There are plenty of highly intelligent, eminently reasonable people who advocate nuclear power not just as a viable alternative to our fossil fuel addiction but as the only viable alternative, if we're to step back from the edge of runaway global warming.
Like many of us, at first I was dismissive of this pro-nuclear business. Many of us have become wrapped up in the "Ban the Bomb/Dr. Strangelove/Three Mile Island/China Syndrome/Chernobyl" matrix of adamant anti-nuclear sentiment. Yet, as I opened my mind and read a lot more about the nuclear option and corresponded with some nuclear-power proponents such as Australian professor Barry Brook (www.bravenewclimate.com) it became apparent I had a lot to learn.
Nuclear power is about as loaded a topic as can be imagined. Yet most of us, including the media, fail to grasp the difference between early nuclear technology and today's fourth and fifth generation, "fast" reactors. I won't go into a sales pitch here but I will toss out a few things you might not have known.
Old technology reactors are trouble. Not only do they produce enriched nuclear waste (the stuff that can be further processed into "weapon grade" material) they're also enormously inefficient, getting just a fraction of the energy from their fuel rods which thereafter have to be safely buried for thousands of years. Because old technology reactors are so inefficient there is genuine doubt about how long the world's remaining reserves of uranium would last.
New technology reactors solve many of these problems. They can consume those "spent" reactor rods that we have to scrap and extract most of the energy from them. They can likewise consume weapons grade fissile material. In other words, they can clean up the mess that otherwise isn't going anywhere. Best of all, they don't create enriched waste that can be processed for nuclear weaponry and, of course, they don't produce a lot of greenhouse gases either.
Despite the considerable promise of fourth and fifth-generation nuclear power, the fiasco in Japan may render it all for naught. There are many conflicting opinions on the severity of the problem at the Japanese nuclear plants. We're just going to have to wait to see what happens at the end of the day but, long before then, we're already turning on nuclear power of any variety. The media may have filled enough empty minds with glowing visions of nuclear Armageddon to kill the nuclear option for all time. In coming decades we may pay dearly for that.