What are nuclear activists? We generally think of them as dedicated individuals who are trying to save the world from a disaster that would spread radioactive fission products everywhere and bring about an end of human civilization as illustrated in the movie "On the Beach." In this movie, the nuclear radiation disaster has eliminated human life north of the equator. An American submarine has escaped to Australia to enjoy what time is left for the humans there.
Here is another story. In the 1950's, when nuclear reactors were being built for use in generating electric power, there were several arguments advanced in favor of changing from coal-fired power plants to nuclear power plants. Here are two:
- Clean Air: Coal plants emit carbon dioxide, soot, sulfur compounds, and radioactive material, all present in the coal used in the furnaces. The effluent from a coal-fired plant is much dirtier and harmful than the effluent from a reactor plant.
- Human lives lost: Nuclear plants can produce a given amount of energy (megawatt-year) with less overall cost in human lives than coal plants. These lives are lost mainly in coal mines.
Even counting the disasters at Three-mile Island, Chernobyl, and Fukushima, these arguments are still valid today. In the 1950's there was not yet evidence of climate change due to excess CO2 pollution of the world's atmosphere. Today one can add a third argument: Climate Change.
Are the nuclear activists wrong or wrong-headed? No. We need eventually to dispose of all schemes for generating power that depend on burning fossil fuel or fissioning mined uranium and thorium. Eventually these sources will all be used up. In addition, the burning of carbon threatens human life in a manner similar to that shown in the movie: The temperature and the oceans will continue to rise until our descendants move to northern Canada, Greenland, northern Siberia, and antarctica to escape the heat and humidity of the rest of the world. Increasing the temperature of the oceans may release great quantities of HS gas, about as poisining in its own way as radiation from fission products.
Nuclear activists aren't going to take my advice, of course. If they did, they would become anti-coal and anti-petroleum activists as well as anti-nuclear. All forms of energy production that depend on mined or fossil material must be phased out before we run out.