1. Could replacing coal power with nuclear power could also help reduce our oil consumption, both by using coal to produce transportation fuels instead of burning it in power plants, and also by reducing truck traffic by moving freight to rail lines no longer clogged with coal trains?

    1. There will be some savings in fuel, but I suspect that they will be marginal, rail and water shipping are rather fuel efficient. As for trucking being replaced by rail, that could happen right now if we wanted, the rails in all but the very busiest corridors are underutilized. Only a serious increase in the price of transportation fuels will force general cargo back on the rails.

      1. Yes, because the cost of loading and unloading something is so expensive that unless you are going longer than 250 miles the process of moving it from the truck to the train and then off the train to the final delivery truck is cost prohibitive. So most fairly local deliveries move exclusively by truck and the longer deliveries move intermodle.

        1. @David
          Why is the rail network not comprehensive enough that it cannot be used without expensive double handling? Or is rail transport by itself only really adequate for an economy dominated by a small number of huge, centralized industrial plants?

          1. When you are moving a bulk commodity – such as soybean you cannot put it into a modular container easily. The weight and volume of a container like that are not worth the space unless you are moving the material onto a boat as well (overseas shipment). So, to even unload the trucks with the soybeans (or whatever) into the train cars means holding both until the transfer can occur (time) and having someone monitor the transfer (labor) and using some kind of machine to move the stuff (equipment). Each of these has a cost to it that cannot be avoided. So you add some dollars a ton to simply make the transfer.
            In the case of soybeans you are coming from the combine into a truck. Unless you are going more than 250 miles it is not worth the cost of reloading it on a train. Some large farms have spur lines that can be loaded directly into a train car. It is the same with coal. Coal is also mined in some areas so quickly that you don’t have time to build a spur line to each one so most of the strip mining is done by loading trucks after the coal is washed. Transferring to a rail car takes work. Work adds costs.
            As a total aside – high speed rail would be wonderful if we were able to drive our cars on it so that when we got to the other end we could go to our end destination without having to pay for a rental. It is the “transfer cost” for a rail passenger that makes it un-economical to use high speed rail.
            But the real point is this – the train companies have worked out these transfer systems for very large bulk commodities but they are NOT set up well to handle smaller shipments. Unless you are a major player they will not even talk with you.

            1. Motorail (cars on trains) is horrendously inefficient in terms of weight hauled per passenger. The real problem is governments allowed cities to develop in such a way that they became uninhabitable without a car. If cities were designed for people rather than for cars, there’d be no problem travelling by rail because you wouldn’t need a car when you got to the other end.
              One reason why the United States in particular became so car dependent (Car-dependent development in the Old World is largely in imitation of that in North America) is because as a young country it never had the chance to develop a pre-industrial urban tradition. 19th century industrial cities were hellish places plagued by squalor, air pollution, extreme poverty, crime and mass immigration (from the surrounding countryside, plus from other countries in the New World case). Given that this was the only experience Americans had with cities, it isn’t surprising that they longed to go back to the small town. However, however much they wanted to live in the small town, they now worked in the big city, and thus commuting became the norm.
              Another reason is racism — although the image of white-flighters being turned back at gunpoint to cries of “No niggerfrei suburbs for you, Nazi bastards!” is an appealing one, it was never a serious prospect in the United States.

    2. In China, they are turning coal into dimethyl ether (DME), a clean transportation fuel usually used in buses. I believe China is the #1 dimethyl ether producer – they even have a law that requires DME plants to produce a minimum quantity. While making DME from coal probably doesn’t net any CO2 reduction, it’s a step in the right direction. Usually if you can add value to a raw material like coal, it can be sold at a greater profit but there is no market for DME here in America, except as a propellant, like there is in Japan and China.

  2. Depending on how much longer than a day, doing the math means each car load supplies about 15 minutes worth of electricity. Doing this task day after day creates a new mental picture for me – compared to nukes, burning coal to make electricity sure seems like the hard way.

    1. Doing a bit more math, if each car is 100 tons, and each car represents 15 minutes worth of fuel, that means the 1 GWe coal burner consumes around 220 lbs of coal per second.
      At a higher heating value of, say, 10,000 BTU/lb for the average coal, that means you’re inputting upwards of 2,200,000 BTU per second into that coal boiler.
      That’s a lot of heat, and a lot of coal.

      1. @Dave – a BTU per second is roughly 1.06 kilowatts.
        If the plant is a very modern pulverized bed power plant it might achieve a thermal efficiency of 40%.
        Therefore, to produce 1000 MW of electricity, you need to put in about 1000/.4 = 2500 MW of heat.
        Said using the same units you used you need roughly 2,360,000 BTU’s per second to produce 1000 MW of electricity.
        The numbers match well, given the approximations involved.

  3. A year or two ago the History Channel aired an episode of Extreme Trains that deal with the hauling of coal to a PPL plant in Pennsylvania. The climax of the show dealt with the coal train going up and down a mountain pass. Not an easy task and n/eedless to say moving such a large load is not for amateurs. Only the most skilled engineers are used to operate a coal train because god only knows what will happen if something goes wrong. Though coal is not my favorite source of energy we must admire the skill of those who safely haul these gigantic loads.

  4. I had a thought earlier today while watching this video. . . I wonder how anti-nuclear the train industry could end up being? It looks to me like coal would have to be one of the train companies biggest/most steady customer-industries. If you largely replace coal plants with nuclear plants, train companies might stand to lose a huge chunk of their business.
    Anyone know if any train industry lobbyists have ever involved themselves in the politics of energy policy?

    1. @Jeff – now you are beginning to think critically. Of course the freight railroad industry is opposed to anything that would reduce its market for carrying bulk commodities. Coal is not only responsible for a major share of its revenue, but an even larger share of its profits. Moving coal in enormous quantities from one fixed location to another – from the mine to the power plant – is a terrific, steady business that can be done mostly by non thinking machines. That is especially true since the shippers are vulnerable to rate increases – they have few options.
      I have not gathered much hard evidence of antinuclear activity by US railroads or their employees – yet, but there is a wealth of evidence from Australia where the leaders of the very successful antinuclear campaign that prevented construction of a single power plant there were members of the railroad unions in solidarity with their coal mining and ocean shipping (also heavily dependent on moving mass commodities) brethren.
      “The campaign against the nuclear industry is an important renewal of support for the Australian anti-uranium movement by the Australian unions. During the 1970s and 1980s Australian unions were heavily involved actions against uranium mining including the refusal by Australian Railways Union (now the Rail, Tram and Bus Union), Transport Workers Union and the Waterside Workers Federation (now the Maritime Union of Australia) to place bans on the movement of uranium ore. “
      Trade unions
      Some trade unions played a crucial role in fighting the uranium industry in the ’70s and ’80s. Some rail workers and wharfies took action, even when opposed by the union leadership.
      When a rail worker who disrupted supply to the Mary Kathleen uranium mine in Queensland, in compliance with the policies of the ACTU and the Australian Railways Union, was sacked in May 1976, the first national strike anywhere in the world over the hazards of nuclear power was held for 24 hours.

      1. Is the lobbying power of the trucking and airline industries also to blame to some extent, by largely confining rail transport to the bulk-cargo ghetto?

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