Coal versus Nuclear Power: Do You Like to Breathe?
A few weeks ago, Senators Joseph Lieberman (D., Conn.) and John McCain (R., Ariz.) tried to break the name-calling deadlock in Congress by beginning a serious, bipartisan effort to forge an effective national energy policy. Various bills on that subject are now moving through Congress. In their joint proposal, Lieberman and McCain seem to understand that only two options can support our present rate of national energy consumption while avoiding foreign control over sources: coal and nuclear power.
Of these two options, nuclear energy is by far the cleaner. You don’t need scientific instruments to see harm from burning coal; all you need is your nose and eyes.
Every time I cross the Mississippi from West to East, I note the change in the color, character and smell of the air. Every time I fly over St. Louis, I can smell sulfur dioxide from its power plants as I pass over at 30,000 feet. Three years ago, a friend of mine broke off purchasing retirement property near Chama, New Mexico, after finding the whole Chama Valley filled with coal pollution from the huge Four Corners Power Plant 100 miles upwind.
Of course China is today’s poster child for massive coal pollution. While in Hong Kong recently, I could hardly see across the strait, which had been clear as crystal fifteen years previously. The culprit was coal pollution from China. Friends who’ve lived in Hong Kong for decades said the pollution has been constant (except for long industrial holidays) and consistently getting worse for several years.
What most people don’t realize about the tradeoff between coal and nuclear energy is that environmental damage from coal is already horrific. Acid rain, mercury pollution of rivers and fish, an explosion of asthma in our cities, and global warming—these are only a few of the present consequences of burning the dirtiest fuel known to mankind. Even animal dung, a fuel used in the third world, burns more cleanly than coal; dung lacks the sulfur and heavy metals, like mercury, that so harm the biosphere.
While the probability of a serious nuclear accident is so small you need scientific notation to express it, the probability of human and environmental damage from burning coal is 100%. As I write these words, burning coal is polluting our air, damaging our children’s lungs and central nervous systems, and destroying our fish, trees and wildlife.
Under these circumstances, I’ve often scratched my head wondering why our nation so prefers the dirtiest fuel to one of the cleanest. France makes 77% of its electricity from nuclear power; Japan about 34%. For us—the nation that invented nuclear power—the fraction is far less, about 21%. Why?
The best answer, I think, is the persistent and colossal political stupidity of the American nuclear industry. The industry has shot itself in the foot so often with senseless opposition to sensible safety regulation that it’s a wonder it has any toes left. The recent near-disaster at the Davis-Besse power plant in Ohio is just the latest in long string of industry blunders.
It seems to me that four simple principles could undo much of the industry’s self-inflicted damage and allay the public’s present irrational fear of nuclear power. First, regulators should have nothing to do with promoting nuclear power or the nuclear industry. (Once the American public fully recognizes what coal is doing to our health, our skies, and our waters—let alone global warming—nuclear power should promote itself.) Therefore nuclear regulation should have a single, paramount goal: safety.
A simple invariable rule could avoid any real risk of disaster and reassure the public of the safety of a nuclear industry properly run. Expressed in lay terms, that rule would be: “When in doubt, shut it down.” If something goes wrong with a nuclear power plant—like the massive, unexplained corrosion in the containment cap at Davis-Besse—the rational response is to shut the plant down, find the cause of the problem and fix it.
A rule like that, enforced without fail by on-site federal regulators, could insure against any Chernobyl ever occurring here. In any event, new, safer designs for nuclear reactors make a Chernobyl-style meltdown all but impossible. Even if a catastrophic failure causes the fuel rods to melt, the new designs use gravity to divide the molten nuclear fuel into small, separate containers of sub-critical size, thereby stopping the chain reaction and preventing further meltdown.
A second principle of proper regulation is expertise. I suspect that at least some of the near-disasters of the American nuclear power industry have been caused by managers running nuclear power plants although they were trained primarily in running coal or oil-fired plants. That's a bit like asking an ox-cart driver from the third world to pilot an F-22. No one without a degree in nuclear engineering and at least ten years experience in operating nuclear plants should have his or her fingers anywhere near the "on-off" switch for such a plant. Any sensible regulatory law should say so. Maybe all nuclear plant managers also should be required, as a condition of licensure, to visit Chernobyl, which the Ukraine is now making into an exotic, if macabre, tourist destination.
Yet strict and intelligent regulation alone is not enough. There will always be motivation to circumvent or thwart safety rules if abiding by them can cause economic loss. That is why the nuclear industry so far has such a frightening safety record: it often did the wrong thing (like failing to shut the Davis-Besse plant down after discovering that an unknown source of corrosion had almost eaten through the containment cap) because doing the right thing would cost money. Therefore a vital third step in any effective regulatory scheme must be removing economic incentives to do the wrong thing.
Providing proper economic incentives for safety is not rocket science. All it would take is a new government-sponsored but privately financed insurance program, guaranteeing that a power utility would be reimbursed if it incurred economic loss from doing the right thing.
For example, consider the Davis-Besse situation. Engineers discovered that corrosion from an unknown source had eaten a hole nearly through the six-inch stainless-steel containment cap that is the public’s last line of defense against a release of radioactivity. Regulators and some engineers wanted to shut the plant down to find out what went wrong. The managers disagreed. They wanted the plant to remain running until the next regularly scheduled maintenance shut-down. Otherwise, they thought, the owners would incur extra (nonbudgeted) expenses for the unscheduled shut-down, start-up, and replacing the power that they’d promised the plant would provide in the interim.
But suppose government-sponsored, industry-funded insurance promised to reimburse the utility’s owners for all of those losses, as long as the cause for the shutdown was not a breach of regulations or the utility’s own fault? Then the owners would not oppose the unscheduled shutdown, and the engineers would take the safer course. Because the cause of the shutdown (unprecedented, unexplained containment-cap corrosion) was not the utility’s fault, the insurance would pay, the public would be safer, and the utility would be made whole.
Insurance like this would spread the economic risk of operating a nuclear power plant and insure that owners would never again make the same mistake as did Davis-Besse’s management: “trading off” prudent engineering practices against potential economic loss. Then the law and economic incentives would both be on the side of safety, along with engineering common sense: “when in doubt, shut it down, find out what went wrong, and fix it.” Insurance of this kind would eliminate the present, perverse economic incentive to “roll the dice” of nuclear disaster by keeping a plant running in ignorance of the causes of unexplained events. It would also allow engineers to make decisions that should be made by engineers, independent of economic influences.
Fourth and finally, a similar approach could reduce public (NIMBY) opposition to the safe disposal of nuclear waste. For example, the law could guarantee retroactive compensation for any property loss or economic loss occasioned by the unlikely event of a release of radioactivity. Compensation could be based on the usual condemnation formula, made retroactive to pre-accident values by using pre-accident evidence. In other words, economic loss occasioned by a release of radioactivity from a waste disposal site would be fully compensated based upon the value of property before the release. (The waste site operator might contribute to the premiums or compensation, as an additional incentive for safety.) For a small town like Yucca NV, the cost of this insurance should be well within the capability of the industry and private markets. The government could be a guarantor of last resort.
With sensible safeguards and insurance programs like these, our nation could realize the promise of abundant, safe and clean nuclear energy, just like France and Japan. The alternative is darker skies, lakes and rivers with sicker and more dangerous waters and fish, and cities that begin to resemble the hell-holes of some of China’s cities today.
Coal mine owners and coal advocates argue that our nation should invest massively in so-called "clean coal" technology. But there is no such thing, and they know it. If there were, private industry would have invested in it long ago, but private industry has refused to do so without government subsidy or guarantees. All there are is promises of future research, with no clear timeline for results. Coal advocates prove this point by their actions: they have repeatedly opposed sensible regulation of air pollution, knowing that there is no way to burn coal without polluting our air.
More fundamentally, there are three basic scientific reasons why chasing "clean coal" is a fool's errand. First, "coal" is a generic term for a bewildering variety of mineral forms, whose makeup varies from region to region and even from batch to batch. "Clean coal" technology made for one region may not work in another and may produce batch-specific air pollution. Second, there is no way to make coal into a clean-burning substance other than a liquid- or gas-phase decomposition process, i.e., dissolving it or burning it. In one case the impurities produce water and ground pollution, in the other air pollution. Finally, dissolving or burning coal, not to mention making the chemicals used in the dissolving or burning process, takes even more energy, which decreases the efficiency of power generation still further and produces yet more water or air pollution.
In contrast, nuclear power produces no air or water pollution in ordinary, safe operation. With sensible regulation and new plant design, there will never be another Chernobyl-style meltdown. The only downside of nuclear power will be a very small amount of radioactive solid waste, which we can dispose of with minimal risk. We can even insure that risk, for the benefit of those who live near nuclear waste disposal sites. The alternative is ever-increasing air, water and ground pollution, asthma in our cities, and a nation in which the clean, fresh smell of spring is a dying memory for all. The choice, ultimately, is ours. Do you like to breathe?