seem to be much easly readable info about them on the web yet; most of the items online are too full of nuclear/engineering jargon to be decipherable by non-experts. But the gist of the topic sounds almost too good to be true.
If I have this right, thorium reactors can't melt down; they shut themselves down naturally if they get too hot. They produce little or no waste, and what waste they do make breaks down fairly rapidly. Thorium is cheap and abundant, and safe enough to carry in your pocket. And thorium reactors don't make plutonium or other isotopes suitable for bombs (the one form of uranium waste product that might do so is easily diluted on site so it's unusable).
So why aren't we using them now? You might be able to guess if you put on your cynic cap and re-read the last paragraph. Apparently, it's mainly because you CAN'T make bombs from thorium reactor fuels or wastes. In other words, the main reason the regular nukes are the machines of choice, despite the risks of meltdowns, contamination, storage leaks, and terrorism, is that they enable the countries that have them to build nuclear arsenals.
Now, suddenly, the Iranian nuclear power plant controversy make more sense...
Anyhow, what if the world switched quickly to these new "green nukes?" They would make lots of cheap electricity, enough to generate yet another green fuel as well; hydrogen gas, from the electrical hydroloysis of water. No coal mining disasters or strip mines. No fuel cartels. No wars over oil fields. No fossil greenhouse gases or soot or nasty smog chemicals; the waste product from the burning of hydrogen is water.
So what are we waiting for?
From the little I know thus far, I'm cautiously optimistic, but part of me is also still suspicious. In my experience, if it sounds too good to be true, then it probably is. Unfortunately, as I said earlier, there isn't much online that's very readable, even for a nerd like myself who has some scientific background (well, I didn't do all that well in physics, either, come to think of it).
The closest thing to a good online summary that I've found so far is this one, from Wired:
I'm hoping that someone who reads this post and knows more about the subject will pass along some truly useful links or other info sources. If thorium reactors are really as great as they seem, then there's real HOPE for civilization and the ecosystems we depend on.