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In the News The Mind Reels...

December 14, 2009

VIEW: Ever glimpsed this -- America's incredible industrial and transportation
network for coal? It all gets down to a simple thing: using coal to make water boil and produce electricity.

The coal train delivers its load to a power plant where it's crushed into very fine powder-like dust which is then blown into a furnace where the dust ignites, boiling the water that produces the steam that spins the turbines that produce the electricity.

A 19th century concept that two centuries later is providing half our country's power needs. Every man, woman and child burns 20 pounds of coal a day.

Here's the full report, HEAT, and our interview with Jeff Goodell, an expert on the world's dependence on coal. And view the full program here.



I have always known we need to tap into Nuclear and coal reserves. When people say they are reducing their carbon imprint or are going green, they sound like they have the right intentions (hope), but not the right solutions (reality).

Brian / December 17, 2009 12:06 AM

Things that can't go on forever don't. The reality we've created by pretending they could is all the evidence we need to change our ways, but that won't happen if we leave the decisions to Wall Street.

Jay Taber / December 19, 2009 10:53 PM

I liked it. So much useful material. I read with great interest.

cheap lasix / December 20, 2009 8:08 PM

I'm sorry, but coal is just wrong. No, of course we can't pull the entire East Coast off coal in one day, but we need a plan to transition them off it. It will NOT remain cheap as other economies become as advanced as we are. Mining coal destroys the vital wetlands, streams, forests, and mountains we need to regulate climate and maintain our American culture. Burning it releases mercury (a portion of which arrives where I live, in Alaska) and huge amounts of CO2. There IS NO CLEAN COAL. Carbon sequestration is a research project, not a known, and certainly not an economic, technology.

Nuclear? Fine -- good baseload, no CO2. Let's just make sure groundwater isn't contaminated during the mining process.

Kendra Zamzow / December 23, 2009 10:02 PM

Frontline recently took a look at the medical insurance and medical service delivery systems in about a half dozen countries to see what the US might learn from them. It would be interesting to see something similar in regard to energy consumption in various countries.

The per capita energy consumption and carbon dioxide emissions in Europe and Japan are on the order of half the per capita values in the US. What would it take to cut US electricity consumption by half (that would correlate to the fraction of electricity we get from coal)?

Some factors influencing energy consumption (such as less dense settlement in the US than in Europe and Japan)might be things we cannot change. But Europeans and Japanese make certain lifestyle choices to cut their energy consumption that we in America should consider strongly.

Daniel Jones / December 24, 2009 9:55 PM

Coal is not a long term answer unless effective carbon capture and hopefully some subsequent viable use for said carbon.
So give coal states technology investment to achieve carbon storage and use of that, but they have to pay for carbon emissions under cap and trade system.
Nationally there must be three big incentives:-
1) Aimed at individual homes and small businesses
to reduce thier carbon footprint thru subsidised acceptable project items Insulation, lighting solar , wind domestic only projects includes technology on battery storage domestically small business generated etc
2) Investment in the technology of alternative energy, Wind, Solar, Tidal, etc.
3) Targeted specific reduction of OIL as the major method of fuelling cars Hybrids, hydrogen fuelled cars or pure battery powered Support research and tax breaks to Auto companies that create advances.
Too much too complicated thinking re global warming and I wont play politically if you wont play. This is school boy "its my ball attitudes"
Let the uncooperative nations use coal and OIL the price will make them uncompetitive pretty soon
then we can sell our excess coal and oil at very high prices.
Remember what goes around comes around!!

J.V.Hodgson / December 30, 2009 2:36 AM

Coal is not an option. We need to do whatever one can do , looking at our whole carbon footprint. Nuclear energy is not an option, because of nuclear waste. We know that , here in South Carolina. here is an excellant comment on the problem in France.
I continue to be very concerned about several aspects of nuclear energy production. The single most compelling issue for me is waste generation. When I express this overriding concern, I sometimes get the response that spent, or now so called 'used', fuel CAN be recycled--the French do it! And that we would still be doing it too if the Carter Administration had not pulled federal funding from recycling efforts. It was thought too expensive and not practical--probably the reason why the industry hasn't been doing it since.

I decided to inform myself more fully on this issue with some on-line research and by talking to some experts I know in the field. Here's the story as I now understand it.

Like the US, France has no operating underground geological repository for nuclear waste. Instead of storing it in dry casks like Vermont Yankee does, France has resorted to trying to reprocess irradiated (spent) nuclear fuel. Reprocessing is a highly complex, highly contaminated chemical process that attempts to separate uranium and plutonium from radioactive fission products* within the old, irradiated fuel. Some of this residual radioactive material is then released in large quantities as liquid and airborne radioactivity into the environment. France reprocesses at the La Hague facility on the Normandy coast and dumps its radioactive waste into the English Channel. Because the process is so complex, reprocessing this irradiated fuel is much more expensive than buying new, unirradiated uranium fuel. This means that the cost of electricity in France is higher because of reprocessing while the radioactive waste problem is not diminished.

La Hague discharges at least 60 million gallons of liquid radioactive waste per year. The liquid wastes have contaminated the seabed in the English Channel to become as radioactive as radioactive waste stored on land. Liquid radioactive contamination from La Hague has been found at the Arctic Circle. A 1993 treaty against dumping radioactive waste at sea only applies to ships dumping waste in barrels. If the La Hague liquid discharges were first put into barrels and then dumped into the English Channel this would violate the treaty. Meanwhile radioactive gases such as Krypton 85 have been tracked around the world. In one year, La Hague releases more krypton 85 radioactive gas than was released by all 500+ atmospheric atomic tests over several decades. Communities living around La Hague consequently breathe radioactive air every day. Two independent medical studies have found leukemia clusters in communities down wind and downstream from La Hague.

However, contrary to myth, reprocessed French waste is not “recycled.” The hottest waste, about 5% of the total, is stored in "vitrified" (solid) form at La Hague, along with about 81 tonnes of separated – and proliferation-friendly – bomb grade plutonium. The remaining 95%, mostly a mixture of many isotopes of uranium created when the fuel was first in the reactor, is stored at another nuclear center, Pierrelatte, in southern France. To reintroduce this uranium back into the reactor, it must then be especially enriched because it is now a mixture of many types of uranium, some of which can not make electricity and are quite radioactive. That process occurs today in Russia, since France does not have the technology. The Russian technology is able to remove about one tenth of the uranium to be eventually be enriched and reused. The rest is stored in Siberia. However, it is this 95% that France claims is “recycled.”

In fact, the French have not solved the nuclear waste problem, but have exported it to the English Channel, the Arctic Circle and to Siberia. So much for the idea of emulating the French on their solution!

*Cesium, Cobalt, Strontium and Krypton

Elaine Cooper / January 7, 2010 3:41 PM

Top hats & corsets are not gone out either. These types of comparisons are neither accurate nor helpful. This is a vast complicated issue, interwoven in every aspect of life on the planet. Many great minds are required to work towards a solution from the family home to the mass corporate producers.

D. Carson / January 8, 2010 4:02 AM

Thorium-based nuclear power systems are the way to go. The fuel can't be weaponized, Contamination hazards are orders of magnitude lower, and the process is orders of magnitude more efficient. Thorium technology was studied intensively in the middle of the last century, but lost out to uranium/plutonium due to the US need for nuclear weapons in the ICBM programs.


Stjohn / January 9, 2010 11:26 AM

We could have avoided the over-consumption economy of electricity and gotten into the great ideas of Solar, Tesla, Steam, Fresnel Lens, Wind, Tide, Geo-thermal perhaps

Behold the Age of Stupid, Coal, Petroleum, Nuclear (yes nuclear, the continued widespread of it's pollution and cost infeasibility is very real) Hydro dams to displace millions and ruin landscapes, continued mining for metals and radioactive ores, and mining tailings., vast polluition, suppression direct and indirect of renewable technology

dan / January 20, 2010 9:41 PM

Thorium is a great idea. I see a big future in that and a stand by that enough to put my money (stocks) where my mouth is.

Uranium contaminates for many millennium, it is a shame no one could have gotten a Thorium infrastructure going in the 50's, to much obsession over nuclear weapons.

Torbach / January 28, 2010 10:53 PM

on the face of it , cutting electrical use to european levels sounds good and reasonable . having lived there for 20+ years , i can tell you that in all likelyhood ,north americans are NOT prepared to do so. Why do you think immigrants from all over the world are trying to get into north america? Over there , most people only sparsely heat the living room (in their appartment) , ride a bicycle to and from work (since it's all close by) and really think about whether they can afford to run the washing machine (if they have one), It would come as a shock , to have their lifestyle forced upon north america . due to distances , many savings from there would not apply here.

chrisvb / January 29, 2010 6:24 PM

There is no viable "clean coal" carbon capture technology available on all but an miniscule, experimental scale. Do not fall for any politician or so called expert who bandies about this term in an attempt to mislead the public into thinking it is feasible in present day terms.

Steven Fistell / February 3, 2010 5:59 PM

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