Clean is relative. All of our energy options right now have some component of pollution and greenhouse gas emissions, but nuclear is already as clean on both counts as most renewables, and all renewables and nuclear are way cleaner than fossil fuels. Beyond that, nuclear has the potential to be the cleanest and have the smallest environmental impact and the smallest extraction footprint of any other option. For example, right now, multiple teams are developing molten salt fast reactors, with several teams looking to have operational reactors up in less than seven years. And all of these look like they have a good shot at being substantially cheaper than today’s nuclear. So when these start going into operation, old-tech nuclear builds will stop, at which point uranium mining will have reached its peak. Mining will continue to serve the legacy reactors and maybe to supply bomb fuel, but as the old reactors retire, uranium mining will start shutting down. The molten salt fast reactors won’t need any mining, because their supply of fuel is already lying around in the form of current spent fuel and depleted uranium. (They would also be good for burning up nuclear bomb fuel.) These latent fuels that we are not using–in fact, we currently consider them trash–contain over a million gigawatt years (electric) worth of energy. To put that into context, that is about three times as much as all of the energy we’ve ever gotten from coal, oil and gas combined in all of human history. Let that sink in for a moment.
So that would be several centuries worth of fuel without any need for uranium mining. The main reason uranium mining would continue is that there are some forms of mining for which uranium is a byproduct–like the massive Olympic Dam copper mine (which is currently one of the world’s largest sources of uranium–even though the uranium is a tiny fraction of the copper it produces). Not removing the uranium from the copper mining tailings would only result in more radioactive tailings.
Moreover, these reactors will also be able to burn thorium as a fuel extender, and the amount of thorium we throw away each year from rare-earths mining has more energy value than our total world energy consumption. Rare earths mining, as it is done in China is very dirty and toxic, but that is because they are trying to do it on the cheap. It could be one of the cleanest forms of mining (scoop up a bunch of monazite sands, remove the thorium and rare earths, and out the back end comes sand which is less radioactive than it was before) but that costs a bit more. But that would be economically viable if thorium was converted from being a massive financial liability (which it is now) into a recoverable, revenue-producing asset.
So by consuming spent fuel and depleted uranium, and by cleaning up other kinds of mining which we are going to do anyway, we could easily have a thousand years supply of energy. And long before we make a dent in that supply, we’ll probably figure out how to make fusion practical and economically viable, which would add tens of trillions of gigawatt years just from the deuterium in seawater. And that’s just one of the fusion fuels we could use.
“ALSO… WHY IS IT THAT I NEVER HEAR ANYONE TALKING ABOUT POWERING DOWN…”
Because billions of people are currently living in energy poverty, and they would like to have the standard of living those of us in energy-rich countries enjoy. So all of the mainstream energy forecasts are for energy consumption to double from what it is now by the middle of the century, and that takes into account projected increases in efficiency and energy conservation measures in the first world. But if we could get that energy without the choking pollution, without burning whole forests, without scraping off the landscape, without displacing agriculture, without the massive spills, without the greenhouse gases, and if we could actually deliver that energy (and also do water desalination) while also powering some large carbon sequestration projects to help drive CO2 levels down to more hospitable levels, why would we not want to do that? How would that be a bad thing?
“so, why would we not consider getting rid of SO MUCH FRIVOLOUSNESS in our cultures…”
Because we are humans, and most of us would not enjoy an ascetic lifestyle.
“and FYI … it is too late now anyway… this would have been great… 30 -40 years ago…”
Earlier would have been better, but we might as well do what we can. I think it’s premature to call it hopeless at this point. Some of the new reactor designs are remarkably simple, and look like good candidates for mass production. If they can be rolled out quickly and cheaply, and the fuel is basically free, that has all the ingredients needed for a market-driven technological revolution, and those can take place very quickly once they are underway.