EarthSky originally posted this interview with nuclear scientist Paul Wilson of the University of Wisconsin, Madison, in May 2009. Also see the counter post: Arjun Makhijani believes nuclear power is too costly and too risky
Paul Wilson is one scientist who believes that nuclear power is a proven means to supply the growing demand for clean energy.
I think that the public opinion of nuclear energy has been increasing for the last decade. One of the major reasons for that is concern about global climate change, and the recognition that nuclear energy has a big role to play in reducing the amount of greenhouse gases we emit. I think we need to have nuclear energy as a big option in our energy future because it has no direct emissions of greenhouse gases.
Wilson said that what nuclear plants do emit – spent nuclear fuel – is compact and contained.
Spent nuclear fuel stays where you put it. You can put it somewhere, and you can watch it, and you can keep it safe with relatively little effort.
We asked Wilson about the concern that more nuclear energy would mean more nuclear weapons. He said there are ways to avoid that – both at the site itself, using advanced technologies – and also by using political diplomacy.
Most commercial nuclear power systems are very hard to turn into military nuclear power systems. And so, there are a lot of different techniques we can use to avoid that.
Dr. Wilson believes that nuclear could produce more of the world’s energy.
Right now, nuclear energy provides about 20% of the United States electricity, a little bit less of the world’s electricity. That works out to about 7% of total energy we consume. I think there’s a lot of opportunity for total energy fraction to go up, because nuclear energy can be used to produce transportation fuels. We can use it to produce hydrogen. We can use the heat to help with biofuel processing.
He emphasized that scientists such as himself are working to solve the problem of disposing spent nuclear fuel.
A few decades into the future, we can decide whether we want to bury it permanently underground, keeping it safe there, or whether we’d like to be reprocessing and recycling it, into new nuclear fuel to put into new nuclear reactors to get more energy out of it. Which seems to most people in the nuclear industry that seems like the choice that makes the most sense, ultimately.
And he said that the waste produced is far smaller, and less dangerous, than energy sources which emit greenhouse gases.
I like to put that in perspective and point out how small it actually is, compared to the waste streams that are coming out of every other choice we have for electricity right now.
He said he doesn’t think nuclear is the only choice. But Paul Wilson believes that nuclear energy must be part of a mix of other alternative energy sources.