August 17, 2005

Nuclear Power

If you're worried about global warming, carbon/methane pollution, or the cost of oil/gas, then let's get some more nuclear plants in construction. More research would also be really great (especially if they ever prove cold fusion as possible).

It's great for the people scared of global warming, because it doesn't throw carbon, methane and other heat-trapping elements into the sky. Personally I have my doubts about some of the features of global warming theory, mostly focused on our inability to really prove much of anything about it, but it's moot if we move to nuclear power.

For those concerned about the negative effects of air pollution, nuclear power's negative pollution is more easily contained and controlled. I'll concede that disposing of nuclear waste is definitely an issue, especially given lengthy half-life issues, but I'll take pollution we can handle, transport and bury over pollution that's simply thrown up into the air. Nuclear waste is one of the biggest problems connected to the source, but I'd argue that it's more controllable and ultimately safer (I'll leave storage in Nevada aside for now).

Nuclear power is also not closely dependent on oil prices, which in the last decade have fluctuated from well under $20 a barrel to over $60 a barrel. The price of oil reflects a lot of factors, like the high demand in China, but it can also be skewed both by Middle Eastern politics and by various government interventions. The price is likely to be somewhat more stable and to be lowered as technology makes production and safety measures cheaper.

Personally, I think the benefits of nuclear power are many. Aside from powering the general grid, it could also be used to produce hydrogen fuel cells. Electrolysis is the process of running electricity through water to make hydrogen and water. When you recombine hydrogen and water you produce water and electricity. That means that running a car on hydrogen and oxygen produces only water as a side effect. The problem is that it takes power to separate the water, so hydrogen fuel cells are more like a way to make energy portable rather than directly produce energy. Using nuclear power to create hydrogen fuel cells could be a way to make cars run cleanly and efficiently (pollution and global warming aside, most people consider cleaner, nicer-smelling cars to be more valuable than the alternative). It would require redesigning the fuel tanks of cars, as well as getting the fuel cells to consumers (possibly direct delivery at first, then eventually just through fuel stations).

I don't think the benefits are obvious enough or alternatives' drawbacks critical enough yet to make the market support the change at this time. Especially since it appears there's still a large amount of oil left, other factors than oil-supply shortage would have to be the decisive one. I would think that techno-geeks and guilty, wealthy Democrats would be a good market for fuel cell cars; people with the means and interest in buying a fuel cell car for environemntalism or pure technological novelty. This is of course all just conjecture.

The appropriate policy response, however, is to slowly phase out all the energy meddling of the government - both the subsidies and industry supports that distort the market positively and the unnecessary, burdensome regulations that negatively distort the market. Eventually I suspect that the advantages of nuclear power will give it a greater role in providing both home and automotive energy.

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