Experts Debate Energy Usage of the Lesser Evil: Nuclear vs. Coal

Earlier this month, the American science magazine Seed conducted an online panel discussion on which energy source is the least evil.

In the United States, unlike Europe, there are only 104 nuclear reactors — representing about 20 percent of all domestic energy output. Despite some recent activity of energy plants applying to build new nuclear stations, there hasn’t been construction of a new nuclear plant in nearly three decades.

Coal, of course, is a dirty fuel. It pollutes, and contributes to global climate change. In short, it’s a 19th century technology in a 21st century world. But what if we sequester the carbon from it — there’s not-so-great side effects, too.

So, what do the experts say?

One writer, Gwyneth Cravens, who has done extensive research on the nuclear industry argues for going nuclear:

“Nuclear has about the same carbon footprint as wind but is astronomically more compact and efficient and operates at 90 percent capacity (coal: 53 percent capacity; wind: 34 percent). Nuclear waste is therefore tiny in volume. The world’s entire annual inventory could fit in one large townhouse. Nuclear waste recycling, done abroad, drastically reduces volume, radioactivity, and the need for long-term disposal. Civilian nuclear plants have never produced atomic bombs.”

K.J. Reddy teaches at the University of Wyoming and argues for clean coal:

We need tangible technologies to simultaneously capture and trap flue gas in minerals at point sources and to become part of a wider carbon capture/storage portfolio, helping in immediate reduction in anthropogenic CO2 emissions to the atmosphere. For example, we are working on a process that captures and stores flue gas CO2 and other pollutants (SO2 and Hg) at a coal-fired plant. In this process we directly trap flue gas CO2, SO2, and Hg permanently in ash, which is produced by the combustion process itself. This process is easy to apply to existing or new coal-fired power plants as a post-combustion unit. In our preliminary studies we were able to demonstrate instantaneous capture and storage of partial flue gas CO2, the first step towards large-scale demonstration projects.

Edwin Lyman, a physicist, and senior scientist with the Union of Concerned Scientists’ Global Security Program in Washington, DC., argues for neither:

The true costs of both nuclear energy and coal have been concealed by government subsidies and lax safety standards. We should not expand use of either unless both technologies comply with far more stringent requirements for safety, security, and environmental protection than those in place today. The cost of such measures for nuclear power (including enhanced protection against terrorist attacks) and coal (including full capture of carbon dioxide and other hazardous emissions) would make these options even less competitive with efficiency and renewable energy sources than they are today.

Benjamin Sovacool, a former advisor and researcher at Oak Ridge National Laboratory, the NSF’s Electric Power Networks Efficiency and Security Program, and current assistant professor at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy at the National University of Singapore, calls for Americans to be more energy efficient:

In short, we don’t need to burden ourselves with polluting and hazardous power plants dependent on dirty, dangerous, and depletable supplies of coal and uranium. We can instead harness the power of energy efficiency and renewable power, sources of energy that are clean, safe, domestically available, nondepletable, and avoid making any sort of Faustian bargain.

Finally, Victor Rudolph, a professor of chemical engineering at the University of Queensland, argues for sticking with coal, but not for the reason you might think:

In this sense, “clean coal” at the power station can be made to work. Realistically, we need to recognize that we have trillions of dollars already invested in coal-based electrical plants and it is illogical to trash this, as it is also logistically impossible to replace it—with anything—in the medium term.

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Visitors from Indonesia, February 2012Cuba has conditions for wind power. Credit: Jorge Luis Baños/IPSSolar panels in the Cuban countryside. Credit: Jorge Luis Baños/IPSBagasse returns to Cuba's boilers. Credit: Jorge Luis Baños/IPSLuis Bérriz, a renewable energy advocate performing control tasks. Credit: Patricia Grogg/IPSEdward Davey, Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change
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