There are currently three, maybe four, methods of power generation that meet the criteria for base load power production. These are fossil fuels, typically coal, hydropower, geothermal, and nuclear.
Fossil fuels have a host of problems and concerns, from the production of CO2 and other greenhouse gases, acid rain, toxic ash, and a significant release of radioactivity. Of these, the most worrying is the production of greenhouse gases. The ongoing consensus regarding fossil fuels is that their use has been responsible for raising the average global temperature, and will continue to do so.
To solve the problem of greenhouse gases, we have to stop emitting them. Hydropower and geothermal, while useful as part of the base load, are too dependent on geography to be viable worldwide. Solar and wind are too intermittent, and so they can add to power production, but cannot carry the base load. Conservation is very useful, but it can only go so far. We need an alternative to replace fossil fuels, and in the short term the most viable contender is nuclear power. No less a personage than James Lovelock, originator of the Gaia hypothesis, agrees.
Nuclear power comes laden with its own baggage, however, and it is heavy indeed. Beyond the threat of possible radioactive contamination from the power plant itself, there is the matter of the nuclear waste material generated. Of course, the biggest issue looming over nuclear power is the matter of nuclear weapons proliferation.
There have been accidents at nuclear power plants, and accidents in the mining, processing, and transportation of nuclear materials. Some of these have resulted in the release of small amounts of radioactive material in to the environment. However, in terms of environmental damage and loss of life, these accidents pale in comparison to those in the mining, processing, and burning of coal. Outside of the former Soviet Union and former Warsaw Pact nations, the number of deaths attributable to nuclear power mining, processing, and power production are extremely low, especially in comparison to coal. Less than a handful, compared to hundreds from coal mining alone, let alone the effects of pollution and climate change.
Former Eastern bloc nations have seen some very serious accidents, most notably Chernobyl, but there been others. These can be attributed, in large part, to the poorer training of the operators, and the poorer design and construction of the reactors. Western-made reactors, on the other hand, are designed to be much safer.
On a long-term basis, the matter of the disposal of nuclear waste is a big problem. Fuel reprocessing can greatly reduce the amount of waste created, and is common for most European nations and Japan. Reprocessing can reduce waste from 27 tons per year to 5 tons per reactor per year. Compare this to a coal-fired plant of similar capacity that produces upwards of 400,000 tons of ash per year. Then again, coal ash won’t be radioactive for thousands of years, which is the issue that must be addressed in regards to nuclear power.
Spent reactor fuel is sealed as well as possible, and currently the waste is stored at reactor sites, awaiting a final resting place. While that waste does produce heat and radiation, this will fall off drastically over 40 years, making the material much easier to handle as it gets older. The long-lasting radiation, the type that lasts for thousands, or even millions, of years, is comparatively low-level, and is easily blocked. Underground storage in geologically stable regions is the long-term method chosen by all nations that make use of nuclear power.
It is this long-term storage that is problematic. We are essentially making decisions for people (or their successors) millions of years in the future, which is presumptuous, to say the least. It is either that, though, or poison ourselves with CO2. These are difficult decisions.
Then there is the nuclear weapons threat. While the fuel used in a reactor is not the same as the material used in warheads, if you’ve got the first, you can make the second. This is a difficult issue to address. Commercial nuclear power simply makes weapon creation easier. If a nations decides that it wants, or need, nuclear weapons, the presence, or absence, of civilian power will not be a factor. Advances in reactor technology, such as thorium reactors, are capable of producing power without creating material for use in atomic weapons.
Nuclear power is dangerous. However, the risk from using nuclear power, at this point in time, are less than the risks of continued use of fossil fuels. It is possible that future technological advances, like orbiting solar power or even nuclear fusion power, will solve the problem of clean energy for us. Until then, however, we have to use what we have. Conservation can only take us so far, and after that, the best choice looks increasingly like nuclear power, for better or worse.