People are scared of nuclear power plants, and I can't blame them. Disasters such as Chernobyl and Fukushima are certainly frightening.
Engineers insist that they can build much safer nuclear power plants, and protect them against natural disasters such as the earthquake and tsunami that smashed up the Fukushima plants in Japan.
Of course, it would be better if nuclear power plants were sited in locations that are not prone to earthquakes and tsunamis. But even so, the cold facts are that nuclear power plants are far safer than power plants using fossil fuels.
Accidents in coal mines, oil rigs, and natural gas pipelines have taken far more lives over the years than nuclear power plant accidents.
Moreover, fossil fuel power plants pollute the air we breathe and the water we drink. Their emissions of greenhouse gases are a major factor in the warming of our global climate.
Even so, there is a lingering problem with nuclear power. What to do with the radioactive wastes?
For more than half a century radioactive materials have been piling up, the waste products of nuclear power plants. There are nearly 500,000 cubic yards of radioactive wastes stashed around the U.S., most of it from military weapons programs, not civilian power plants.
While that amount of material is smaller than a single average-sized city garbage dump, it's worrisome — because some of those wastes will remain dangerously radioactive for thousands of years.
Getting rid of the waste material safely has been a political hot potato for decades. Nobody wants a radioactive garbage dump in his back yard. The federal government spent billions of dollars over a couple of decades preparing an underground facility at Yucca Flats, Nevada, to store the wastes, but political pressures made President Barack Obama scrap the plan.
So the wastes sit mainly at the power plants where they were produced, a potential threat to the area, and a tempting target for terrorists.
But what if the wastes could be somehow transformed into inert, non-radioactive material? What if we could do what the medieval alchemists wanted to achieve – in reverse? Instead of transforming lead into gold, suppose we could transform radioactive uranium, strontium, plutonium, thorium, et al. into lead or some other inert elements?
Scientists in Britain believe they can accomplish such a seemingly magical trick, and generate electrical power in the bargain.
They envision using a particle accelerator – the kind of "atom smasher" physicists use to study the inner structure of fundamental particles – to bombard radioactive materials with neutrons and turn them into safe, non-radioactive elements.
The accelerator system could be designed to generate electrical power while it's deactivating the radioactive wastes. A system that needs 20 megawatts of power to operate could generate 600 megawatts, they believe.
Instead of storing the wastes for centuries or millennia, convert them to harmless elements and generate copious amounts of electrical power while you're at it!
There are plenty of technical problems to be dealt with before such a facility becomes a reality, but scientists and engineers can undoubtedly solve them, in time.
It's the political problems that worry me. The existing buildup of radioactive wastes is a political problem, more than a technical one. The wastes can be stored safely, but many people don't believe that.
Because they fear anything and everything connected with radioactivity, they have created a political logjam that sees the problem grow worse with each passing year.
People don't want truckloads of radioactive waste traveling through their neighborhoods, even if the waste is on its way to be deactivated. This short-sighted NIMBY attitude is counterproductive. It has already cost us billions of tax dollars for the abandoned Yucca Flats storage facility, with nothing to show for it.
I believe nuclear energy can be an important part of our future energy picture. Despite Chernobyl and Fukushima, I believe that we can build safe, reliable nuclear power plants and get rid of their radioactive wastes while generating still more electrical power from them.
The next step is to build a demonstration system to prove that the wastes can be safely deactivated. That is underway now, in Britain.
Details about the British work are in New Scientist magazine's May 26 issue.
Ben Bova is from Naples. His latest technothriller, "Power Play,'' deals with new energy technology. His web site is www.benbova.com.