Production of nuclear power is a very controversial subject among environmentalists; on the one hand, nuclear power produces no greenhouse gases, but on the other hand, storage of hazardous nuclear waste and safety of the power plants are still in need of big improvements. I had the opportunity to visit the Rössing uranium mine while in Namibia this past fall and struggled with these conflicting views. Rössing is one of the largest open-pit uranium mines in the world and provides about 8 percent of the world’s uranium. While standing at the edge of such a massive pit gauged into the Earth, my immediate gut reaction was of pure disgust. But then I began to think about the fact that this single pit, even if it is massive and ugly, provides the same amount of energy as thousands and thousands of coal mines (the energy-density of uranium-235 is 3 million times that of coal). Maybe it’s better to have a single mine like this in the middle of a desert (Rössing is located in the Namib desert) rather than blasting off the tops of hundreds of mountains in West Virginia in an effort to obtain coal.
Of course, this mine comes with its own hazards; radon dust (uranium decays into radon) can cause serious lung problems, particularly if worker safety isn’t a top priority. While upon first glance, the Namib desert appears completely dead, its delicate ecosystem is actually home to a huge variety of endemic species, which the mine does threaten to some extent. And of course, there is no way to ensure that the uranium that comes from this mine will be used in safe nuclear power plants or that the waste resulting from these plants will be stored safely as it decays into the future, well past the lifetime of the human race.
Is the promise of clean, carbon-free energy with a comparatively miniscule footprint on the Earth’s surface worth these dangers? The debate will continue raging, and only time will tell.