Guest post by DV82XL. He is a Canadian chemist and materials scientist (and regular BNC commenter). An earlier relevant post by this author can be read here: An informed public is key to acceptance of nuclear energy.
I have been watching with some amusement the debate here at BNC surrounding the idea of a carbon price on CO2, which often seems to be a thinly veiled debate on climate forcing in general. Both sides have made both rational, and in my opinion, some irrational statements to support their stand. Lost in this, however, seems to be the realization that that using fossil-fuels has other impacts and costs that are not questioned as AGW is, and to my mind, make a case for the swift adoption of nuclear energy that is at least as strong. Leaving the CO2 issue aside, there is serious damage being done to the environment, and to human health, from the extraction and combustion of these fuels, topics that are being by-passed in this discussion.
For example, not only does the mining of coal lay waste to vast areas, rendering the land unfit for other uses, but also when coal surfaces are exposed and come in contact with water and air, sulfuric acid is formed. As water drains from the mine, the acid moves into the waterways, and as long as rain falls on the mine tailings the sulfuric acid production continues, whether the mine is still operating or not. This process is known as acid rock drainage (ARD) or acid mine drainage (AMD). If the coal is strip mined, the entire exposed seam leaches sulfuric acid, leaving the subsoil infertile on the surface and pollutes streams by acidifying and killing fish, plants, and aquatic animals which are sensitive to drastic pH shifts.
Strip mining, or surface mining of coal completely eliminates existing vegetation, destroys the genetic soil profile, displaces or destroys wildlife and habitat, degrades air quality, alters current land uses, and permanently changes the general topography of the area mined. The community of micro organisms and nutrient cycling processes are upset by movement, storage, and redistribution of soil. Generally, soil disturbance and associated compaction result in conditions conducive to erosion. Soil removal from the area to be surface mined alters or destroys many natural soil characteristics, reducing its productivity for agriculture and biodiversity.
Ground water supplies are adversely affected by surface mining. These impacts include drainage of usable water from shallow aquifers; lowering of water levels in adjacent areas and changes in flow directions within aquifers; contamination of usable aquifers below mining operations due to infiltration or percolation of poor quality mine water; and increased infiltration of precipitation. Where coal or carbonaceous shales are present, increased infiltration may result in increased runoff of poor quality water and erosion from spoil piles; recharge of poor quality water to shallow groundwater aquifers; or poor quality water flow to nearby streams. This may contaminate both ground water and nearby streams for long periods. Lakes formed in abandoned surface mining operations are more likely to be acid if there is coal or carbonaceous shale present in mine tailings, especially if these materials are near the surface and contain pyrites. Degradation of aquatic habitats has often been a major impact from surface mining and may be apparent to some degree many miles from a mining site. Sediment contamination of surface water is common with surface mining. Sediment yields may increase 1000 times over their former level as a direct result of strip mining.
Fires sometimes occur in coal beds underground. When coal beds are exposed, the fire risk is increased. Weathered coal can also increase ground temperatures if it is left on the surface. Almost all fires in solid coal are ignited by surface fires caused by people or lightning strikes however spontaneous combustion can occur when coal oxidizes and air flow is insufficient to dissipate heat. Where coal fires occur, there is attendant air pollution from emission of smoke and noxious fumes into the atmosphere. Coal seam fires may burn underground for decades, threatening destruction of forests, homes, schools, churches, roadways and other valuable infrastructure. Spontaneous combustion is common in coal stockpiles and refuse piles at mine sites.
Mine collapses, or mine subsidence has a potential for major effects aboveground, which are especially devastating in built-up areas. German underground coal-mining, especially in North Rhine-Westphalia, has damaged thousands of houses, for example.
The mining and burning of coal leads to slag heaps and substantial fly ash sludge storage ponds. Thousands of these all over the world will remain a potential hazard essentially forever, and several failures of the containment of these have had a devastating impact on both the surroundings and water resources nearby.
Nor are the negative effects of coal limited to the environment. Every year, coal miners die from diseases brought on by breathing hazardous coal dust. Black lung disease, also known as coal workers’ lung pneumonoconiosis, is caused by breathing in coal mine dust. If inhaled over an extended period of time, this dust can collect in the lungs and create scar tissue that obstructs airflow to the lungs. Despite laws, miners continue to die from this disease. As well, as coal production increases in an area, so does the incidence of chronic illness in nearby communities among segments of the population not directly involved with the industry.
According to the U.S. Clean Air Task Force (CATF), the adverse health consequences of breathing air pollution caused by emissions from utility power plants are severe and well documented in the published medical and scientific literature. In the report Dirty Air, Dirty Power: Mortality and Health Damage Due to Air Pollution from Power Plants CATF found that: Fine particulate matter pollution from U.S. power plants leads to more than 24,000 deaths each year; coal-fired power plant pollution is responsible for 38,200 non-fatal heart attacks per year; and people who live in metropolitan areas near coal-fired plants feel their impacts most acutely — their attributable death rates are much higher than areas with few or no coal-fired plants.
I have dwelt in detail with coal, because it seems to be the fuel mostly under discussion here; however the facts surrounding other fossil-fuels are not much better. We have recently been treated to the spectacle of the spill in the Gulf of Mexico, which it turns out wasn’t all that unique, and the issues with winning oil from the Tar Sands are not much better than those of coal. Hydrofracking to produce gas from shales already has caused serious problems where it is being tried, which will scale to the level of an environmental disaster of huge proportions if it is allowed to grow.
These impacts are not projections, they are not opinions, and they are not the problems of the future. They are directly observable in the here and now. Certainly it is clear that the magnitude of these impacts could never be offset by any reasonable tax levied against the burning of these fuels at cycle-end.
Since the early Seventies, (and prior, to some extent) industry in general has had to take increasing responsibility for its wastes. The bulk of the work that I preformed during the course of my career certainly was driven by this, ether by direct involvement, or indirectly due to changes that precipitated from these policies. In fact material science in general today is largely a product of efforts to avoid production and end-of-life waste issues for products. (That is the work being done in the trenches, which almost never get the press the sexy end of the field gets.) The point being that in the face of legislation, almost every industry has changed its process and procedures to reflect the new reality.
Now it is true that in many cases, industry has simply left jurisdictions with strict environmental laws, for those with more relaxed attitudes and this is a concern, but many have not, and even then the ‘pollution haven’ effect is not systematic, either across industries or between countries. This is because increased globalization leads to increased competition, which in turn pushes firms to invest in the latest and most efficient technologies and the most efficient technologies are at the same time, generally speaking, the ones that harm the environment less. This behavior is also pushed by fears of environmental impact trade restrictions, an idea gaining currency in many developed countries.
However, except for some minor efforts to reduce the nuisance-factor of their emissions, fossil-fuel burners have not addressed this issue with anything like the efforts other industries have.
Throughout history it has been recognized that there are times when governments must intervene and enact legislation which in essence demands that certain industrial activities must change, this is done by fiat, without regard for the direct economic impact that this will have. Industries are then expected to change to accommodate these laws, or cease operation. Did these cause upheavals? Yes they did, but the speed that the necessary changes were made was astonishing, and the larger impact on prices and labor which had been predicted to be dire, did not materialize, and in fact were just as likely to be positive. This is what is required in the energy sector.
I am not arguing against the impacts of anthropogenic global warming (AGW), or the validity of the theory, or disparaging the evidence for it. But it must be recognized that it has a large number of vocal detractors that are managing to devalue the idea as a driver of change, and they do not have to fight to win; all they need do is maintain the current stalemate to meet their objective of avoiding change. Being a person primarily interested in the promotion of nuclear energy, and someone working towards its wide adoption, I am beginning to question the utility (rather than the truth) of the AGW argument, and the idea that it can be fought with a carbon tax, as a step towards that goal.