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Matus1976 Blog - Philosophy, Science, Politics, Invention
Nuclear Power vs Coal Power
Many people consider Uranium and subsequently nuclear power to be worse, over all, than coal or other fossil fuels. They claim, for various reasons, including mining, refining, storage, and disposal; that nuclear power is worse than coal, but the reality is that in all areas Uranium and Fission power far outshine coal power.
Lets take a quick look at the Energy Density of these sources of energy to start with.
Coal - ~6,150 kilowatt-hours (kWh)/ton
Uranium – 2,000,000,000 kWh/ton
Uranium, Fast Breeder reactors (up to 100x more) - 200,000,000,000 kWh/ton
Energy density is measured in power divided by mass of a material, so when we say that Coal has 6,150 Kilowatt-hours per ton, it means that one ton of coal will produce 6,150 kW for one hour, or 615 kW for 10 hours, etc. To compare this with a typical piece of home equipment, say a television, a television might consume 500W of power when in operation, if run for one hour that would be 500 watt – hours. Two televisions would then be 1 kilowatt – hour. So one ton of coal would power 12,300 televisions for 1 hour. Current energy costs (which you can read in your electric bill) hover around 10 – 15 cents per kilowatt hour.
As noted above, Uranium, per ton, produces more than 300,000 times the amount of energy that coal does. What, exactly, makes a material with 300,000 times as much energy as coal 'uneconomical' then? Is uranium 300,000 times more difficult to mine and obtain? 300,000 times more expensive to dispose of? Will it kill 300,000 times more people? The answer, of course, even combining all the complexities of nuclear power, is a resounding NO. Lets compare Uranium Fission, which generates about 15% of US power, with Coal generated power, which generated 80% of the US’s power.
Claim: Coal poses almost no hazard for human health, except when swallowed or hit on the head and therefore doesn't have to be kept safe and secured at all times.-
Certainly NOT true, the atmospheric irritants emitted by the combustion of coal and their effects include:
- Sulphur dioxide (SO2) - respiratory disorders, impaired breathing
- Nitrous oxide (NOx) - respiratory disorders, infections, pulmonary diseases
- Carbon monoxide (CO) - fatal angina, various other effects
- Ozone (O3) - respiratory disorders, impaired breathing, asthma, edema
- Particulate matter (PM10) - various toxic particle (organic matter, carbon, mineral dusts, metal oxides and sulphates and nitrate salts) effects, main
mortality factor due to fossil fuels
- Toxic substances, heavy metals - specific substance effects
All of these combustion products of fossil fuels are estimated by the WHO in its 1997 report on sustainable development, to account for 6% of the total 50 million annual global deaths. That's approximately 3 million deaths *every year* from atmospheric pollutants released from the combustion of fossil fuels. These are real people dying painful deaths every year. 3 million. Outdoor air pollution in the U.S. due to particulate pollution alone was estimated by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in 1997 to cause at least 20,000 premature deaths each year. 3rd world countries, many of which cook on wood or dung fired stoves, fare much worse, and are some of the places that would benefit most from cheap electricity generated by a full fledged global nuclear infrastructure.
Claim: Coal is not suitable for deadly weapons and therefore of no value for villains of any kind, including despotic dictators -
True of course, coal has little intrinsic value to oppressive regimes, unlike Nuclear power which is a stepping stone to nuclear weapons. If 'suitability for deadly weapons' was the only consideration of what type of power source should be utilized, you could make a strong case against nuclear and for coal. However, other factors include a) cost b) number of people it kills every year d) monopolistic domination potentials etc. etc. Because Uranium fission holds 300,000 times as much energy, it is far more cost effective, makes electricity available to more people at less of a cost, and consequently directly raises their standards of living. Coal kills many people per year, not only in frequent large accidents (which happen most often in mines) but slowly and spread out over the globe. Coal and oil, because they are present in small areas in dense qualities and require little technology to utilize, easily facilitate the rise to power of oppressive regimes. Most of the worlds Oil is in the middle east, where the exports have financially supported the oppressive rulers of that region, every single one of which is a brutal oppressive dictatorship or theocracy. Luckily for many people the worlds largest coal deposits happened to be in the lands that were free-er earlier on, in the UK and in the US. The US alone has a coal field that is the size of the UK. However the vast coal fields in Europe fueled the Nazi war machine. So while it is more difficult for an individual to utilize any aspect of coal as a weapon, it’s extraordinarily easy for governments to do so, and history shows us that governments have killed far more people than individual terrorists and even wars have
Claim: The by-products of coal can be put back without any hazard for the biosphere. Coal ashes are not dangerous and does not need to be kept off our biosphere for thousands of years.-
Again, certainly NOT true. Billions of tons of harmful chemicals and radioactive uranium are dumped into the air during the process of burning coal, even in highly advanced modern coal burning plants. Additionally other heavy metals such as arsenic, cadmium, cobalt, lead, mercury, nickel and vanadium are present in coal ash. In fact living near a coal burning power plant, even a modern hi tech one, is far more hazardous to your health than living near a nuclear power plant. The background radiation levels are always higher around coal plants than nuclear plants specifically because coal plants are allowed to dump their waste into the air, which, again, includes radioactive uranium ash. In fact a typical coal plant actually chemically burns and releases into the air more Uranium than is used in a comparable nuclear reactor, as fuel. Indeed, you could put a nuclear reactor on the smokestack of a coal plant and generate more power than the was generated from the coal. Remember, one pound of Uranium generates as much energy as more than 300,000 pounds of coal.
Claim: Even a very large malfunction in a coal fired power plant could not devastate a large area, cost millions of lives and billions of Euros (please read about the effects of Tschernobyl '86 in FSU and Europe).
Anti Nuclear advocates love to point to Chernobyl as an example of the dangers posed by nuclear reactors. However Chernobyl killed 31 people when a pressurized steam channel blew (which was not even a chemical explosion, let alone a nuclear one) and released approx 6% of the radioactive contents of the reactor. The accident resulted in 31 short term deaths, with 28 due to extremely high radiation exposures. Additionally, some 200,000 clean up workers received average exposures of twice the yearly permitted, and a few thousand more received ten times the permitted yearly doses. Of the 116,000 nearby residents evacuated, 95% received less than the average of the fist group of cleanup workers. A remaining 400,000 received significantly less than that. For the 1,116,000 total affected out of the workers, evacuees, and nearby residents, the predicted long term radiation induced cancer deaths and normally non-fatal thyroid cancers are projected to be some 3,500. Mostly later in life. A terrible toll of course, but this is about how many people are killed from the combustion products of fossil fuels every 12 hours. Most of these deaths from the Chernobyl incident could have been avoided had the Soviet government acknowledged the nuclear nature of the accident and administered the iodide pills it had all ready stockpiled for just such an incident. Additionally, this reactor would have never been built, licensed, or operated in any country that actually cared about its people, unlike the Soviet Union, which had a long track record of sacrificing millions for 'the good of the state'.
In addition to the estimated 3 million annual deaths from atmospheric pollutants many people are killed from coal mining explosions, natural gas explosions, and obviously the many wars fought over and related to Oil, which in fact runs most of the world. Here are some of the worst coal mining disasters.
- Liaoning mine disaster, Fuxin, People's Republic of China (February 14, 2005), 210 reported killed.
- Sunshine Mine disaster, Kellogg, Idaho, United States, 91 killed (May, 1972)
- Buffalo Creek flood, Logan County, West Virginia, United States, 125 killed (February 26, 1972)
- Mina de Barroterán Coal Mine disaster, Coahuila, Mexico, (March 31, 1969), 176 died. Mexico's second worst coal mine disaster.
- Luisenthal Mine disaster (near Völklingen), Germany (February 7, 1962), 299 killed
- Marcinelle, Belgium, 262 killed (August 8, 1956)
- Gresford, Wrexham, 266 killed (September 1934)
- Hillcrest mine disaster, Hillcrest, Alberta, Canada, 189 killed (June 19, 1914). Canada's worst mine disaster
- Courričres mine disaster, Courričre, France, 1099 killed (March, 1906)
- Hanna, Wyoming, United States, Union Pacific Coal Company, Mine No. 1, 234 killed (June 30, 1903)
See a full list at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_disasters#Mining_disasters
- Dam failures and overtopping have caused thousands of deaths and massive disruption in social and economic activities with the displacement of entire towns - the Varont dam overtopping in Italy and dam failures in Gujarat and Orissa in India are three such examples, each with several thousand fatalities.
- Explosions and major fires in the oil and gas industry have involved both occupational and public fatalities and injuries. A pipeline gas leak
explosion in the Urals involved 500 fatalities.
- There are estimated to be a few hundred CO related deaths every year in the US due to faulty or inefficient fossil fuel burning home heating systems.
At this point, one might suggest that while nuclear energy production is relatively the safest form of energy, the weapons made from nuclear power have killed 100,000’s of thousands. True enough, the Hiroshima and Nagasaki blasts killed an estimated 400,000 people. But in considering these deaths as a consequence of nuclear power, we must all consider the deaths that came from the utilization of fossil fuels. How many people have been killed by conventional explosives in all wars in all of history? How many have been killed by the military industrial segments of brutal nations that run on these fossil fuels? The Japanese invasion of Manchuria, very obviously powered by Oil, Coal, and gunpowder, saw 400,000 people killed in the infamous “Rape of Nanking” alone. In fact, all throughout history we have seen a continual rise in the number of people killed in war, both as an absolute and as a percentage of the population, until 1945, when the number plummeted. Even after the use of nuclear weapons in war, and many subsequent brutal wars, the number of war dead still continues to fall. Fortunately, Nuclear weapons have had the effect of taming wars so far.
Claim: The byproducts of Nuclear power can be used for Terrorism
Indeed, and many many things can be used for Terrorism. Oil Wells, for instance, can be set ablaze, burning self sufficiently for months or years with devastating environmental effects. A typical Liquefied Natural Gas tanker has the explosive capacity of a small nuclear bomb. How difficult does one really think it would be to detonate a single hulled tanker full of LNG which contains hundreds of thousands of tons of fuel? How many of these tankers sit unguarded in ports all over the world? Which is more rational to protect against terrorism, a few well designed and guarded nuclear power plants, which can even be moved underground, or tens of thousands of gigantic bombs in the form of gas lines, gas tanks, tankers, and fuel storage facilities? Nuclear plants generate so much power that an entire nations energy supply can come from a few dozen of them set in areas far from dense population centers and well guarded.
Consider that unused, uranium still sits in the earth undergoing fission anyway, producing radioactive elements and heat, which is part of what warms the internal parts of the earth. In fact, a host of still unexplained observations about the Earth has led some physicists to suggest the core of the earth is actually a giant nuclear fission reactor. The theory was a cover feature in Discover magazine in August 2002. http://www.discover.com/issues/aug-02/cover/
Additionally, many technological developments have occurred in nuclear reactor design, including ceramic coated uranium pellets, which keep the uranium spaced out far enough to generate a controlled amount of eat and which can not be melted by the temperatures produced, completely negating the need for any active cooling system and making ‘meltdowns’ a physical impossibility. Further, other types of reactors, called “Fast Breeder” reactors can create more fuel from the waste products of the nuclear fission reaction, so much so that some physicists estimate that up to 100 times as much energy can be generated, meaning entire nations could be run on a handful of nuclear power plants.
Coal generated power kills thousands of people every year directly, and millions of people indirectly. It is far more dangerous, hazardous, and environmentally devastating than Nuclear power; generating essentially more than 300,000 times as much pollution as a comparable amount of energy generated from Nuclear sources does. If you are concerned about global warming from man made carbon dioxide, then Nuclear power is the only way to generate power without generating green houses gases. This is why world renowned environmentalist James Lovelock cites Nuclear power as one of the key solutions to global warming and why Greenpeace founding member Patrick Moore now says he was wrong about opposing nuclear power for the past 30 years and is now a nuclear power advocate.
Compared with every other form of wide scale energy production (hydro-electric, oil, coal) Nuclear is by far the safest form of energy creation yet used by man. So where is our Nuclear infrastructure? If Nuclear power makes so much more sense, why does it not supply the majority of our energy? Instead we are dependant on Coal and imported Oil supplies from brutally oppressive and murderous terrorist sponsoring regimes all over the world, who sustain their oppression only from their global oil proceeds. The reason is that an irrational and unscientific fear of Nuclear power was promulgated by a handful of influential public figures. While a healthy scientific assessment of things is always valid, this has gone overboard and has, literally, scared millions of people to death about nuclear power. We have been scared so much with the unscientific claims of potential deaths caused by nuclear power that it has been illegal to build any new nuclear power plants in this nation since the Carter administration, all the while millions of people worldwide choke on the soot, heavy metals, and radioactive ash pumped into the air because of the scare mongering of unscientific environmentalists, who while hyping up invalid fears of the environmental impact of nuclear plants are ignoring the millions of deaths caused by the inhalation from the combustion products of fossil fuels.
We need to wake up and smell the collective radioactive ash. Nuclear power is safe, reliable, and will free the western world from the tyrannical noose of the murderously brutal middle east. A few well guarded breeder reactor plants could provide a majority of the worlds power. These same plants could electrolyze water to provide clean drinking water and hydrogen as fuel for a 'hydrogen economy' or, at least, create synthetic fuels through sabatier cells and use existing hydrocarbon infrastructures but not contribute to greenhouse gas increases, as the sabatier cell needs CO2 from the atmosphere. Implementing such at system until fusion becomes viable is the only real, viable, practical method of maintaining exceptional standards of living and a healthy environment. Reducing the global standard of living is not an option, as many millions in third world countries need energy, and lots of it, to get out of poverty. Even small increases in the costs of energy will have devastating impacts on the poverty stricken 3rd world which depends on cheap food generated from the energy intensive agricultural industry to survive The ideological intellectually dishonest endorsement of fossil fuels over nuclear power leads to millions of deaths every year, continues to perpetuate global instability through propping up murderous regimes, and destroys the environment through a flagrant un scientific hysteria. Nuclear power is clean, safe, and cheap.