Tuesday, January 20, 2009

The Mighty Atom, King Coal, and the Future of Australia

As far as I'm concerned, the single most pressing problem facing the future is environmental degradation. With the incoming Obama administration in the States looking to take a far more forceful tack on climate issues than did the Bush White House, I'm not quite as pessimistic about the future as I was during the night shift, when the combination of long stretches of time without seeing the sun and a great deal of opportunity to trawl through the Science/Environment sections of the New York Times and BBC News, among others, pushed me into "oncoming envirocalypse" territory.

Not that that's the realm of fantasy; I still have my concerns about the Arctic methane upwellings. Nevertheless, nevertheless--

One of the most significant contributors to climate change is the burning of coal to generate electrical power, and the fact that it is still so widely used indicates the vast degree to which modern civilization remains mired in nineteenth century modes of thought and action. Coal may be cheap, yes, but that's only because its dollar, or euro, or renminbi cost only includes what's needed to take it from a hole in the ground to a roaring furnace. Once it's in the atmosphere, it's someone else's problem.

We've had a solution to this for nigh-on sixty years now, and it's a testament to the short-sighted foolishness of humanity that it has not been implemented on a greater scale. Nuclear power, which according to Wikipedia produced 14% of global electricity in 2007, has always been the red-headed stepchild of the electricity industry. Now that there's an environmental consciousness growing in the West, new desires to Do Something are running up against that incessant buzzing whisper in so many peoples' ears that Atoms Are Evil.

Recently I came across an article in the Sydney Morning Herald, "Clearing the air" by Clancy Yeates, about the problems and possibilities Australia will face as its "addiction to cheap coal" faces the threat of climate change and the opportunities of new sources of power. The article's focus was primarily on renewable energy, solar and wind and the like, and how bringing such installations online in the near future could seriously decrease Australia's dependence on coal and, thus, its environmental footprint. But what I'm more focused on is its omissions.

In this five-page article, in its two thousand, six hundred and ninety-two words, the word "nuclear" did not appear once. Not even in the context of "nuclear power is, of course, no solution for Australia's environmental problems." Frankly I would have preferred that. Kneejerk anti-nuclear sentiment is something I've become used to. Not even mentioning it in an article meant to examine methods of weaning a country off of coal dependency strikes me as a serious oversight.

One of the reasons I enjoy living in Toronto is precisely because it is conveniently located to not one but two nuclear power plants, at Pickering and Darlington. Together with Ontario Hydro's early focus on exploiting the hydroelectric potential of Niagara Falls and, eventually, every single river in the province that could economically be dammed, I can feel confident that any given electrical device I turn on is not powered by coal. I can live with nuclear, because it lets me live with the concept of a future.

No matter what happens, it's unrealistic to think that coal burning won't play a major role in electrical generation for the near future. Nevertheless, it's irresponsible to continue in a state of affairs that sets up the choice between coal and renewables as the only option. Nuclear fission deserves a place at that table.

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