You have to develop a thick skin in order to operate a blog that covers controversial topics like energy. On Atomic Insights, there is a community of participants that seem to enjoy the discussions and commentary, but there are a few contributors that can get downright nasty in their prose and their attacks on my analytical abilities.
I delete the more obnoxious comments and often let others respond to the ones that are designed to get under my skin. One frequent commenter is constantly arguing about my characterization of coal as dirty and about my assertions that coal pollution is a problem that nuclear energy can solve more cheaply and more effectively than something like carbon capture and sequestration.
I have nothing against low cost, reliable electricity. I also have a great deal of respect for the people who work hard to mine and transport coal and those who operate coal fired power plants in the most responsible manner that they know. I am well aware of the contributions that coal has made to America’s prosperity over the past 150 years.
I just think that it is time to recognize that coal’s time is past; there is an adequate and even more affordable replacement available. I believe that it is time to stop experimenting with the long term effects of dumping millions of tons of combustion residues into the environment every day. We need to leave coal in the ground, especially in those places where it can only be reached by blowing up mountains and dumping the tops into streams and valleys. Coal is not America’s most abundant energy resource, that title is a contest between uranium and thorium.
One of my favorite commenters on Atomic Insights recently provided some excellent suggestions for ways to move our energy supply infrastructure from where we are today to a point where we should be. One thing we need to keep in mind about that transition is that we should do it without causing too much disruption for the good, hard-working people employed in coal extraction, transportation and consumption. (Note: I am not too worried about the people who run or invest in coal companies. They have had plenty access to all of the decision tools that they need to identify the hazards that their industry poses. They have also spent much of the past 40 years fighting a rear guard action to protect their market share from the competition that nuclear energy represents.)
Here is what Dave recently wrote on my post about Seminole Energy Cooperative’s decision to abandon a coal fired power plant project in my native state of Florida:
Kit (that is the user name of my pro coal troll)
– though many coal plants have figured out what to do with the SOx, and to a lesser extent, the NOx, and thus aren’t “dirty” in the conventional, pre-carbon limited sense, they still haven’t figured out what to do with the fly ash. That ash lagoon spill back a year ago, it wasn’t an exceptionally “dirty” coal plant that did it, I don’t think. Though of course there needs to be scientific follow-up to find out the results of releasing all those concentrated process residues into the human environment, the spill harmed a whole lot of people’s property and if the claims are to believed, their health as well. I wouldn’t be surprised one bit if some of those claims are real. Releasing concentrated fly ash ooze into a rural farming area can’t be the best thing for human health.
Overall, coal has served our nation very well over the two hundred years that it’s been in use. The time has come, however, for it to exit stage right, with the thanks of a grateful nation, as it’s been superseded by far more effective – and less uniquely dangerous and harmful – technologies. The best way the US can use our coal resources is as a transition source of liquids, a source of trained mining personnel for the uranium and thorium mines of the future, a source of steam plants and skilled steam plant personnel for coal to nuclear conversions (Jim Holm’s great idea), and as a heritage fuel for industrial and railroad heritage museums. It’s been noted as well, that even the fly ash can be leached to recover the uranium and other metals within – and there’s always plenty of fly ash to go around.
Where appropriate, coal boilers can be converted to biomass – at least wood ash and burnt crop residues can be used as fertilizer, but this isn’t appropriate except in a very few locations where you’ve got a tremendous amount of biomass and ways of extracting it cheaply. So the vast majority of coal boilers will need to be converted to nuclear – there may be a few grandfathered facilities too, that might have to be replaced entirely. I can imagine that the kind of investment in steam supply systems to convert coal plants to nuclear plants would be a way that a lot of vendors formerly in the coal industry could make some good money and stimulate the economy. For instance, new once-through steam generators would have to be procured. Why build a coal plant in Florida, anyway, just to use it for 10 to 30 years, when you’ve got all that thorium sitting around down there just waiting for some entrepreneur to start digging it up and making it into fuel rods? Wouldn’t be a prudent investment for the long term.
Remember that nobody is asking for anyone in the coal industry to unconditionally surrender and give up their jobs and their profits: you’re Americans too, and it wouldn’t be right to do that by way of you, as the situation isn’t under your control. We just want to discuss the future possibilities and ways in which everyone can continue to win, including the coal industry – which can easily find other very profitable lines of business to apply themselves in – especially if the copious subsidies taken, for example, from wind-mills that don’t work, could be applied to former coal firms in the transition to a world beyond coal – to which the core competencies of the coal industry could be applied – from metal mining, to uranium/thorium mining, to mining and metal/energy recovery from old landfills and abandoned industrial sites, etc. There’s plenty of stuff that an old and mature industry like the coal industry can do instead of mine coal, given suitable assistance, and probably make better profits at it as well.