The Lesser Evil: Nuclear or Coal?

Catalyst / by Veronique Greenwood /

Should we depend on coal or nuclear? Five experts discuss how clean coal works, how dangerous nuclear waste really is, and whether the root of the problem is money.

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The lesser evil: nuclear or coal?
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“If I compare the downsides of coal versus nuclear, I have to say I’d rather see renewed investment in nuclear power plant generation of electricity in this century than to build more coal plants,” said Energy Secretary Steven Chu in a NOVA special released recently. “There’s no question in my mind, that’s the lesser of the two evils.”

Wave, wind, sun—the buffet of renewable energy options is attractive. But the sheer amount of power generated by coal and fission cannot be rivaled by any current system of renewable energy. Between them, nuclear and coal provide more than 70 percent of US electricity. Renewable sources provided 9 percent as of 2007. While research is advancing by leaps and bounds, for the foreseeable future some dependence on these super-producers will be necessary. But when deciding between a new coal plant or a nuclear plant, a knot of difficult decisions, many of them decades old, rear their heads.

Coal-fired plants, of course, spew out CO2 and toxins like nitrous oxide and sulfur dioxide. The cumulative greenhouse effects promise catastrophic weather phenomena, widespread flooding, food shortage, displacement, and extinction. If we proceed with carbon-capture-and-storage technology, we will have to find a safe way to store the CO2; so far, the most promising method—burying it underground—seems to have its own dangerous side effects, including acidified ground water and weakened rock.

Nuclear plants produce radioisotopes with half-lives ranging from a few days to a few million years. Their pollution tends to occur in bursts—either in catastrophic accidents or waste leaks—but, as with CO2, the effects can propagate for decades or centuries. Storage and disposal of nuclear waste are longstanding problems, complicated by President Obama’s plan to abandon the long-term nuclear storage project at Yucca Mountain. Both uranium and coal mining wreak havoc on nearby communities. And then there is the looming danger of uranium finding its way into weapons.

With all this bearing down on us, renewable energy looks better than ever. But even so-called “renewable” sources take their toll. As Jesse Ausubel, director of Rockefeller’s Program for the Human Environment, has pointed out, the sheer amount of land and infrastructure needed to produce renewable power indicates that solar and wind will inflict their own costs without the massive production of energy yielded by nuclear or coal.

The questions when it comes to coal and nuclear are: Which process’s byproducts—CO2 or radioisotopes—are the least frightening? Which are we most likely to figure out a solution for in the near future, and which has the most pressing effects?

These aren’t new questions. But with a new administration ready to tack a new course during a crucial time in our response to climate change, the decision is real. Which do you think is the lesser of the two evils, and why? Do you see a way out of this devil’s choice?

Nuclear Power is the Only Alternative

Gwyneth Cravens is a novelist, writer, and former fiction editor at The New Yorker. She is the author of Power to Save the World, the culmination of a decade of research into nuclear power.

Deadly fossil fuel combustion and renewables’ inability to meet more than a fraction of growing electricity demand make nuclear power the only clean, large-scale alternative.

Realistically, we have only two large-scale sources of baseload electricity, which is the minimum 24/7 supply needed to run our civilization:

  • Fossil fuel combustion. It provides 70 percent of our electricity. Its emissions kill 24,000 Americans per year (70,000 deaths—that’s about 1,200 Chernobyls per year—if diesel and gasoline emissions are included). Coal burning alone annually emits 2.5 gigatons of CO2.
  • Commercial nuclear power. It contributes 21 percent, has never caused a single death to the public in the US, and, because it doesn’t burn anything, makes 73 percent of our virtually emissions-free electricity—the equivalent of annually taking 68 million automobiles off the road.

Wind and solar are too diffuse and intermittent to provide baseload, and they require backup, mainly from fossil fuels. Nuclear has about the same carbon footprint as wind but is astronomically more compact and efficient and operates at 90 percent capacity (coal: 53 percent capacity; wind: 34 percent). Nuclear waste is therefore tiny in volume. The world’s entire annual inventory could fit in one large townhouse. Nuclear waste recycling, done abroad, drastically reduces volume, radioactivity, and the need for long-term disposal. Civilian nuclear plants have never produced atomic bombs.

As far as mining is concerned, half our nuclear fuel comes from recycled Russian warheads. Despite vast American reserves, virtually no uranium mining has occurred here in decades. And uranium mining can’t compare in scale or destruction to mining of coal; uranium is 1 million times more energy dense, so far less ore is required. One low-enriched fuel pellet weighing the same as three pennies contains the energy equivalent of 1,780 pounds of coal.

And as far as pollution goes, 120 million tons of unregulated coal fly ash pours into thousands of American slurry pits each year. It contains toxic heavy metals and enough U-235 to run all of our 104 power reactors. Coal pollution exposes people within 50 miles to low-dose radiation—about 100 to 400 times greater than from a nuclear plant. Harmless—yet one tiny nuclear-plant water leak harboring less radioactivity than you’d get from eating a single banana unleashes misinformed sensationalism. 

Innovations lauded even by former anti-nukes—inherently-safe, advanced reactors that can consume spent fuel or that come in small, scalable modules and non-fissile, recyclable thorium fuel—will make nuclear power even greener.

Give Clean Coal a Chance—and You Might Fry Bigger Fish

K.J. Reddy researches capture and storage of flue gas CO2 and other fugitive gases at the School of Energy Resources at the University of Wyoming, where he is a professor. He is a founding member of the Council for Energy Research and Education Leaders (CEREL).

Coal reserves are crucial for providing global energy needs; more than 35 percent of our energy comes from coal and coal-fired plants. Capture and storage of CO2 from conventional coal-fired power plants is thus very important: Numerous plants (approximately 1,570 in US) are under operation, and we cannot abandon them. And let’s not forget CO2 comes from many sources—cement plants, paper mills, steel plants, incinerators for oil shale, municipal solid wastes, medical solid waste, not to mention cars. The technology we develop for use in coal plants could help us capture and sequester CO2 that’s already in the atmosphere.

The CO2-capture technologies scientists are exploring include integrated gasification combined cycle (IGCC), membrane separations, sorbent technologies involving pressure or temperature swing processes, and use of solvents such as monoethanolamine. The accompanying CO2-storage processes include subsurface pressure injection into geologic strata, saline aquifers, oil and gas reservoirs, and mineral carbonation.

We need tangible technologies to simultaneously capture and trap flue gas in minerals at point sources and to become part of a wider carbon capture/storage portfolio, helping in immediate reduction in anthropogenic CO2 emissions to the atmosphere. For example, we are working on a process that captures and stores flue gas CO2 and other pollutants (SO2 and Hg) at a coal-fired plant. In this process we directly trap flue gas CO2, SO2, and Hg permanently in ash, which is produced by the combustion process itself. This process is easy to apply to existing or new coal-fired power plants as a post-combustion unit. In our preliminary studies we were able to demonstrate instantaneous capture and storage of partial flue gas CO2, the first step towards large-scale demonstration projects.

In a way, this is similar to the acid rain problem, which we addressed through scrubbing SO2 from the air (Clean Air Act legislation). The CO2 issue is in many ways much more challenging than SO2 was—but I’m optimistic that we will come up with solutions and effective technologies to address anthropogenic CO2.

What are the True Costs of Nuclear and Coal?

Edwin Lyman, a physicist, is a senior scientist with the Union of Concerned Scientists’ Global Security Program in Washington, DC.

Both coal and nuclear power pose serious risks to human health and the environment, but there is no consistent way to compare their very different risks on an apples-to-apples basis. The Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) has developed an energy strategy, “Climate 2030: A National Blueprint for a Clean Energy Economy,” which shows that the United States can dramatically cut global-warming emissions and still enjoy robust economic growth over the next several decades without substantially increasing the use of either coal or nuclear power.
That said, nuclear energy poses a unique and potentially catastrophic threat. A serious accident or a terrorist attack at a typical US nuclear plant could result in a release of enough radioactive material to cause thousands of deaths within weeks from acute radiation syndrome, tens of thousands of deaths over decades from cancer, and hundreds of billions of dollars of property damage. The risks of such a disaster are still unacceptably high. According to data from the nuclear industry and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, the risk of a nuclear reactor core meltdown accident somewhere in the United States is nearly 1 percent per year.

Even more alarming, these figures don’t account for the potential for a successful terrorist attack. It is possible to design nuclear reactors that would be significantly safer and more secure than current or proposed plants, but they likely would be far more expensive. In addition, the technologies needed to produce nuclear fuel also can be used to produce nuclear weapons, and the agency chartered to safeguard against such misuse has neither the resources nor the political clout to effectively carry out its responsibilities.

The true costs of both nuclear energy and coal have been concealed by government subsidies and lax safety standards. We should not expand use of either unless both technologies comply with far more stringent requirements for safety, security, and environmental protection than those in place today. The cost of such measures for nuclear power (including enhanced protection against terrorist attacks) and coal (including full capture of carbon dioxide and other hazardous emissions) would make these options even less competitive with efficiency and renewable energy sources than they are today.

We Must Avoid a Faustian Bargain

Benjamin Sovacool has been an advisor and researcher at Oak Ridge National Laboratory, the NSF’s Electric Power Networks Efficiency and Security Program, and the DOE’s Climate Change Technology Program. He is an assistant professor at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy at the National University of Singapore.

There is no devil’s choice between nuclear power plants and coal-fired facilities because both are Faustian bargains. A broad assortment of other options, ranging from energy efficiency to renewable resources such as wind, solar, hydro, geothermal, and biomass, can more effectively respond to the energy challenges facing the United States. By far the cheapest, cleanest, and quickest strategy to meet America’s growing demand for electricity is energy efficiency and demand-side management.

Energy efficiency—getting more out of each unit of energy—means insulating our homes, retrofitting our businesses, changing light bulbs, purchasing more efficient appliances, streamlining industrial manufacturing processes, and driving cars with better fuel economy to get more bang out of each kilowatt-hour (kWh) or gallon of gasoline. Over the last 40 years, these efforts have saved more energy than any single source of existing electricity supply in the United States.

Demand-side management programs, when electric utilities implement energy-efficiency techniques and technologies, save electricity much cheaper than it can be created. In 2008 the average demand-side management program in the United States saved electricity at a cost of about 2.5 cents/kWh while the typical power plant produced electricity at above 6 cents/kWh.

Although we will always need a substantial amount of electricity no matter how efficient we are, renewable power technologies as they exist in the market today could quite easily meet three times the country’s 2007 electricity needs. Last year in the United States, for example, wind turbines and landfill gas generators produced electricity far cheaper than the newest coal and natural gas plants. Hydroelectric dams, solar thermal plants, and geothermal facilities provided billions of kilowatt-hours of baseload electricity. Scientific studies have confirmed that the country has so far tapped an infinitesimally small portion of this resource base.

In short, we don’t need to burden ourselves with polluting and hazardous power plants dependent on dirty, dangerous, and depletable supplies of coal and uranium. We can instead harness the power of energy efficiency and renewable power, sources of energy that are clean, safe, domestically available, nondepletable, and avoid making any sort of Faustian bargain.

Let’s Be Realistic About Coal

Victor Rudolph, a professor of chemical engineering, studies clean coal at the University of Queensland.

There is a good reason why coal has come to dominate the scene: It has been far and away the best way to generate electrical power. Best, that is, in terms of technical, economic, environmental, and social outcomes. New knowledge about coal’s climate impacts has seemed to shift the balance, but in truth the “new knowledge” has been well established for more than 20 years. Because of obfuscation and delay by assorted vested interests, essentially nothing has been done to give coal an environmental facelift.

But not doing anything should not be confused with not being able to do something. We know how to extract carbon dioxide from mixtures with other gases; how to transport gas in pipes; how to drill holes into the earth; and how to extract and inject fluids into those holes. These activities have been commercially known, proven, and practiced over many decades. Applying them to carbon dioxide for geosequestration, burying the gas permanently in the Earth, is no great stretch. In this sense, “clean coal” at the power station can be made to work. Realistically, we need to recognize that we have trillions of dollars already invested in coal-based electrical plants and it is illogical to trash this, as it is also logistically impossible to replace it—with anything—in the medium term.

How we proceed now, though, is less a question of technical ability than love of money.

Changing our electrical supply setup—whether it’s by cleaning up the emissions from coal or nuclear or the impacts of other sources is scary for a number of reasons: It’s scary that our political and commercial leaders have failed to act. It’s scary because energy is so big that any appreciable change will take a very long time. But it’s mainly scary to our wallets, because we need to pay for what we have up to now taken as a free good—the environment’s capacity to recover from our abuse of it.

The simple truth is that there are so many people in the world and the profligate citizens of the developed countries are so downright wasteful that the global balance is utterly destroyed. Until we recognize and address the cause and not just the symptoms, we are tinkering at the edges of a long series of globally connected problems. Energy provision is just the most visible and immediate.

Originally published July 2, 2009

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