We heard a lot about “clean coal” during the recent campaign. Steven Chu, Obama’s choice for Energy Secretary, tells us “coal and nuclear power are going to be part of this country’s “energy mix” for the foreseeable future, in spite of a massive chorus of voices from the scientific community warning that coal will kill us and we need to quit using it now–or last year, if we could only do that. Some of these folks, such as James Hanson and James Lovelock, are of the opinion that nuclear power is, in fact, part of the proper response to climate change and petroleum depletion, but I think they are wrong and will tell you why in a moment or two. For now, let’s consider the oxymoron of “clean coal.”
Whoa, this just in: Lovelock now admits that “nuclear power is not a cure for climate change.”
The shibboleth of “clean coal” should have been washed away with the wave of coal ash slurry that flooded a rural Kingston, Tennessee neighborhood before finding its way into the Emory River, a tributary of the Tennessee River. This river system, in the heart of America, is now poisoned with–tada!: arsenic, barium, cadmium, chromium, lead, mercury, nickel and thallium. Ironically, one reason this sludge is so toxic is because of environmental regulations and new technologies that keep TVA from blowing the stuff out their smokestacks and polluting the air with it…so, instead, it gets concentrated and pollutes the ground. Not exactly what was intended, eh?
Dr. Carol Babyak, an Associate Professor of Chemistry at Appalachian State University, who helped analyze samples of the polluted area, said “I have never seen levels of arsenic, lead and copper this high in natural waters.” Dr. Shea Tuberty, who worked with her on the project, estimated that it would take “generations” for the water to return to nontoxic levels.
Hey, all the local residents have to do is avoid local spring and well water (since the spilled effluent has also soaked into the water table), not eat any fish that survive the poisoning of their environment, wash well after swimming in the river, and not breathe in any dust that gets blown up when the sludge dries out…for generations. Simple, huh?
And, let’s not forget, this sludge spill is not staying put. It’s working its way down the Tennessee River, and will eventually affect the Ohio, the Mississippi, and the Gulf of Mexico. But hey, the area where the Mississippi enters the Gulf is already a “dead zone” anyway, so some actual poison mixed into the oxygen-deprived water won’t hurt anything, will it?
This spill happened because a spell of heavy rain soaked an earthen dam and made it unstable. Who could imagine such a thing happening in Tennessee? Who could imagine that a bunch of “terrorists” (or whoever they were) would fly an airplane into a building? Who could imagine that there would be no “weapons of mass destruction” in Iraq? Who could imagine that a major hurricane would slam into New Orleans and breach the levees? Who could imagine that the Ponzi scheme of financing the U.S. economy on credit would ever have a rough encounter with reality and pop like a balloon hitting a hot stove?
The same crew of folks who couldn’t imagine this string of disasters and falsehoods do believe that, some day soon, “carbon capture” technology will be perfected that will enable us to suck up all the CO2 that is currently coming out of industrial smokestacks and “sequester” it it, like a Guantanamo prisoner, someplace where it will never be free again. Let’s look at what that would really take.
Here’s a visual aid: if you filled a balloon with one ton of carbon dioxide, the balloon would take up an area about ten yards wide, twenty-five yards long, and six feet high. That’s about one-tenth of a football field. Twenty tons of CO2 would cover a football field twelve feet deep. A football field (without the end zones) has an area of about nine-tenths of an acre. Now, picture five hundred million football fields. That’s four hundred and fifty million acres, or abut seven hundred thousand square miles. That’s about the area between Chicago, New Orleans, and the east coast of the US, covered twelve feet deep in CO2 balloons.. That’s how much carbon we’d need to capture every year to keep any more CO2 from getting into the atmosphere and warming the planet into the danger zone, at our current worldwide level of carbon emissions. Do I have to say that there isn’t that much room underground? It’s a small planet, and the caves all leak!
In case you’re wondering, about a fifth of the CO2 comes from the US, and another fifth from China. That means around forty percent of global carbon emission happens to supply the US market. Not bad for being such a small percentage of the world’s population, folks!
Another way to look at this is that the average CO2 emission per household in the US is sixty-one tons, enough to cover three football fields twelve feet deep in CO2 balloons. Who would have ever thought that we would need to capture that much CO2 to keep from roasting the planet?
I haven’t even touched on mining issues here. “Mountaintop removal” is a whole other story–but I will mention that the well-heeled and well-connected environmental organization Natural Resources Defense Council took a group of executives from the Bank of America on a tour of Appalachian strip mines, and what the execs saw shook them up so badly that they decided not to loan any more money for such projects. Even an old cynic like me finds that encouraging. I just wish it had happened a few decades ago.
As for nuclear power–first of all, the people who can’t even keep an ash pond from leaking are asking us to trust them with something far more toxic than coal ash. It may be possible to make the actual production of nuclear power safe–after all, it’s been twenty years since Chernobyl–but there are other technical, financial, and social reasons to just walk away from nuclear power.
Technically, the continued extraction of uranium is a health risk wherever it happens, which is, all too frequently, on the land of native people whose bodies and homeland are poisoned in the course of the extraction. Furthermore, we will likely be facing “peak uranium” in the next few decades. The price of uranium has increased by a factor of five in the last decade.
Financially, nuclear power is a very slow and expensive way to produce electricity. Even with a so-called “streamlined” approval process, which allows developers to use a bulldozer to overcome any objections to their plans, it takes a decade and fourteen billion dollars to build a new nuclear plant. TVA wants to do just that in Bellefonte, Alabama. Fourteen billion…hey, that’s chump change compared to what Congress is throwing at the banks…what’s the problem?
That’s fourteen billion dollars that won’t go into conservation, demand reduction, and decentralized power production, just like all those trillions the big banks are swallowing up is trillions that won’t be available to recreate a saner America. It’s too late to stop the bank giveaway, but The Solar Valley Coalition is running a contest called “How Would You Spend Fourteen Billion Dollars?” and I bet they’ll get some very good answers. It’s not too late to enter, if you’re interested in making a contribution. And hey, you might help talk TVA out of building a new nuke plant. If Bank of America can get talked out of funding strip mining, anything is possible, huh?
The last objection I have to nuclear power is what I would call “the sociology” of nuclear energy as a power source. It is a highly centralized system. The center, the power company, is of necessity a huge entity, supplying electricity to individuals, businesses, and industries, who all depend on it and are helpless without it. This is the model that has gotten us into the mess we are in, and it is the model that must be abandoned if we are to get out of that mess and into a saner future. I believe we need to become a society of interdependent equals if we are going to evolve as a species. This may sound mystical, but it boils down to the fact that we are not going to make it as a species unless each of us is smart enough to take responsibility for him or herself.
And speaking of taking responsibility for ourselves…it’s easy to sit here and wax indignant about all the messes TVA has made and wants to continue making, but we have to remember that, by using their services, we are all complicit in the pollution and destruction that pangs our consciences so deeply. We need to take what steps we can to unplug from this system–some of us can put up solar panels and pull out of the grid or sell energy back to it, but all of us can find ways to use less electricity. The Solar Valley Coalition’s contest will undoubtedly show that it would not be difficult to save more energy than the proposed new reactor would generate. Saving that electricity will take–not a one decision by the directors of TVA, but thousands of decisions all over Tennessee. Each of us is small, but when we move together, the earth shifts–and it’s shifting time, people. Let’s roll….
music: Brother Martin and the Intangibles, “Terrorists in the Heartland”