Good Old Coal

With the problems at the atomic power plant in Japan, the Greens and the Luddites are running around screeching and pulling their hair.  In an earlier post, I said that, when it comes to atomic power, we are straining at gnats.  Let me illustrate.

In Japan, as well as at 3-Mile Island, no one has died and the environment has sustained little damage.  But what about the chief alternative to atomic power: Coal?  We are so used to coal-fired power plants we forget how bad they are.  Here are some frightening statistics about good old coal.

Yesterday, Jo and I were reminiscing about our days driving the semi.  One of the things that came up were the two enormous coal-fired power plants we saw on a regular basis.  One was out in the middle of nowhere on I-40 somewhere in the flatlands of Arizona.  You could see the smokestack for miles — a good half-hour before you actually came to it.  Another was right outside Salt Lake City on I-80 with a smokestack every bit as tall as the one in Arizona.  In both cases, you could see their dirty brown plumes stretch downwind for tens of miles — all the way to the horizon.  These were just two in-your-face examples.  There are oodles more such plants hidden from direct view.
On a number of occasions, we saw 100-car coal trains heading for these plants.  So Pam and I wondered how much coal big plants like these consume.  So I looked it up; here are the numbers I found:
  • A 100-car train is standard for delivering coal.
  • Each car holds 100 tons.
  • A large modern plant (say 1,000 megawatts) under full load, needs one such train-full of coal, each day.  Older, less efficient plants (which are most of them), need between one and five such trains each day.
  • I’m not good at math, but at an average of three such trains/day, does not this work out to be 30,000 tons of coal per day, or 10,950,000 tons in a year?  For just three plants?
  • Most of the coal is converted to CO2, which goes up the stack.  Not only does this put CO2 into the atmosphere, but for every atom of carbon CO2 put into the atmosphere by combustion, it takes out two atoms of oxygen, i.e. the O2 in CO2, depleting our atmosphere of an element essential to animal life.  Even if you sequester the CO2 in underground chambers (Clean Coal) you are still depleting the atmosphere of oxygen.
  • The ashes consist silicon and poisonous heavy metals that are not usually buried.
  • During mining, the coal’s “overburden” (topsoil to you and me) is dumped into enormous ponds where it festers.
And we bitch about atomic power.  We need coal, clean or otherwise, like I need more cancer.

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