Nuclear vs. Coal: A Pollution Comparison

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Excerpted from Trashing the Planet by Dixy Lee Ray with Lou Guzzo:
First, comparing the effluents from a 1,000 megawatt electric (MWe) coal plant with a nuclear plant of similar size reveals that the coal plant produces carbon dioxide at a rate of 500 pounds per second or seven million tons per year; the nuclear plant produces none. The coal plant produces sulfur oxides at a rate of one ton every five minutes, 120,000 tons per year; the nuclear plant produces none. The coal plant produces nitrogen oxides equivalent to 200,000 automobiles, 20,000 tons per year; the nuclear plant produces none. The coal plant produces quantities of smoke whose large particles are generally filtered out, but the small, dangerous ones remain and are spread widely; the nuclear plant produces none. The coal plant produces more than 40 different organic compounds that are released without control to the atmosphere; the nuclear plant produces none. Finally, since all coal contains some uranium, radium, and thorium, coal plants release unmonitored amounts of radioactivity; the only radioactive element released to the atmosphere by nuclear plants in Krypton-85, a harmless, noble gas, which is released in minute quantities under strict control.

Turning to solid waste, it is produced in a coal-burning plant at a rate of 1,000 pounds per minute, or 750,000 tons per year; the annual amount of spent fuel from a nuclear plant is about 50 tons. The hazardous ingredients in coal ash include arsenic, mercury, cadmium, and lead, all of which maintain the same degree of toxicity forever. This material is discharged to the environment without controls. The nuclear plants' spent fuel continuously loses radioactivity, eventually decaying to background levels. Disposal of nuclear waste is strictly controlled. The annual amount of fuel required for a 1,000 megawatt coal-burning plant amounts to 38,000 rail cars of coal, three million tons per year; for a nuclear plant of similar size, six truckloads, or about 50 tons of fuel per year (and that includes the heavy metal-carrying casks), are all that are used...

Since many of the wastes from coal-burning plants are airborne, their ultimate disposal takes place on land, in water, and, of course, in people's lungs. Comparative risk studies put the health effects of coal burning at about 50,000 fatalities annually. From nuclear power there are none...

The lack of environmental effect in using nuclear power relates to the fact that the process does not involve chemical combustion and operates on the principle of containing wastes, not dispersing them.*

Expanding nuclear power capability seems to be the only logical choice.

*Emphasis mine.


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