1. I remember watching something similar but longer when I was young in the late 90s. It was about a power plant somewhere in eastern Europe (I forget the name. Somewhere in the Czech republic perhaps?) that was so large it needed to be sited right next to the mine so that the coal could be dumped straight in with minimal processing.
    I remember them comparing the product of that mine with a lump of anthracite produced by the mines in my native South Wales. The lignite was more like a recently rotten lump of wood than coal! I remember my father being absolutely aghast that it would even be considered for use as fuel.

    By the way, do we have any resources showing the mining an processing of Uranium etc? I think it would be an interesting comparison. Even more interesting would be showing people videos of how the raw materials for the unreliables are processed and made into the various solar panels, turbines etc.

    1. Its coal, Jim. But not as we know it. Can’t help you on the Solar PV front, which really would be interesting. But wind and Solar Thermal are pretty straightforward use pretty much the raw materials as a nuclear plant — just, on a per MW basis, one whole lot more of them. Here are some rough estimates, adjusted for capacity, relative to Nuclear = 1x:

      Onshore Wind: Steel: 6x Concrete 4x – 10x
      Solar Thermal 7.5 hrs: Steel: 7x Concrete 4x (Andasol 1)
      Gas: Steel: 0.3x Concrete 0.1x

      I have conflicting numbers for nuclear concrete: Per Peterson estimates 90 m^3/MW, whereas Martin Nicholon cites a 2007 ISA figure of 323.

    2. Lignite is sort of a “half way” between peat and bituminous coal. The Polish and German lignite will sometimes contain amber and the remains of extinct mammals.

      1. Lignite is sort of a “half way” between peat and bituminous coal.

        I like to call it “slightly combustible dirt”.

    1. @Ed Leaver

      The 3 million factor that you point to is useful for real coal, not lignite. Brown coal has about 1/3 to 1/2 of the energy density of real coal. Therefore the factor is more like 6-10 million vice 3 million

      1. Hmmmm…. Right. I was using WNA’s estimate of Lignite being only about 12% higher than real coal on a tonnes CO2/GWh basis. But WNA probably assumed dry lignite, whereas real-world brown coal can be up to 50% dirt, is porous, and usually saturated with water.

        1. @JohnGalt

          In some places, the “ppm concentrations” — notably in the Athabasca basin — are on the order of 20,000 – 200,000. http://www.visualcapitalist.com/athabasca-basin-the-worlds-highest-grade-uranium-district/

          The important thing to note about the “considerable processing” is that it can be accomplished either on site or with a relatively short range of the mine. Once the U3O8 has been separated from the ore in which it resides, it can be shipped around the world with little physical effort. There are large nuclear plants that receive all of their fuel deliveries by air shipment, a mechanism that adds very little to the overall cost of power. There is a reason why lignite power plants are generally of the “mine-mouth” variety. Shipping the stuff any distance is a loss generating process.

          Even the famous Powder River basin coal, prized for its low sulfur content, requires shipping fees that can double or triple the cost of the material at the mine when the power plant is in the eastern or southern parts of the country.

          There may not be any “free lunches,” but there is a wide cost variation on the menu of fuel options. Picking fuels can be like deciding to make a meal out of a small cup of soup compared to paying for a lobster dinner. The only difference when you choose uranium or thorium over many fossil fuels is that you can get a meal that has many better features than lobster at a price that is relatively comparable to the cup of soup.

          The “all in” average fuel cost for commercial nuclear power plants in the US is about 70-80 cents per MMBTU (assuming a heat rate of 10,000 MMBTU/kw-hr). http://www.nei.org/Knowledge-Center/Nuclear-Statistics/Costs-Fuel,-Operation,-Waste-Disposal-Life-Cycle

        2. @ JohnGalt
          Heard it here first?
          Actually, Rod’s comment didn’t contain much that I haven’t heard before — all of which is backed by carefully thought-out analysis using science.
          And you make a trivial snipe about his “cup of soup vs. lobster dinner” analogy.
          OK, then, thanks for the deep thoughts (with my apologies to Jack Handy).

  2. Rod – thanks for the post, the video, and starting an excellent conversation.

    JohnGalt – thank you for being in this discussion. To help me understand where you’re coming from, I’d like you to do some research for me, and write a paragraph here explaining your process and your results. The assignment is this: find out what the range of concentrations of uranium can be in lignite, and calculate how much uranium would be in the coal that a 1 gigawatt electric power plant would burn in a year. Also answer the question of where that uranium goes when the coal is burned. An advanced question, for extra marks: How much power could that uranium produce if used as fuel in a light water reactor or pressurized water reactor?

    Hint: a Google search on ‘uranium content in lignite’ gave me a wikipedia reference and links to scholarly articles on the subject. I don’t expect you to find uranium concentrations for German lignite, but if you can, that’d be great. Another thing you might want to explore is the uranium in the kinds of black shales that are being fracked for natural gas. Another extra marks question – can there be radon in the produced gas, and how worried should you be about it? Why?

    If this sounds like schoolwork, it’s no less than everybody should be doing to check out the ideas under discussion, and explore their implications. IMO.

    1. Andrew, I’m not going to hand in a completed homework assignment, but I do know that lignite in South Dakota was mined for its Uranium content alone. The lignite was burned to ash and that ash was sent off (to New Mexico as I recall) for the extraction of Uranium. This was back in the 1950’s and/or 1960’s. Someone probably did their homework at that time and was able to convince someone that the project was worth the effort.

      1. Thanks Rick – I remember hearing about that one as well. All of this just goes to show that a lot of people haven’t done enough homework to find out just what ‘energy density’ means. And to compare the size of uranium mines and uranium mining machinery with the lignite mines and mining machinery in the video posted above.

      2. It certainly looks to be the case: From Wikipedia:

        “Lignite deposits (soft brown coal) can contain significant uranium mineralization.”


        The USGS did a report on the uranium in coal.pubs.(usgs.gov/bul/1055/report.pdf)

        The report is dated 1959. They describe this as low grade uranium.

        I wish I would have had Wikipedia to help me with my homework as a kid.

        1. Another low grade Uranium ore (also considered to be of biological origin) is phosphate rock.
          It seems as though some ancient forms of life used Uranium as part of their biology.
          I wonder if any extant life forms also use Uranium in some way and if that process could be exploited to concentrate very dilute solutions containing Uranium (especially seawater).

          1. I was told tumbleweeds will remove some radionuclides from soil. There’s a book written about it:

            “Radionuclide Contamination and Remediation Through Plants”

            Maybe this process could be enhanced through GMOs. If those plants were used, the protesters could protest two things at once nuclear and GMOs.

          2. @John Galt:
            The 80,000 GJ/kg figure is for fast neutron breeder reactors. That your source (Peter Lux) does not know this suggests you might try another source. John Galt would 😉

          3. @JohnGalt – I’m not sure how to get this one into a direct reply to your comment. I wanted you to perhaps write a paragraph summarizing what your references say and what conclusions you draw from them. What relevance does Ayn Rand have to comparisons of lignite and uranium mining? Please explain.

            Regarding the Peter Lux calculations (thanks for your comment, @Ed Leaver) – I won’t dispute his calculations. Rather than throwing citations at each other, I like to work my own numbers, back of the envelope style. My goal is to compare how much material has to be moved to run a lignite fueled power plant versus an enriched uranium reactor. I’ll go through my process in detail, at the risk of being tiresome. (My apologies to the other commenters here.)

            I have a rule of thumb that I use, that it takes a tonne of U235 to run a 1 GWe power plant for a year. That amount of U235 comes from about 140 tonnes of natural uranium; the enrichment process isn’t perfect, so I estimate that it takes about 200 tonnes of natural uranium to make the approximately 29 tonnes of 3.5% enriched uranium that goes into the reactor.

            I wanted to double-check that 200 tonnes figure, so I thought of looking for annual uranium consumption in nuclear reactors. No web page answered the question directly, but the World Nuclear Association pages World Uranium Mining and World Energy Needs and Nuclear Powerhave enough information for a calculation. You have to do some arithmetic to tease out the number, but in 2011, electricity production from nuclear was about 2,575 terawatt hours, or 294 gigawatt years. Uranium production in 2011 was 53,493 tonnes, which covered about 90% of demand. Calculating that out says that it took 202 tonnes of uranium to run a gigawatt electrical power plant for a year. That’s in good agreement with my ‘rule of thumb’. This step is like adding a column of figures from the bottom up, to check the result you got adding from the top down.

            I went looking for uranium concentrations in ores that are being produced, and didn’t find any good summary. So I decided to use a concentration of 0.1%, which isn’t a very good ore, and see how the very bad coal (lignite) would compare to a very bad uranium ore, just on the basis of how much of each it takes to run their power plant for a year.

            Rod’s figure for lignite, from a comment above, 6 to 10 million tonnes of lignite to generate a gigawatt-year of electricity.

            200 tonnes of uranium from a 0.1% ore requires 200,000 tonnes of ore.

            And now, the big question: does mining 6 – 10 million tonnes of lignite take more or less effort than mining 200,000 tonnes of uranium ore? Keep in mind that real uranium mines will be working with ores that are 10 to 100 times better, and in situ leaching, which involves drilling wells rather than moving rocks around, is becoming the predominant extraction method for uranium.

            I await your answer to this very specific question.

          4. @John Galt:
            Sure. But now you’re changing the argument from the relative environmental cost of extraction, uranium vs.coal, to the relative dollar costs of the finished fuels. Which is quite okay, as long as you realize that is what you have done.

          5. You think Andrew Jaremko’s “dishing out assignments” as you put it, because he doesn’t know the answer, and wants you to work it out for him?

            Wrong. He’s asking you work it out because *you* don’t know the answer, as is evident from your comments to the effect that energy for energy, uranium is about as hard to mine as coal.

          6. @JohnGalt

            It all depends, naturally, on how you compare. From the video, in Germany, it hardly looks like any effort at all to mine lignite. According to Rod, in Virginia, mining uranium is currently nearly impossible. Therefore, lignite takes much less effort, comparing Germany with Virginia.

            For someone who claims to have a strong interest Ayn Rand’s objectivism, you are quite meek about accepting government directives as fixed, even when they serve no constructive purpose. Mining uranium in Virginia can be made relatively easy by the mere act of altering the law in a few key places. It’s obviously a losing strategy to violate the law, but changing the law is not as hard as people seem to think it is.

          7. @JohnGalt

            I don’t make excuses and I don’t think political contributions are the most effective strategy for changing the law.

          8. @JohnGalt

            Exactly what do you think a citizen should do when the law prevents logical actions affecting private property? In the specific comments to which you linked, I was simply describing the law as it exists. My plan in doing so was to help attract assistance in my continuing efforts to push selective changes to those laws to enable what I consider to be logical actions. Though Rand’s Atlas Shrugged proposes a path that is unworkable in real life, I don’t think she would be opposed to thinking people taking action and using logic to encourage a better functioning democracy that is less influenced by the looters.

            Have you chosen to disappear into a Gulch somewhere?

          9. “Exactly what do you think a citizen should do when the law prevents logical actions affecting private property?”

            Disregarding how obnoxious Galt’s braying is, I’ m afraid I have to agree with him about the reality behind politics and the process of changing laws. Rod, sometimes I get the impression that your patriotism and faith in human nature has landed you in a fantasy world, thinking our nation is what it purports itself to be, while ignoring the actual truth about what we have become. Galt’s assertion about paying off our politicians in order to prompt specific legislation is spot on, and is a realistic assessment of the current state of affairs in DC. Whats more, I think you actually realize how low we have sunk, but still are hopeful that altruism, sound science, and laudable idealism will save the day. You simply have shuttered the truth, and refuse to believe that that is right before your eyes. Our system is failing, from the top down, as corruption and greed have replaced patriotism in our halls of government. Your ideals, and your science, are meaningless to our leaders. If you want their representation, you will have to buy it. That’s just the way it is.

            1. @poa

              My eyes are wide open. I worked in Washington from 2001-2010, so my experience is pretty recent. I also have many good friends who remain in the struggle.

              My answer to what I see, however, is not to accept the status quo. I’ve been fortunate enough to have worked with a large number of people in a variety of organizations and locations. The disease that you have identified has not spread throughout the country; there are still enough uninflected good people left to make a big difference.

              My “idealistic” writing is designed to arm those good people with the belief that they can make a difference, even if it requires a lot of hard work. Assuming all is lost would be self-defeating.

    2. “:The 80,000 GJ/kg figure is for fast neutron breeder reactors. That your source (Peter Lux) does not know this suggests you might try another source.”

      No. The 80,000 GJ/kg figure is the what you would get if you fissioned every atom in a kilogram of pure U-235 (at about 200 MeV per fission), regardless of how you get there. Enrichments in fast reactors are significantly higher than in light-water reactors, which means, among other things, that the amount of the fuel material (U-238 plus U-235 or Pu-239) that fissions is greater–on the order of 10-15% compared to around 6%. (Enrichments are higher because fission cross sections are lower at higher neutron energies.) But the figure that Lux quotes has nothing to do with the fuel in a reactor, since it refers to pure U-235. (The number is easy to derive; all you need is Avogadro’s number and some conversion factors.)

      From the point of view of equivalent energy content, it’s useful to think of one fuel pellet in a reactor, which has a mass of about 7 g (and U-235 content of about 0.3 g) as being approximately equal to one ton of coal. (That’s bituminous, not lignite.)

      1. @oldnuke: At risk of being drawn into protracted discussion wherein I might learn something, the 80,000 GJ/kg roughly applies to complete fission of all actinides/TRU’s, not just U235. They all fission with about 200Mev/atom, and all weigh roughly the same. So by my understanding, via sustained reprocessing/recycling in an integral fast breeder reactor or the MSR equivalent, over time essentially all the U238 in the original kg will be fissioned, with total gross release of 80,000 GJ:

        (1 kg / 238 g/mole) * 200 Mev/atom * 6.02e23 atom/mole * 1.6e-19 J/ev = 80,000 GJ

        as you said. It is my understanding that such (eventual) complete burnup is possible, and that is the intent of IFR/PRISM and TAP’s waste annihilating MSR. So (in addition to my own sanity) my question is this: in Heat values of various fuels, WNA lists without reference “Natural uranium, in FNR 28,000 GJ/kg” — or essentially one third the 80,000 GJ figure given by the above simple calculation. Do you (or anyone) know from whence the factor of 1/3? It looks suspiciously like the thermal efficiency of a LWR, but LM and MS FNR’s are better than that and the WNA table is explicitly titled “Heat content”, so its probably something else. Thanks!

  3. @ Mr. Galt:

    “From the video, in Germany, it hardly looks like any effort at all to mine lignite.”

    Lots of big machines, lots of overburden removed, lots of mass moved. It looks like a chunk of work. I’ve got Ms. Rand’s book out of the library. You’ve got me curious. I just need time for it.

    1. It is actually one of the most efficient method that exist per ton of material extracted. And this makes lignite very competitive in term of price. The problem is the sheer volume of lignite per unit of energy required, so the impact that this has. Especially in an environment like Germany, where the population density is high and those mine are not at all in an isolated location far from population, but end up destroying village after village.

      1. Just in case readers are not up to speed on the village destruction process that jmdesp mentioned, here is an illuminating article from National Geographic.


        On the surface, a single lignite mine might look a little like an open pit uranium mine, but most of the later are in places like Rio Tinto’s Rossing mine in Namibia (http://www.rossing.com/) that have never been settled by human beings.

        1. A more recent article on razing German villages to get at the lignite underneath:

          From the article:
          Sigmar Gabriel, Chancellor Merkel’s Energy minister, claims that more lignite mines are vital: “We need strategic reserves of gas and coal power for the times when the wind doesn’t blow and the sun doesn’t shine,” he said.

          Gabriel has long called for the shut down of Germany’s nuclear plants.

          1. It sort of looks like the old Muhlenberg County tune. I guess Muhlenberg is German so it fits. Per the article, the people want it for the good jobs it creates. I wonder how well they can control silicosis and black lung.

          2. @John Galt
            But “robotic” mining i.e. increased mechanization is the one constant of the industry. Disregard for the family culture of mining is a corollary. Here in the U.S. underground coal mines are now highly mechanized which increases worker productivity immensely. Costs of eastern mined hard coal is still about $100/ton — ten times the cost/ton of near-surface sub-bituminous coal strip-mined in Wyoming via methods similar to the lignite operations in Germany. Same with Southern’s Mississippi lignite operation that has gained so much recent press (CCS, you know).

            Kentucky coal miners can complain its the “war on coal” that has cost them their livelihoods. But that war has yet to see its first shot (though EPA’s restrictions on new power plants should land Real Soon) rather, eastern coal jobs are being lost to near-surface coal further west, and to fracked gas. That was on-going long before the present administration. The 2008 recession didn’t exactly help.

            And this is the best mitigation for silicosis and black lung: keep the miners above ground. Hire fewer of them. Give the rest plenty of ventilation of filtered air in those massive machines. Minimize transportation to power plants. Whats not to like? 🙂

            1. @Ed Leaver

              Your analysis and grin ignore a few key facts. 1) Eastern coal may cost more to extract, but it generally has a substantially higher heat content (12,000 BTU/lb vice 8,500 BTU/lb) http://www.cba-ssd.com/Applications/knowledgeBase/PRBcoal/PRBcoalProperty.htm
              2) Miners in modern, well ventilated mines don’t suffer from black lung
              3) Many underground miners are quite proud of their jobs, their good income, their rapidly improving technology and their contribution to the economic strength and well-being of their country (I know several card carrying miners.)
              4) Eastern mines are often much closer to customers, including overseas customers

          3. @Rod Adams r.e. underground coal
            Agree completely, and thanks. Still, the coal industry in eastern Kentucky (at least) remains in precipitous decline. The easy thermal coal has been mined, that which remains must compete with newer developed deposits to the north and west, natural gas, and with the railroads whose loyalty pretty much has to be to ton-miles. High-grade metallurgical anthracite will always be valued, but its probably a niche market job-wise compared with thermal. And no matter the skill and dedication of the miners, its very hard for underground to compete with near-surface stripping.

        2. @Rod Adams : Eastern mines much closer to overseas customers ? You mean … Germany ?

          (It does make me laugh. It does make me cry. Simultaneously)

          1. This relates to the coal mining comments for coal mining in Virgina and the Appalachia regions given earlier.

            This is a link I found surprising. The United States is actually importing coal from Columbia.


            It is cheaper to ship bulk materials such as coal and ore by water. Shipping from Inland coal mines in the US to coastal power plants is expensive. I suspect that labor rates for coal miners are much less in Columbia. I suspect the environmental and safety restrictions are less. These lower costs lead to the sales of coal by the Columbians.

  4. Yes, it’s *crazy* that Germany would shut down nuclear BEFORE coal and gas. Let’s say, for the moment, that they are right that they actually *can*, in 30 years, transition to mainly getting power from sun and wind (a dubious claim, but let’s role with it for the sake of argument): WHILE solar and wind generation were growing to be sizeable enough to fill that role, it’s clearly true that coal is much more harmful to the environment and public health EVERY DAY, when everything *GOES RIGHT*, than nuclear, absolutely obvious when nuclear goes right, but also, from our experience at Chernobyl, TMI, and Fukushima, even when something *GO WRONG*, which is rare, the consequences are far less harmful than for coal.

  5. I honestly cannot comprehend how it is that lignite is favored over nuclear fission.

    1. @Utaaaah
      John Galt has a certain point. Your (stunning) Little Cottonwood banner alone is 2 MB, 9 Mpixels, and expands to 84 MB. The San Antonio images are 6 Mpixel each. They’e all great shots, but the resolution is way overkill. I like to scale images to no more than 1024 wide, 1920 max as that’s all most monitors have. Then if I want to include a higher resolution copy, add a link in the caption, image title, or on a separate page of “High Resolution Images”. My own banner image is 1024×220 and only 97k jpeg. Looks fine; click on it to triple the resolution.

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