295. THE NUCLEAR CONUNDRUM
One of the problems I have with the peak oil community is its obsession with a near term peak in conventional petroleum. I don't really see this as the main problem because there are other forms of energy which can and will take up the slack, primarily coal and nuclear.
The larger problem, I believe, lies farther in the future, at the point when oil and gas have peaked and become seriously exhausted. So let's take the longer view and assume we're already at that point. Maybe the year is 2050 or 2100 -- pick your own number -- but for all practical purposes, we're very low on oil and gas. What does the world look like?
Some say: No problem, we'll just switch over to coal. But that's screwy. If we're going to switch to coal in the post peak oil/gas period, everybody is going to be switching and sucking down the coal of coal-rich nations (like America and Australia), not just the coal-rich nations themselves. Or, alternatively, the coal-rich nations will be powering their grids and driving on coal, while the rest of the world will be struggling to keep the lights on.
So coal really isn't the long-term answer, and in the end (barring other developments) preservation of the energy status quo will lead us into one of two scenarios:
Scenario 1) A world carpeted with tens of thousands of nuclear power plants. The question here then is security. Clearly the risks of dirty bombs, terrorists acquiring nuclear weapons, accidents due to mismanagement etc. increase greatly in this situation. We could have centralized enrichment and reprocessing/waste management, but then you've got a sprawling logistical network of nuclear/radioactive materials criss-crossing the earth in routine shipments, much like oil does today. Which will clearly increase the risk of theft, terrorist attacks, acts of war etc. A good question to ask here is: When and where will the first dirty bomb be detonated? And whose facility will the radioactive material come from?
On the other hand, you could have localized enrichment and reprocessing. That would eliminate the logistical risk, but introduce the risk of proliferation of nuclear weapons. That doesn't seem like such a good idea either.
In any case, you're going to need a massive worldwide security/emergency-response apparatus to police the situation, and this is an externality whose cost the nuclear power companies themselves should be forced to bear.
Scenario 2) Due to the risks involved in 1), 2nd tier countries are forcibly barred from nuclear development, and thus from electricity. This, however, seems likely to lead to conflict, and surges of refugees into nuclear countries where the power is still reliable. This too will necessitate huge investments in security.
-- by JD