There are several reasons why nuclear energy is not likely to solve the energy problem and/or should not be adopted even if it could.
• There is far too little Uranium at high grade to fuel a large-scale nuclear era for more than about 5 – 10 years (… unless breeder or fusion reactors are developed; see below.) Clarke reports that peak supply will occur in 45 years, even at the present rather low rate of use.
• If 9 billion people were to live as Australians do now, getting all their energy from nuclear sources, the world would need about 300 times the present nuclear capacity. (This is partly because it takes a lot of electricity to produce liquid fuels; about 80% of energy needed today is not in the form of electricity.)
• Nuclear accidents can have catastrophic consequences. Some of the materials that would be released would remain radioactive for thousands of years. If the US Price Anderson Act had not limited insurance claims that could be made on nuclear generating corporations there would be no reactors in that country, because no company would insure them. However this should be weighed against the fact that coal power also has large health consequences. But these would cease within one generation after use of coal ceased, and that is not the case with nuclear energy.
• No matter how well designed, reactors are operated by humans so it is always possible for mistakes to be made, e.g., when operators over-ride automatic safety systems as happened at Chernobyl.
• The “proliferation” problem. A nuclear era would increase the chances of access to dangerous elements by criminals and terrorists, or governments seeking to produce nuclear weapons.
• Nuclear energy involves considerable release of carbon dioxide, because liquid fuels must be used in mining. This would increase as ore grades deteriorated. It is not likely that heavy mining machinery could be powered by electricity, nor that much transport can be powered by biofuels. However it is argued that existing plutonium stocks and waste nuclear fuel could enable large scale operation of Breeder reactors for a long time, without mining new fuel. (See below.)
• There is no agreed solution to the problem of waste disposal. It is not possible to be sure that a site that has been very stable and dry for a long time will remain dry or earthquake free for hundreds of thousands of years into the future, through ice ages and greenhouse effects on hydrology. Even the reprocessing of spent fuel might give terrorists access to highly radioactive elements. However Breeders might be able to ”burn” wastes.
• The moral problem; the people living in a nuclear era would get all the benefit, but many future generations would pay the biological costs without getting any of the benefit after the fuel has been used up.
• We have no idea what the total long term health, genetic and mortality effects of nuclear energy will be. These effects will accumulate over hundreds of thousands of years as radioactive materials released are constantly cycled through organisms and food chains. Even without accidents small quantities of long lived radioactivity are released. There is no threshold level below which we can be sure there will be no biological effect. If we do not have confident estimates of the magnitude of these accumulated long term biological costs then it is not possible to say that the benefits will outweigh the costs.
FUSION REACTORS AND THE INTEGRAL FAST BREEDER.
It is uncertain whether fusion reactors will ever become viable but if they do they will not be scaled up sufficiently to make much difference before 2050. They will be expensive. They require Lithium, and resource estimates indicate that there will be not enough to meet demand for electricity storage and electric vehicles, let alone thousands of breeder reactors.
Some people believe that the Fourth Generation Integral Fast Breeder Reactor could provide abundant energy. There are several questions on which we would have to see strong agreement among experts before we could be confident about this reactor. They involve production of Plutonium, but it is claimed that they can be designed to burn their own radioactive wastes. Note again that if 10 billion were to derive all the energy needed presently from reactors we’d need perhaps 300 times as many as we have today, and far more than this when we take into account the additional energy needed to derive minerals from what will be poorer ores and to deal with the resulting greater environmental problems, etc.