So this morning as I was getting ready for school and watching CNN I saw an ad for “clean” coal technology which claimed that “clean” coal technology has made a demonstrable impact on the environment. I found this a little fishy, since last I knew the earliest projected payoff from research into “clean” coal was 20-30 years from now. Granted, I haven’t done any reading on “clean” coal research since about last February, and it’s entirely possible there was a quantum leap in the technology while I was out to lunch, but I’m pretty sure one of my crazy liberal friends would have told me something about it. Anyway, it got me thinking about the real solution to the energy crisis: nuclear power!
In the nuclear business, there’s a saying that goes “the less you know the more you fear.” Essentially, the people who gripe about how horrible this truly amazing energy source is are all completely ignorant and have no right to bitch about a solution that could save the environment and create jobs. First of all, nuclear energy is more than 95% efficient, more than coal’s 90%, much more than wind’s max of 40%, and light years ahead of solar energy, which tops out at about 17%. Then there’s the footprint: the average nuclear energy facility takes up less than 1/3 of a square mile and can power an entire city. You’d need at least several hundred square miles worth of wind turbines or solar panels to get the same amount of energy. Also, for small developing communities, miniature reactors such as Toshiba’s 4S can be buried underground and maintained from a facility about the size of a city block. Then there’s the fact that it’s always on, unlike wind or solar, which require just the right conditions (I remember hearing that although wind’s peak efficiency is 40%, it usually operates around 10%, but I can’t remember the source so that may not be reliable). Also, government regulations stipulate that nuclear power facilities may not release more than 15 mrem of radiation into the surrounding area. Just to put that in perspective, the background radiation of the U.S. from radon and other naturally-occurring substances is 230-320 mrem. Breathing is a better was to get cancer than living near a nuclear facility.
But what about the risk of a major meltdown? Well, first of all, there has never been a true meltdown in more than 50 years of nuclear energy. Chernobyl was the worst nuclear incident (not counting the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, obviously), and that little snaffu only happened because the USSR was didn’t know what they were doing and the Chernobyl plant was so unsafe it’s a miracle it lasted as long as it did. Every nuclear country today has strict codes which would prevent anything on the scale of Chernobyl ever happening again. In all, there are only seven nuclear incidents at energy facilities I can actually think of. In about 60 years of developing the technology. There are or have been literally thousands of nuclear plants operating these past 50-60 years, and only 7 incidents. Furthermore, France, the world’s leader in nuclear energy, has never had an incident. They get 60% of their power from nuclear and shut down their last coal-burning plant in 2004 or 2005 (I forget; it was my freshman year of college). Their emissions are among the lowest in the industrialized world. Also, they make a killing selling nuclear-produced energy to neighboring countries. So does Italy. Sounds pretty good for the economy to me. We can either sell to Canada or buy from them; which do you want it to be?
About now I’m sure some ignorati is thinking I forgot about the whole “nuclear waste” issue. While it is true that nuclear reactors produce radioactive byproducts, I don’t like to call it “waste,” mainly because most of it is reusable. The only problem is that the U.S. government, which is loaded with ignorant nuclear-haters, will not fund research into the best way to reclaim this “waste.” Nuclear could be a renewable source of energy if only the government would cut the crap and get on the side of science.
In closing, I would like to say that I have heard some radical skeptics claim that radiation from Chernobyl has never been linked to a single case of cancer or a birth defect. Technically, this is true, but only because there’s no real way to tell exactly how most cancers or birth defects come about. The cancer and birth defect rates of people living in the area at the time were actually closer to the norm than one would think, but I am pretty sure it’s going too far to claim that it didnoharm. Also, there’s the issue of the people killed in the actual explosion. However, if you’re looking for damage to the environment, you’ll have to look elsewhere. The Chernobyl incident may have been the best thing to happen to the ecosystem in the area since humans first settled there. Now it is a beautiful forest absolutely thriving with wildlife, none of which seem to be suffering any ill effects from the remaining background radiation.
So, in a nutshell: coal is never clean and wind and solar are impractical. It’s time to go really green.