Arguably, the most pressing issue of the 21st century is finding replacements for carbon based energy to curb the extreme threats of global warming. There are a number of different sources that have been developed, such as wind, hydro, geothermal, tidal, biomass, etc., but realistically many of these sources can only be implemented on a small scale in niche markets. A large scale base load energy system is required to solve the problem and nuclear may be the best solution.
Nuclear has proven to produce large amounts of energy reliably and has systems that could be implemented in almost every part of the world. It has also shown incredible innovation recently which could transform the energy market.
Nuclear energy is already a very well established baseload power source. 31 countries use it for some portion of their power generation, most notably France receiving 75% of its energy from nuclear. The biggest advantage of nuclear is that it is not contingent on any other external factors, such as the sun being out or the wind blowing.
The fears of nuclear power have increased after the tragedy in Fukushima but the statistics show the probability of a nuclear plant failure is still very low. Only 3 major nuclear accidents have occurred out of 16,000 cumulative reactor-years of commercial use. Also the new plants being built are designed to a higher standard than the ones of the past.
The main drawback of nuclear is that it is expensive because of the large and complex facilities and rare energy source. On average fuel costs for nuclear are $.76/kwh and operation and maintenance costs are $1.64/kwh. The average cost of power in America is $.12/kwh so nuclear is still significantly more expensive but that is not taking into account the negative externalities and subsidies that carbon based energies receive which artificially lowers their costs.
Even so nuclear right now is still expensive but there are two very exciting developments happening that could make it cheaper and more powerful and they are Thorium based nuclear power and fusion.
Currently nuclear power plants use Uranium as nuclear fuel. The plants breaks up the atomic bonds of Uranium and this releases a great amount of energy which heats up water to power a steam turbine.
What Thorium power plants (Liquid Fluoride Thorium Reactors) do is just replace the Uranium with Thorium and the water with liquid salts. The liquid salts are more efficient in transferring heat energy and Thorium is cheaper, safer and more energy efficient than Uranium. Uranium itself is very rare but the usable Uranium isotope is even rarer and takes a long time and lots of money to create. Thorium on the other hand is naturally occurring, the 39th most abundant element in the world and is even thrown out of dig sites.The nuclear reaction also emits far less dangerous radioactive products that last less longer; 500 years versus 10,000 years.
Fusion power is just the opposite of how we currently do nuclear. Instead of breaking up (fission) radioactive particles fusion puts hydrogen atoms together to release an immense amount of energy. Fusion power is much more powerful than Fission; the US department of energy estimates that 6 liters of water, going through a fusion process, could equal the same amount of energy in 1 ton of coal! Lockheed Martin is currently developing a compact reactor that could be operational in 10 years for military use and 20 years for commercial use.
Both of these power sources have the ability to end the energy crisis and provide humanity with a level of energy never before imagined. Other renewable energy sources, such as solar, will also have to be in the energy mix to achieve a zero emission energy future but nuclear will play a huge role.