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There was only a ten-year lag between Hiroshima’s destruction by an atomic bomb and controlled reactions with energies dwarfing conventional sources like gasoline; splitting uranium atoms generates energy millions of times greater than even the most efficient chemical reactions. Nuclear fission technology has spread, and fission power plants provide about 6% of the world’s energy and 13% of the world’s electricity with over 400 nuclear power reactors in operation and over 150 nuclear ships.
Power from splitting atoms has been controversial from its beginning, and the 2011 tsunami which took out several Japanese nuclear plants at Fukushima led to mass evacuations of residents, fears of long-term radiation contamination, and heightened soul-searching by politicians. There were public outcries in many countries to limit nuclear power, but from a natural systems perspective, nuclear makes sense. There is very little greenhouse gas emissions from a nuclear power plant per unit of electricity produced, and plants and animals now flourish on land radiation-contaminated by the 1986 Chernobyl disaster. The mining, transporting, managing, and disposing of nuclear fuel does consume conventional energy. There is also scant experience with the full environmental and financial costs of decommissioning plants and isolating their radioactive waste materials for centuries.
Nuclear fission made the transition from weapons to controlled civilian power in a decade, but nuclear fusion, which powers the sun and the stars, has not been harnessed in the 60 years since the U.S. exploded the first hydrogen bomb. The federal government has spent $5 billion`since 1993 in a project using laser light to produce the extreme temperatures necessary for a controlled fusion process. The lasers compress and heat small amounts of hydrogen enough to mimic conditions in the sun, hot enough to cause hydrogen atoms to fuse and release energy. So far the plans haven’t worked, no ignition, and Congressional funding runs out today, the end of the federal fiscal year. There will be an investigation as to why the project has taken longer and been more expensive than planned, and whether it’s promising enough to continue. If successful, a nuclear fusion plant would still generate radioactive materials that would need disposal, but the raw material, hydrogen, is very plentiful and non-toxic.
Fission power and fusion power have disadvantages, but either will contribute much less to global warming per unit of power than burning hydrocarbons. Greenhouse gases are incidental to nuclear plants; greenhouse gases are at the heart of all power from burning hydrocarbons. The time and money necessary to produce and operate fission power plants has exceeded most estimates, and it will likely continue so. Most physicists believe that controlled-fusion plants which generate more power than consumed will happen, but not soon. In sum, there is no free lunch, and the world needs to act to reduce overall power consumption before radical climate changes do that for us.
Image by Stefan Kühn (Own work) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html), CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/) or CC-BY-SA-2.5-2.0-1.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.5-2.0-1.0)], via Wikimedia Commons