Nuclear Power's Bad Rap: Coal Is Far More Deadly


Mortality risks associate with major categories of electrical power generation. Image credit:New Scientist

Every nuclear power plant failure, regardless of resulting mortality, breathes new life into the dread the whole world shared during the Cold War. Iranian government chest-thumping and political fear mongering about dirty bomb dangers have infected new generations with dread.

Coal is more dangerous, overall, than The Bomb and The Nuc.
Everyone seems to forget that coal burning constantly emits an uncontrolled stream of mercury and radionuclides. There are direct and indirect respiratory impacts from the constant stream of particulate stack emissions from all forms of coal burning. Respiratory impacts of coal burning are widened by the tall boiler stacks that are a standard means of diluting the impacts. The result is as shown above.As a clear-headed Phil McKenna points out in his New Scientist piece:

Fine particles from coal power plants kill an estimated 13,200 people each year in the US alone, according to the Boston-based Clean Air Task Force (The Toll from Coal, 2010). Additional fatalities come from mining and transporting coal, and other forms of pollution associated with coal. In contrast, the International Atomic Energy Agency and the UN estimate that the death toll from cancer following the 1986 meltdown at Chernobyl will reach around 9000.
National governments and scientific organizations are scrambling now to have high level seminars and "work groups" of nuclear experts who will recommend what to do to further increase the overall safety of nuclear power - hopefully they will take a life cycle view of environmental safety.

Why don't they do the same with coal? In fact, as this Scientific American article title lays out clearly, Coal Ash Is More Radioactive than Nuclear Waste.

Let's get a grip.
A paranoid focus on nuclear power is a distraction from where the more significant, ongoing risks of electric power generation lie.

Of course nuclear power plant siting criteria and plant designs have to be improved. However, something far larger is at stake when we fearfully focus on nuclear power. We become irrational. Like Tea Partiers instead of strategically focused, rational beings.

Environmental activist organizations are being profiled as 'stiffening their semi-lapsed opposition' to nuclear power. This kind of spin reporting is all about process. What we need to focus on is outcomes: not process; not spin. Knock it off you guys.

Serious minded risk managers of all stripes need only to glance at the above chart to see what the real long term priorities are.

Important caveats.
Hydroelectric dams and generation facilities need to be constantly maintained and inspected for safety, even if decommissioned. No different than a nuc. Any US House or Senate member who votes to cut the budget for Federal agencies responsible for dam safety oversight - USAE, BLM, EPA, USGS, etc. had better think twice. Otherwise members will have to answer for the 'who'd have thought?' outcome.

"We're broke." doesn't cut it. We are exposed to increased extremes of weather, right?

Natural gas, including what is produced by fracking, always contains some amount of mercury and that mercury is emitted as vapor when burned.

Mercury is generally scrubbed from natural gas sold into domestic markets so we don't turn ourselves into the Mad Hatter while cooking on a gas range. But for power generation, natural gas is a serious potential source of mercury. No apologies to the gas lobby producing all those lovely ads on TeeVee. This needs to be confronted and managed.

Ancient natural gas pipelines and maintenance/inspection needs: same deal.

Update:when I think about the so-called 'budget balancing' process currently underway in the US House of Representatives, a process which includes numerous legislative "riders" designed specifically to undercut the ability of USEPA to enforce longstanding environmental protections - the curtailing of coal emissions especially - it is so dismaying. Let's see if those know-nothing legislators have the guts, in the face of the current Japanese nuclear tragedy, to "defund" the US' Nuclear Regulatory Commission.

Most dismaying are those 20-something Congressional staffers with degrees in law or political science, I'm guessing, who write in ideas such as the one now included in a budget rider: to strike from the Clean Air Act all occurrences of the word "arctic." The lot of them are fossil fuel mercenaries with absolutely no idea of the dangers they create.

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