Comparing the Scale of Used Nuclear Fuel to Capturing Coal Emissions
The Wall Street Journal’s Environmental Capital blog has an October 17, 2008 post titled Coal Storage: Clean Coal’s Next Big Hurdle?. It attempts to put the challenge of storing CO2 from coal fired power plants into the same bin as the challenge of storing used nuclear fuel. It gives a completely inaccurate picture of the differences between the real obstacles to future use of our two main electricity fuels.
The story makes me almost want to cry about the innumeracy of the world – after all, the Wall Street Journal is supposed to be written by people who understand the difference between tens, hundreds, thousands, millions, billions and trillions. Here is a quote from the post:
Long-term storage liabilities may be a bigger obstacle than cost or technology development. Nuclear power is still trying to find a solution to long-term storage of radioactive waste. Now, it’s clean coal’s turn.
That is, power companies know how to “capture” carbon emissions from coal plants. They also know, more or less, how to store those emissions underground; the oil industry’s been doing something similar for years.
First of all, it is completely wrong to claim that the power companies know how to capture carbon emissions from coal plants. They do not even have a good way to separate the CO2 from the rest of the emissions on the scale of a single power plant, much less on an industry wide scale. Separating is just the first step in a process with many remaining unknowns. Here is my comment:
There is an enormous difference in scale between storing less than 100 thousand tons of corrosion resistant, solid, mostly ceramic material that has already been “captured” and removed from nuclear power plants and trying to separate, capture, transport, and store BILLIONS of tons PER YEAR of gaseous CO2 that is currently dumped into our common atmosphere via very tall smokestacks.
If you put all of the used nuclear fuel that American reactors have produced over the past 50 years on a single football field, the pile would be less than 30 feet high.
That is a manageable problem – in fact, it is being safely managed today by simply retaining the used fuel on site in simple, inexpensive (relative to the value of the power output) monitored storage areas on the same site where the power was produced. It is hard to IMAGINE the scale of the storage necessary to capture millions of tons of gaseous CO2 every day. The oil industry experience is on a completely different scale and for a completely different purpose.
There is little evidence to show that the CO2 used for enhanced oil recovery remains where it is put. Since storing CO2 is not the goal of the operation, no one has established controls or sampling regimes to find out where it goes after it pushes the oil to the collection points.