With thanks to Glenn Reynolds for the mention on Sunday, I second his links to two recent Wired articles. One from September 2004 looks at the proposed development of several new pebble-bed nuclear plants in China over the next 20 years. Pebble-bed is an 80-year-old technology; in this post from September 2004 (in which I also cited that Wired article) I described it thus:
Instead of fuel rods, the uranium/carbon blend is encased in baseball-sized graphite/ceramic balls, and the reactor core is cooled with helium gas. No radioactive water, no spent fuel rods to make dirty bombs. And the scale of the plant is about one-third of the big ones that we are used to here. This is the nuclear technology of the future because it’s safer, cleaner and more secure. My hope is that this technology moves us away from our knee-jerk rejection of nuclear as an option, and that its different risk profile undermines the now-successful arguments for federal insurance subsidies (Price-Anderson).
The second neat nuclear article from Wired is this one from February 2005. In it Peter Schwartz and Spencer Reiss argue that at the margin, the balance of pros and cons has shifted toward increasing our use of nuclear energy, even if it’s not perfect (and nothing is).
We now know that the risks of splitting atoms pale beside the dreadful toll exacted by fossil fuels. Radiation containment, waste disposal, and nuclear weapons proliferation are manageable problems in a way that global warming is not. Unlike the usual green alternatives – water, wind, solar, and biomass – nuclear energy is here, now, in industrial quantities. Sure, nuke plants are expensive to build – upward of $2 billion apiece – but they start to look cheap when you factor in the true cost to people and the planet of burning fossil fuels. And nuclear is our best hope for cleanly and efficiently generating hydrogen, which would end our other ugly hydrocarbon addiction – dependence on gasoline and diesel for transport.
Geopolitically and environmentally, it makes sense. Technologically it makes sense. Of course the $64 gazillion question is whether we can make it make sense politically.