Like eager publishers at a videogame convention, lots of sexy ideas float out there, tempting us with their merits. Hydrogen, biodiesel, hydro, coal, wind, tidal, geothermal... the list is endless.
Many of these energy sources are what you would call boutique: they are excellent sources, but they simply are small potatoes. When and where they exist: wind, tidal, etc., god bless them and use them. But they can't even begin to make a dent in a nation's energy needs.
Hydrogen gets a lot of talk, but it's not really an energy source so much as an energy storage medium that figures in any talk right now about new large-scale energy schemes for getting away from oil dependence. Hydrogen warrants doubt because while it certainly is extremely clean, under the surface it has problems: transport flexibility/ volatility, for one. And unfortunately what hydrogen proponents don't tell you about, or don't realize, are the simple rules of thermodynamics: you can't convert from one energy source to another without wasting a bunch of energy. So hydrogen, in many ways, since there is no way to make massive quantities of it natively, is kind of like calling electricity clean as compared to gasoline use... when you are completely forgetting that coal-powered plant belching in the background making your precious "clean" electricity.
What problem does hydrogen solve that electricity/ batteries do not already solve as a medium? And even if you can articulate a good niche hydrogen can fill that electricity can't, aren't you forgetting that we already have all this electricity-based infrastructure? And are you taking into account all of the extra energy we would be spending converting our energy sources into hydrogen? Hydrogen really is some sort of faddish joke, that if you understood the real science surrounding its use, unless you could devise some fantastic way to make lots of it, cheap, you'd immediately discard the idea.
Biodiesel or ethanol is a wonderful idea. Brazil has wonderful success with ethanol that warrants serious admiration. However, it's still burning carbon and putting it in the atmosphere. That is, you haven't gotten rid of any of the environmental concerns with smog and greenhouse emissions. You're burning something, it makes CO2: that's a problem.
Fusion and solar, whether land-based or in some sort of wacky orbital scheme, are the kind of energy sources that are probably our best bets... if we ever master the technology to properly and/ or more efficiently harness them.
So what about our old hated bogeyman nuclear? I'm not talking about nuclear powered cars silly, I'm talking about cars powered by batteries refilled nightly from cheap nuclear electric power. Nuclear certainly has made a lot of headlines with a certain theocracy in the Middle East pursuing it for "peaceful" purposes. But there is something about nuclear everyone should know: it isn't your father's nuclear.
Allow me to introduce you to the pebble bed reactor. So what? Well: no Chernobyl, no Silkwood, no Three Mile Island, no China Syndrome: these things are built with safety in mind. The fuel goes into these little pebbles, that, unlike traditional reactor fuel designs, don't decide to melt into the earth and spew radioactive clouds if no one is monitoring them. If you walk away from a pebble bed reactor, if you allow all of the water to boil off, what happens? It just sits there, it does not require dynamic active maintenance to keep safe.
What about all those nasty eons of nuclear waste? Well that's something else that is new, nuclear reprocessing. Well, not really new, but a new way of thinking about nuclear fuel. Traditional reactors use 5% of their fuel, and the rest goes into 10,000 year storage. Yuck. What if instead you designed a system where you paid attention to the chain of nuclear decay, and reused the radioactive byproducts as fuel? This would be via breeder reactors, suitably poisoned and engineered to prevent easy and/ or hideable plutonium production. Such an exhaustive flexible fuel effort would use 90% of your fuel, and whatever remains has a half-life of danger on the order of decades, rather than thousands of years. You could even, believe it or not, use all of that old nuclear waste sitting around right now in rusting drums as a fuel source. Now there's a thought.
You'll also hear people moan about a fuel shortage with nuclear: except that there is none. The Indians use thorium successfully in their nuclear design, and there is a lot of that around. Additionally, all of the uranium stores are not sitting in countries where you would fund Wahhabi Islam by mining it. The U.S.A., for one, could become largely self-sufficient energy wise. Now how's that for an energy national security policy?
The French and the Japanese are already way ahead of the USA in this regard, having decided long ago that nuclear was to be the backbone of their energy needs (and a good train system rather than cars, but that's another subject matter). There is even talk of giving small, unhackable nuclear power plants to third world and second world countries: a form of economic aid, like building bridges or highways. All the benefits of cheap power for hungry growing economies, none of the geopolitical headaches of scary governments splitting the atom for who knows what purpose by themselves in secret. Many of the ideas coming from the West right now for dealing with Iran's nuclear ambitions center around variations of this idea: tying Iran's fuel supply to Western or Russian sources.
The world does not need nuclear weapon proliferation. But the world does need energy security. If the West were to accept that nuclear is proliferating and will proliferate, but endorse and foster the process with safe technological means tied to them as the fuel source, rather than blustering and denying the subject matter, then maybe they can get ahead of the curve of world opinion working against them. But right now, the West's attitude just drives nuclearization underground, completely within the hands of questionable governments rallying the cry of hypocrisy and nationalism, to make atom bombs in secret.
And finally, there is the stigma of nuclear power. But all of the stereotypes of nuclear power are based on out-dated understandings of the technology available to us. It's like trying to talk about what an iPod is capable of when you are only familiar with vinyl records. You can design fuel cycles, fuel methodology and nuclear plants such that terrorism and weaponization concerns are minimized and poisoned.
Still, of course, nothing is completely safe. But we don't live in a world where you choose your energy source in a vacuum. All energy sources have their downside, and so the pros and cons must be weighed against each other so that the best energy source is the one that satisfies a number of criteria, and none of them do that completely.
And do people really want to send their sons and daughters to die in the Middle East, where all of their oil money goes to fuel the conflicts there, rather than deal with the much smaller risks of nuclear power? Surely the Not-In-My-BackYard crowd can agree that a very safe nuclear power plant a few hours away from their house is safer than handing cash to militant religious radicals: this is what the current oil-based energy status quo is like.
And environmentalists, chaining yourselves to railroad tracks to prevent nuclear shipments: what are you really fighting for? The preservation of the status quo of using CO2 belching cars and coal power plants, which destroy the environment? In many ways, nuclear is an environmentalist's best friend, no joke.
No energy source in this world is without tradeoffs. But in a world where CO2 environmental concerns and oil-fueled terrorism concerns are coming to the forefront, I hope everyone can agree that nuclear is our best bet, not without pimples, but with the least dangers and complications of what we have to choose from before us.
And guess what? China and India are rapidly industrializing. It is a standard joke that oil prices went through the roof after the start of Gulf War II, and this is in large part to supply insecurities, but even if, via some miracle, those insecurities were to subside, you'd still have to deal with an energy ravenous muscular Chinese economy. The writing is on the wall: the golden age of the oil-powered car is over. The love affair is ending. Cheap oil is never coming back. Make your choice on a new energy source, and make it a good one.
And nuclear seems to be the best choice when you take all of the factors into consideration: sustainability, supply, technological feasability, security, and the environment. Nuclear has warts, but it gets better marks than other energy sources across all of the concerns that we have to contend with when thinking about making the switch to a new energy source.