Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Nuclear vs. Coal

In case you are not as clear as I am on the arguments for or against nuclear or coal....Grist (Environmental News and Commentary) posted and interesting question and answer about these two evils which I believe is worth a read.

The best answer being neither. Yet when forced to choose what are the pro's and cons of each?

A few facts to consider:

" is a potential Xtreme disaster waiting to happen both in terms of operation and of "homeland security," cannot save us from our immediate crisis, and is a completely unresolved toxic-waste issue that we are handing down to the next hundred generations."

"not be capable of solving the global warming problem in the requisite time frame, nor can the billions of dollars required be justified since the same money, if applied to wind energy and efficiency, would reduce our reliance on fossil fuels far more quickly. Furthermore, nukes only provide electricity (about 20% of our TOTAL electric demand), whereas our major problem lies in the field of liquid fuels, which are used for industry, transportation and home and commercial heating."

"ecological footprint... nukes take up relatively little space to create relatively large amounts of power (100s of megawatts on few acres)"

" and will increasingly be a major contributor to air pollution and climate change, not to mention what its extraction does to the ground and nearby residents."

"the coal industry is in a rush to build as many new plants as possible before pollution safeguards are in place."

"In mountaintop removal mining, a coal company literally blasts apart the tops of mountains to reach thin seams of coal buried below. Common in places like Appalachia, this destructive mining puts communities at risk by contaminating drinking water supplies, destroying streams, and permanently reshaping and damaging the ecosystem and landscape."

SEE ALSO Sierra Club's anti-coal site.

We should first buy renewable energy or even hydroelectric power. Discover your alternatives by searching the EERE's Green Power map. Demand and support the development of sustainable power sources and conservation measures.


Red Craig said...

I'll go through your points in order.

It would help if you guessed what the original poster meant by Xtreme disaster. We saw what happened at Chernobyl: an inherently unstable reactor with its rudimentary safety systems disabled overheated and caught fire when untrained workers performed an unsafe experiment. Even so, the disaster, serious as it was, turned out to be on the same scale as routine disasters that we experience year in and year out. But Three Mile Island in the US had a serious accident, even a melted core, but did no harm to anyone, anywhere. That's because of the defense-in-depth design Western reactors have.

I can't guess why anyone would think wind energy could reduce CO2 emissions faster than nuclear energy can. Consider: a big wind turbine (rotor-tip height ~ 450 feet) would be rated at 1.5 MW and its average output would be about 500 KW. A 1000-MW nuclear power plant would average about 850,000 KW, so 1 nuke = 1700 big wind turbines. To generate all the electricity the US uses would require 870,000 big turbines. Alternatively, it would take 570 nuclear plants, compared to 104 that are operating now. But, of course, the biggest problem with wind power isn't just the massive construction effort, but its part-time nature. The simple truth is that we won't shut down all the homes and businesses when there isn't enough wind and sunlight to power them. We won't make people stay in their cold, dark houses. If nuclear energy isn't developed in a major way, the world will keep burning fossil fuels.

Actually, electricity accounts for 40% of the US's CO2 emissions. And electricity is the low-hanging fruit in this problem. Motor fuels are the high-hanging, and they hang very high indeed. We have to get all of the low-hanging fruit and then do the best we can with the other.

Your reiteration of the argument vastly understates the harm coal causes. Are you aware that thousands of Americans die every month from the air pollution generated by coal-burning power plants? Please see the Abt report, "The Particulate-Related Health Benefits of Reducing Power Plant Emissions." []. It's a long report, very technical; if you like, you can just look at the results table. Coal pollution is the main source of lead in the ocean; fish now are so poisoned with lead that people are advised to limit their consumption. When whales beach themselves and die the carcasses have to be treated as hazardous waste because of the heavy metals they contain.

Consider what nuclear gets us:

(1) An electricity source that doesn’t depend on wind or sunlight or the limited amount of energy storage available, and emits virtually no greenhouse gases. It could reduce CO2 emissions by 40%.

(2) An energy-efficient way to produce hydrogen, which could be used directly in automobiles and trucks or added to biofuels to make their production higher by a factor of three. Presently, transportation accounts for about 33% of CO2 emissions; all of that could be eliminated through conservation, electrification, and alternate fuels.

(3) A huge reduction in air pollution, lowered trade deficits, and freedom from Middle-East involvements.

Not only must we develop nuclear energy on a major scale, there is no valid reason not to.

Lu said...

Very interesting article from UTNE
Atomic Dreams

How the nuclear lobby is spinning liberals, lawmakers, and grassroots environmentalists

Which argues that nuclear energy is being strongly lobbied b/c there is a lot of money to be made from this... "Embedded in the 2005 Energy Bill was a provision granting the nuclear industry $13 billion in new tax credits and loan guarantees; $2 billion was set aside for the first utilities that filed applications for new plants. The subsidies allowed utilities, insurance companies, and investors to begin rethinking nuclear power’s future....

Currently, 104 nuclear power plants produce about 20 percent of the United States’ electricity. To make a real reduction in U.S. carbon emissions would require building as many as 250 additional power plants. To make significant cuts in global greenhouse gas emissions, the world’s nations would need to build 21 new reactors every year for the next 50 years. Given that it takes about 10 years to build a nuclear reactor, the first new nuclear plants wouldn’t start contributing to carbon reductions until nearly 2020. Too late to be effective, if you accept NASA climate scientist James Hansen’s prediction that we have only a decade to take action."