Diatribes of Jay

This blog has essays on public policy. It shuns ideology and applies facts, logic and math to social problems. It has a subject-matter index, a list of recent posts, and permalinks at the ends of posts. Comments are moderated and may take time to appear.

20 June 2005

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?

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  • At Thursday, March 27, 2008 at 8:11:00 PM EDT, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    down with pollution

  • At Wednesday, March 10, 2010 at 3:06:00 AM EST, Anonymous Tiggles said…

    I believe nuclear is the way to go, even though it costs more per Kw/hr then coal (all costs considered).

  • At Wednesday, March 10, 2010 at 5:13:00 PM EST, Blogger Jay Dratler, Jr., Ph.D., J.D. said…

    Dear Tiggles,

    Coal isn’t cheaper than nuclear (or wind or solar, for that matter). The price of coal at the mine or in a commodities market doesn’t even come close to including all the costs of burning it to make electric power.

    Economists and policy makers understand this point, but coal producers keep confusing the public because they have a product to sell. For a more complete discussion of the issue, read this.


  • At Sunday, July 24, 2011 at 1:47:00 PM EDT, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    Let’s talk a little economics here people, since anything to do with safety seems to be so low on our radar…

    This article states ( http://new.bangordailynews.com/2011/03/16/politics/lepage-administration-still-eyeing-nuclear-despite-japan-crisis/ ):

    “…ratepayers pick up the estimated $6 million to $8 million annual tab to store and monitor the radioactive fuel…” from the Wiscasset plant. Since 1996, that is an average of $7 million x 15 years = $105 million. And it produced NO electricity for us in those 15 years, just cost us money.

    Well, since there is no other option for storing this poison, and it needs to be kept secure for the next 25,000 years… let’s do the arithmetic…that is $175,000,000,000, not counting for inflation. $175 Billion just in storage costs.

    That is just one plant, that produced electricity from 1972 to 1996, a real short 24 years…

    How many of those plants are there? 104 working ones in the US, a good percentage of which are near earthquake zones, BTW.

    I would rather see all of a large wind turbine farm blow over in a monster storm. Imagine: some twisted steel to haul out, several dozen trees knocked over, some soil erosion to repair—-versus-—thousands of cancer deaths, for decades and decades, hundreds of square miles as no-go zones, food supplies contaminated, etc. for a nuke plant.

    I have always said, since the days of the Three Mile Island debacle, if the true costs of nuclear energy electricity production were factored in to what a utility charged for that electricity, it would not be “too cheap to meter,” but too expensive to even produce.

    Factor in the true costs of the insurance policies a utility company SHOULD be required to carry to recompense victims after a major accident, and not policies artificially capped by federal legislation–you would not split one atom...

    Factor in the true costs of just the security services at a storage site for the waste products of nuclear electricity production, for thousands of years...

    Factor in the design, land, building, and maintenance of such a storage facility–none yet exists–and the true costs would bankrupt several nations…every nuclear plant in this country is storing its wastes onsite, lacking anyplace to send it. Imagine storing your own garbage output in the kitchen for the next number of years...

    If it takes a recession/depression to stop the building of these poison plants, then hurray!

    That is capitalism at work, and not corporate socialism.

    True costs, true costs.

    Do the research:


  • At Tuesday, July 26, 2011 at 10:14:00 PM EDT, Blogger Jay Dratler, Jr., Ph.D., J.D. said…

    Dear Anonymous,

    I agree with two points that are implicit but not stated in your comment. First, we should have one or more central repositories for storing nuclear waste. Storing it at operating plants ad hoc is costly and risky for a number of reasons and makes no sense.

    Second, the cost of nuclear power, like the cost of any kind of power, should include all “externalities,” i.e., all the costs that society bears. But that goes for coal, too. With all costs properly considered, nuclear wins easily over coal.

    The crux of the matter is that nuclear waste is solid and coal waste is gaseous. So nuclear waste, albeit dangerous, can be contained in tiny area relative to our huge Earth. Not so for coal waste, which diffuses throughout the atmosphere with local effects (asthma, particulate pollution, smog), regional effects (acid rain and mercury pollution of lakes and seas, making fish poisonous to eat) and global warming. Nuclear power does not contribute to global warming and so lacks long-term devastating effects.

    So as between coal and nuclear power, which is what my essay was about, nuclear wins hands down.

    That’s an important conclusion, because wind and solar power are both intermittent. Until we figure out how to store them locally or regionally, we will need “baseload” technologies that are reliable and not intermittent. So far, the only realistic alternatives are natural gas, nuclear and coal.

    This essay explains my preference for nuclear power over coal. Of course I would prefer wind and solar power, as would any competent engineer; but we have to find a way to overcome their intermittency before we can convert to them entirely.

    As for your “little economics,” they are indeed too little to draw conclusions. They have no referent or scale. They assume that we will continue to store waste separately at each plant, which no engineer or scientist would ever recommend doing long term. We are in the process of finding central repositories in salt domes that won’t require constant monitoring or maintenance, and, even if they fail, will affect only a small, sparsely populated area. For a good general review, see this recent feature on the PBS program “Need to Know.”

    As for your $175 billion estimate of annual waste-storage costs, let’s fact-check it. According to our EIA, total annual US electricity generation in 2009 was 3.95 petawatt-hours, or 3.95 quadrillion kilowatt-hours. Of that, 20%, or 790 billion kilowatt-hours,comes from nuclear plants. So, on a per-kilowatt hour basis, your $175 billion of cost would add 175/790 dollars, or 22 cents per kilowatt hour. But the mean cost of electric power in the US in 2009 was 9.82 cents per kilowatt-hour, and the state with the highest cost, Hawaii (at 21.21 cents per kilowatt-hour) had and has no nuclear power.

    Since utilities pass on all operating costs in their bills, I conclude that your rough figures don’t reflect reality, even in today’s imperfect world of local waste storage.

    More fundamentally, it seems that you’ve missed the point of this essay. Until we have nationwide means of using wind and solar power properly, including storage, our only realistic choices for producing electricity are natural gas (whose reserves will last only a decade or two), nuclear power and coal. If we use natural gas to replace coal, we will still have some global warming, and our gas will run out faster. So nuclear power, which is far better than coal, is the proper interim choice.




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