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Ali: Nuclear Belief

03/24/10 7:55AM By Saleem Ali
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(HOST) Commentator Saleem Ali has been thinking about the difference between "believing" and "knowing," and what they have to do with our energy future.

(ALI) "Do you believe in nuclear power?" This is a frequent question I am asked as an environmental educator, especially during these days of reminiscence on the Vermont Yankee saga.

Must we frame the matter in terms of "belief?" As a scientist I am often troubled by how environmental narratives are now presented in such theological tones. The world is increasingly being divided in terms of those who follow the prophetic vision of a chosen scientific sage or those heretics who are stubbornly "skeptical."  

No doubt, there is a place for "beliefs" in human societies - such as our impulses for love, compassion and forgiveness - qualities which religions can admirably provide.

But in the world of science, "belief" has little place. In the words of Carl Sagan: "I am not concerned about believing - I am interested in knowing!"

So let's return to nuclear power - what do we know about the power of the atom and its ability to empower us?

Ever since Madame Curie discovered radioactivity and won two Nobel prizes, nuclear energy has catapulted our world into a totally different level of scientific achievement and endurance.  Nuclear medicine has revolutionized diagnostic techniques at multiple levels.  Nuclear energy has also been vitally important in our exploration of outer space and inner space by powering vessels of discovery in either direction.  But the record of nuclear reactors for commercial energy uses remains far more checkered.

Surprisingly, however, the debate on climate change has created a rift within the environmental movement, with some of the more fanatical climate change pessimists now heralding nuclear energy as our call to salvation.

So what do we know definitively about nuclear power?  First, we know that it is currently dependent on a supply of uranium ore, which is finite in the Earth's crust.

There may be other sources of nuclear fuel, particularly the element thorium, which is perhaps four times more abundant than uranium.  However, we haven't yet figured out how to use it efficiently in reactors because it still needs to be converted into fissionable uranium.

There are still unknowns about high level nuclear wastes; about the future costs of restoring nuclear contaminated sites; and most importantly the costs of considering other energy alternatives. With so many unknowns it is premature for us to make nuclear energy out to be a panacea.

We know far more about hydropower, wind, solar, natural gas, and biofuels than we do about nuclear power, and we should be humbled by these comparisons.

That is not to say we reject nuclear outright - indeed, we should strive to learn more about harnessing the power of the atom from ores and nuclear wastes more effectively.  But our policy choices on matters of science such as nuclear energy must move beyond the ever so tempting specter of "belief."

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