By Tom Still
MADISON – The tragic deaths of a dozen miners in West Virginia is only a fraction of the human misery linked to our addiction to burning coal. It’s time to take stock of the true costs of mining, hauling and burning 400 million tons of coal each year – and to embrace the far safer (and, ultimately, cheaper) choice of turning to nuclear energy.
Leaving aside the Chernobyl disaster in the former Soviet Union, where poor technology and even worse Communist-era bungling killed hundreds of people nearly 20 years ago, there simply hasn’t been a nuclear power plant accident that can match what happens routinely in the international coal industry. The Three Mile Island accident a quarter-century ago didn’t cost a single life in Pennsylvania, despite the feverish attempt of anti-nuclear advocates to prove otherwise.
But our consumption of coal is a daily killer. In the United States alone, where mine safety records are actually improving, some 650 coal miners have died in accidents since 1990. China is averaging about 6,000 coal mining deaths per year as it hacks ton after ton of coal out of the Earth’s crust to feed its ravenous energy appetite.
Then, of course, there’s the cost of transporting the coal – rail accidents take hundreds more lives each year – and the environmental damage to the water, land and wildlife around most mines. Scientists agree thousands of premature deaths in the United States alone each year are linked to burning coal, and that a dangerous build-up of greenhouse gases is a byproduct of burning coal and other fossil fuels.
Want another lump of coal in your stocking? A typical coal-fired plant releases 100 times more radioactive material than an equivalent nuclear reactor – straight into the air, not into a guarded and enclosed storage site.
There are choices. Yes, conservation can help. Yes, so can some renewable energy sources, if you don’t mind that a 1,000-megawatt solar photovoltaic generation plant would cover 60 square miles of land with panes… or that 300 square miles of wind turbines would be required to match the output of a typical electrical generating plant. That’s before transmission lines are built from where the wind blows to where the power is needed.
Quietly, but steadily, the world is turning back to nuclear power for answers. There is a growing recognition that the risks and costs associated with nuclear power are far more manageable and economically defensible than burning coal or (since the late 1990s) a huge run-up in natural gas-fired plants.
If you’re worried about global climate change, and you should be, nuclear power is part of the long-term solution. Nuclear power plants release no noxious gases or lung-damaging dust into the air. They are reliable, with an enviable post-Three Mile Island safety record in this country and elsewhere. They are already widely used, with more than 100 nuclear generating plants in the United States alone. In France, Japan and elsewhere, the percentage of electricity generated by nuclear power far exceeds America’s 20 percent. And they fit neatly into the existing grid of transmission lines.
“Radiation containment, waste disposal, and nuclear weapons proliferation are manageable problems in a way that global warming is not,” wrote Peter Schwartz and Spencer Reiss in “Wired” magazine. “Unlike the usual green alternatives – water, wind, solar, and biomass – nuclear energy is here, now, in industrial quantities. Sure, nuke plants are expensive to build… but they start to look cheap when you factor in the true cost to people and the planet of burning fossil fuels. And nuclear is our best hope for cleanly and efficiently generating hydrogen, which would end our other ugly hydrocarbon addiction: dependence on gasoline and diesel for transport.”
Closer to home, the associate dean for research at UW-Madison’s College of Engineering believes “there is genuine cause for optimism” regarding the future of nuclear power. Dr. Gerald Kulcinski notes that a coalition of 10 nations plus the European Union are studying six concepts for the next generation of nuclear plants, including technologies that could produce electricity and enough hydrogen to fuel the vaunted “hydrogen economy.” The notion of reprocessing nuclear fuel (a concept killed by then-President Carter for all the wrong reasons) is also back.
Innovation is returning to nuclear energy as more scientists and environmentalists realize it’s a sustainable, safe and economical alternative to fossil fuels. The deaths of those West Virginia miners are just the tip of the shaft when it comes to measuring coal’s full costs.
Still is president of the Wisconsin Technology Council. He is the former associate editor of the WisconsinState Journal in Madison.