Opponents of nuclear energy frequently cite the problem of 'waste disposal' as their rationale for opposing this energy source. And it's true that, for various reasons, including political infighting, this problem has not been completely solved. But the primary alternative to nuclear power doesn't look so good either.
The recent spill of coal ash at Kingston, Tennessee may have finally focused the attention of some on the problems of disposing of the waste from coal-burning power plants. The spill, which released some 300 million gallons of coal ash sludge and water into the surrounding area and a tributary of the Tennessee river is a disaster for the community, for the environment and for those living downstream who depend on the river for their water supply.
Federal studies have long shown coal ash to contain significant quantities of heavy metals such as arsenic, lead and selenium, which can cause cancer and neurological problems. The Tennessee Valley Authority, which operates the power plant and is responsible for the coal ash predicably denied there was any problem.
Yet a 2006 study by the EPA showed that coal ash does contain significant amounts of carcinogens and heavy metals. The report found that concentrations of arsenic in the coal ash could enter drinking water and increase the risk of cancer several hundredfold.
United States coal plants produce some 130 million tons of coal ash a year - the second highest waste stream in the country after municipal waste. A second report by the EPA said that at least 67 towns had their groundwater contaminated by heavy waste from coal ash dumps. Safe disposal of coal ash is a national problem that needs a solution now.
But you don't have to travel across the country to find communities impacted by coal ash. There are problems right here in Maryland an on the Eastern Shore. In Anne Arundel County in Maryland, residentlal drinking water wells have been polluted by heavy metals, including cadmium, thalium and arsenic, which leached from a sand-and-gravel pit used to dispose of coal ash from a plant run by BG&E. Right here in Delmarva, the Indian River Power Plant in Millsboro disposes of some 140,000 tons of coal ash in its 144 acre disposal pit on the shores of Indian River - an environmentally sensitive area. This coal ash contains significant quantities of arsenic and mercury.
The operators of the power plant - NRG Corporation, of course deny that there is any problem, but it's clear that heavy metals from the ash can leach into the ground water and Indian River Bay. Further, there is epidemiological evidence of a cancer cluster in the area. While there is no hard evidence linking this cancer cluster to the presence of millions of tons of coal ash here, it's hard not see a potential connection.
The solid waste from coal combustion is not the only problem, of course. The stuff that goes up the smokestack, primarily carbon dioxide but also small amounts of other chemicals, posses just as intractable a problem. It's becoming more and more apparent that disposing of huge amounts of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere might just be a big mistake.
And, of course, it's not just when coal is burned that it creates a mess. Mining companies dump huge amounts of waste in to streams and valleys. Open pit mines are 'reclaimed' leaving behind something that resembles the surface of the moon. After the mining is finished, the mines are abandoned. Communities all over Appalachia are dealing with the hazards of abandoned mines including acid mine drainage, long-lasting underground fires, collapsing terrain and other problems.
Then, of course, there is the physcial damage to the miners. Coal mining is one of the most dangerous occupations there is. Each year hudnreds of miners are killed or seriously injured. And the miners are in danger even after they stop mining. Between 2000 and 2004 more than 4,000 coal miners in the United States died from black lung disease, a disease caused by breathing coal dust. Many more are disabled.
It should be clear that there is no such thing as 'clean coal'. Coal is dangerous and dirty to mine and transport and there is no current safe solution to the disposal of the waste products from the combustion of coal. We need to move as quickly as possible to stop the large-scale use of coal to generate electricity in this country.
Yet coal is our number one fuel for electricity generation. How can we replace it? Many point to renewable sources such as solar, wind energy and hydropower. But there is only limited additional hyrdropower potential in this country. Wind and solar energy are promising but they share one major problem and that is their high variability. The sun shines only during the day and the wind doesn't blow all the time. The 'capacity ratings' that you hear when people talk about these sources refer to their maximum capacity, which they reach only a small portion of the time.
The only feasible replacement for the hundreds of coal plants which are progressively contaminating our country and the atmosphere is nuclear power. True, nuclear has its problems, but it's much, much cleaner than coal, is efficient and cost effective. It's the only choice we have.
[The photo at the top is of the Calvert Cliffs Nuclear Power Plant]