Since time immemorial doomsayers have been predicting the end of the world. From Mayan calendars to nuclear war, global destruction has never been far from the thoughts of many. So of course it is only natural that we exercise scepticism when talk of climate change ripples across the planet. We like to regard our home as a safe, dependable place – the sun rises and sets each day, the tide comes in and out – but it is not necessarily so predictable. Our climate goes through cycles of global cooling and warming, ice ages come and go whilst glaciers slip across our continents and slowly melt into nothing. At the moment we are reaching a natural peak in global temperature, the unfortunate thing is that this also coincides with a time where we are producing far more greenhouse gases then ever before.
The scientific community is generally agreed that if these emissions continue it will raise the Earth’s temperature beyond its natural maximum and so shift the cycle dramatically. Some suggest that a runaway process has already begun and that reducing emissions can no longer prevent the widespread drought and global flooding caused by rising temperatures and melting icecaps. A possible solution to this is to remove greenhouse gases from our atmosphere using ‘carbon capture’, where carbon is effectively sponged out of the air using various methods, from replanting forests to more industrial processes. Whatever the case it is clear that our current reliance on fossil fuel is not sustainable, especially given its increasing scarcity.
Virtually all energy on our planet comes either from our sun or from geothermal processes below the Earth’s crust. Even fossil fuels, being the remains of biological organisms, originally gained their energy from these sources. Obviously the most efficient method of harnessing this energy, at least theoretically, is to harness it directly rather than collecting the scraps we can obtain from various plants and animals that have already harnessed it before us. In an ideal world we would collect solar and geological energy, or at least extract it from wind and tides driven by thermal energy. Unfortunately we are yet to do so on any reasonable scale and time is rapidly running out – our resources are dwindling whilst our power demands increase dramatically and our climate is changing faster than we can adapt. Our technology is not advanced enough to practically achieve total reliance on renewable energy and even if it were, we don’t have sufficient time to establish the necessary infrastructures.
We need a powerful, reliable energy source to carry us through the next few decades until we can improve our technology and begin to build a renewable energy network. Nuclear power offers just such a solution. Current nuclear generators utilise ‘fission’, the splitting of heavy elements into lighter atoms and collecting some of the energy that was previously being used to bind the atomic nucleus together. Furthermore the technology is now available to carry out power generation via fusion (combining very light elements into heavier ones) which yields far more energy in comparison to fission and requires relatively few rare materials. The most promising form of this utilises deuterium, which can be refined from seawater, and tritium which can be bred inside nuclear reactors. Though the technology and materials are now in place, fuel cells for these reactors are very difficult to make and no method has yet been devised to mass-produce them (mainly due to the fact that they have not yet been widely used). Hence they have very high manufacturing costs which would result in providers being forced to charge higher rates, this is the primary reason as to why fusion generators have not yet been brought into general use.
A method of mass-producing fuel cells will solve this problem and make fusion a viable option and until then fission reactors are sufficient for our purposes. However nuclear reactors are not renewable and even reactors which use such abundant materials as deuterium still produce nuclear waste – a by-product that remains hazardous to environments, wildlife and people for thousands, in some cases hundreds of thousands of years. This can be safely contained, provided sufficient care is taken, but it eliminates nuclear power as an indefinite solution as there is only finite space in which to dispose of it.
So we stand at a turning point in history, if we continue to use current energy generation methods we will soon find our world a dramatically different place as major cities are submerged and nations are parched with drought. However if we blindly switch to nuclear energy without investing in renewables we will eventually be faced with a waste crisis which could lead to severe political, environmental and public health problems. It is imperative that we phase out traditional power generation and switch to nuclear as a temporary measure with a view to becoming renewable-dependent by the end of the 21st century. In the UK this is most likely to be a combination of wind and tidal energy – although tidal power has received little attention or development as most developed countries are not as coastline-dominated as Britain. In sunnier climates solar panels will be the most effective means of power generation, especially as technology improves. Whilst governments and politicians debate the next move time is ticking on, our climate is being destroyed and our resources are running out. There is hope, in fact the future looks quite bright, but hard decisions need to be made and, one way or another, our world will change very soon.