Developing the necessary nuclear technologies and building the additional power plants is an enormous undertaking that probably would take longer than the 50 years that experts say we have in which to come up with solutions to global warming, Ewing said.
Even if they could be built and brought online quickly, that many power plants would generate tens of thousands of metric tons of additional nuclear waste annually. "The amount that would be created each year would be equal to the present capacity anticipated at the repository at Yucca Mountain," Ewing said, referring to the proposed disposal site in Nevada that has been under study for more than two decades. Ewing recently co-edited a book, "Uncertainty Underground," that reviews uncertainties in the analysis of the long-term performance of the Yucca Mountain repository.
Plutonium created as a byproduct of nuclear power generation also is a concern because of its potential for use in nuclear weapons.
"Not everyone thinks this way, but I consider the explosion of a nuclear weapon to be a pretty large environmental impact with global implications," Ewing said. "A typical nuclear weapon will kill many, many hundreds of thousands of people, and the global impact would be comparable to something like Chernobyl in the spread of fallout."
So the real question, said Ewing, is: "Plutonium versus carbon---which would you rather have as your problem? I don't have the answer, but the points I'm raising are ones I think people need to be considering."