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CafeToad Donating Member (149 posts) Send PM | Profile | Ignore Sun Jul-20-03 11:48 AM
Original message
Uranium, burning coal, and environmental hazards
Perhaps with the recent flurry of interest in uranium and its effects on public policy (e.g., the SOTU affair) and public health (the contamination of Iraq and Afghanistan with both depleted and natural uranium), there would be some interest in helping publicize the fact that burning coal releases large amounts of uranium (and other radioactive) substances into the environment. Furthermore, this contamination is not happening far, far away, but right here in the USA and it may directly impact you and your family's health.

If you're interested in the details, here's a bit of information to get you started:

From http://www.earthisland.org/eijournal/new_articles.cfm?a... we learn:

Coal Fallout Worse than Nukes

US -- Coal-burning power stations produce more radioactive fallout than nuclear powerplants, according to W. Alex Gabbard, a physicist at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee. EPA data attests that each ton of coal contains 1.3 parts per million (ppm) of uranium and 3.2 ppm of thorium. Gabbard calculates that the combustion of 616 million tons of coal in 1982 released 1,971 tons of thorium and 801 tons of uranium into the air. Global coal consumption in 1982 (2.8 billion tons) poured 8,950 tons of thorium and 3,640 tons of uranium into the environment. Science News notes that the nuclear waste spilled from US coal plants exceeds the amount of nuclear fuel consumed by US nuclear reactors and energy in "lost radioactive materials... has one and a half times more energy than the coal itself." Gabbard predicts that, once the hazard from coal burning becomes common knowledge, it will "provoke enormous public outcry."

A longer article by W. Alex Gabbard, mentioned in the blurb above can be found at http://www.ornl.gov/ORNLReview/rev26-34/text/colmain.ht...

Here's and except from Gabbard's article (it's highly recommended that you read the whole thing, it's highly informative):

Radioactivity from Coal Combustion
The main sources of radiation released from coal combustion include not only uranium and thorium but also daughter products produced by the decay of these isotopes, such as radium, radon, polonium, bismuth, and lead. Although not a decay product, naturally occurring radioactive potassium-40 is also a significant contributor.

The population effective dose equivalent from coal plants is 100 times that from nuclear plants.

According to the National Council on Radiation Protection and Measurements (NCRP), the average radioactivity per short ton of coal is 17,100 millicuries/4,000,000 tons, or 0.00427 millicuries/ton. This figure can be used to calculate the average expected radioactivity release from coal combustion. For 1982 the total release of radioactivity from 154 typical coal plants in the United States was, therefore, 2,630,230 millicuries.

Thus, by combining U.S. coal combustion from 1937 (440 million tons) through 1987 (661 million tons) with an estimated total in the year 2040 (2516 million tons), the total expected U.S. radioactivity release to the environment by 2040 can be determined. That total comes from the expected combustion of 111,716 million tons of coal with the release of 477,027,320 millicuries in the United States. Global releases of radioactivity from the predicted combustion of 637,409 million tons of coal would be 2,721,736,430 millicuries.

For comparison, according to NCRP Reports No. 92 and No. 95, population exposure from operation of 1000-MWe nuclear and coal-fired power plants amounts to 490 person-rem/year for coal plants and 4.8 person-rem/year for nuclear plants. Thus, the population effective dose equivalent from coal plants is 100 times that from nuclear plants. For the complete nuclear fuel cycle, from mining to reactor operation to waste disposal, the radiation dose is cited as 136 person-rem/year; the equivalent dose for coal use, from mining to power plant operation to waste disposal, is not listed in this report and is probably unknown.



Finally, for another perspective, let's turn to what the US government tells us:

Summary
Radioactive elements in coal and fly ash should not be sources of alarm. The vast majority of coal and the majority of fly ash are not significantly enriched in radioactive elements, or in associated radioactivity, compared to common soils or rocks. This observation provides a useful geologic perspective for addressing societal concerns regarding possible radiation and radon hazard

from http://geology.cr.usgs.gov/energy/factshts/163-97/FS-16...

Any comments or discussion on which viewpoint is more credible would be most welcome!




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lkinsale Donating Member (662 posts) Send PM | Profile | Ignore Sun Jul-20-03 12:47 PM
Response to Original message
1. As a former uranium exploration geologist
Edited on Sun Jul-20-03 12:48 PM by lkinsale
I can only speak to the geological issues, NOT the health issues. And my information is somewhat outdated, but still useful I think.

The articles about coal-fired plants are accurate. They produce (and are allowed to, I presume) radioactivity at higher rates than allowed by nuclear plants. It's my feeling they should be held to at least the same standard.

As an exploration geologist, my problem was often distinguishing significant (to me) levels of radioactivity from the high background. There is indeed a lot of natural background radioactivity that few people realize. Some examples:

-Grand Central Station (because it is built of granite) has a higher level of radioactivity than is allowed around nuclear power plants.

-A cross-country plane flight exposes the passengers to levels of radioactivity that are higher than a chest x-ray (At least an early '80s chest x-ray. The xrays may be lower now, the plane flights are not--probably higher with the changes in ozone.)

-Radon gas is a common natural emission from some soils and water. It can accumulate in homes to high levels of exposure. It produces highly radioactive daughters in a gaseous state which can be breathed into the lungs.

-Burning wood emits radioactive components, because the trees have accumulated radioactive elements from the soil which are released in smoke and ash.

-During my exploration days, I came across several instances where people had built fireplaces or summer houses using local materials that measured as very radioactive on my equipment. This is probably more common than realized.

-One of the reasons coal is high in radioactive materials is because for geochemical reasons, coal seams provide a place where uranium in ground water tends to concentrate. Indeed, these were the very places we were often prospecting for exploitable uranium deposits in the U.S. (Once Australia came online with huge deposits in the early 80's, the US uranium biz died)

So yea, we are exposed every day to a dose of natural background radioactivity, and the amount varies widely from place to place and situation to situation. I don't know the health consequences. But I think it is disingenuous to claim that =because= there is natural background radioactivity, that makes it just fine to add to it by allowing coal-fired plants to add significantly more.

I haven't been in the uranium exploration biz for a long time, but we used to feel strongly that people were overly frightened of the radioactivity levels around nuclear plants in comparison to the levels produced by coal-burning. We honestly felt (and I think we had good reason) that this was backwards, that the coal-burning was the greater environmental hazard. (Assuming that the nuclear plants are built and operated safely, which is another matter.)
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CafeToad Donating Member (149 posts) Send PM | Profile | Ignore Mon Jul-21-03 08:58 AM
Response to Reply #1
3. Thank you for the response
A few years back there was an article in Scientific American which propounded the view that life evolved amid a high level of background radiation (the planet earth must have been considerably more radioactive 3 billion years ago?!?) and human health is consequently enhanced by a certain level of radiation. As your post details, sources of radiation certainly are ubiquitous, and everyone has most likely been exposed to much more than they're aware of.

Tangentially, I'm developing a hypothesis wherein the primary danger of environmentally-dispersed uranium (either natural ores, or the depleted variety) is due to its chemical toxicological properties and not radiation. In any event, we seem to be in agreement that burning large amounts of coal is probably not an environmentally-prudent course of action to pursue. But as long as West Virginia is a swing state, I suspect politics will win out in this matter.
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lkinsale Donating Member (662 posts) Send PM | Profile | Ignore Mon Jul-21-03 02:52 PM
Response to Reply #3
4. As another little strange twist
Here in New Mexico, radon gas is an issue. I even have a system installed in my house to divert radon from coming up through the foundation (altho the other source is water, so one is also theoretically exposed just by running the shower or tap.)

Oddly enough, New Mexico, in spite of having one of the higher radon gas emission problems in the country, has one of the lowest rates of lung cancer.

(On the other hand, anecdotally, I have a non-smoking, otherwise healthy friend who moved here and was diagnosed several years later with lung cancer.)

So...what to conclude? Is it conceivable that we have an "immune system" which responds to low-level long term doses of radiation?

I personally would like to see as much of the country as possible fueled by natural gas, which seems the least environmentally problematic energy source in terms of emissions, U.S. reserves and safety. I'm not counting wind and solar, which would be useful but aren't going to form a complete solution. The problem with nuclear is always the failsafe issues of the plants, and spent fuel, not the ongoing pollution, which is minimal in comparison to coal.

However, as we've seen in CA, it's a market that is highly manipulatable. (LOL, is that a word?) Pipelines, contracts and market conspire to create "shortages" that aren't real. Last I heard, we have enormous natural gas reserves in this country and in Canada. But now people talk as if we have run out. I frankly don't believe it. Back in my day, the claim was the world would run out of oil in 10 years, in which case we should have had to resort to our bicycles along about '95. ;)
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JonasQuinn Donating Member (69 posts) Send PM | Profile | Ignore Wed Jul-23-03 03:19 PM
Response to Reply #4
7. There is a theory about that
Is it conceivable that we have an "immune system" which responds to low-level long term doses of radiation?

It's called "radiation hormesis". Here's a quick glance at it:

http://www.angelfire.com/mo/radioadaptive/inthorm.html
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DrGonzoLives Donating Member (1000+ posts) Send PM | Profile | Ignore Mon Jul-21-03 08:52 AM
Response to Original message
2. This is a good point
Some of that fly ash contains radioactive materials that are not incinerated in the furnaces. Essentially, then, you have small amounts of what could be considered fallout (which is nothing more than radioactive dust settling out of the atmosphere) around these plants.

While the radioactivity in coal isn't enormous, it is still enough to raise eyebrows, I would think, especfially with how coal-burning plants work.
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seasat Donating Member (1000+ posts) Send PM | Profile | Ignore Mon Jul-21-03 04:59 PM
Response to Reply #2
5. Also mercury output from coal powered plants
It ticked me off how * is gutting the Clean Air Act and how now the trout I so love to catch are unsafe for pregnant women. I'd rather us modernize our nuclear plants than go with "clean coal". We could learn a lot from France.
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ChemEng Donating Member (314 posts) Send PM | Profile | Ignore Mon Jul-21-03 10:54 PM
Response to Reply #5
6. "Clean Coal"
There is a clean coal technology that prevents contaminants such as mercury from entering the environment. It involves gasification, an "old" technology that has been improved. The process first reacts coal with steam and oxygen in a vessel at elevated pressures and temperatures to produce synthesis gas. Synthesis gas is a mixture of carbon monoxide and hydrogen with smaller amounts of methane and CO2. Ash is removed as a separate product, so any heavy metals such as uranium are recovered. The synthesis gas is cleaned to remove sulfur, ammonia, mercury, etc. What is left is a very clean fuel comparable to natural gas. Typically the synthesis gas would be used in a combined cycle cogeneration power plant. There are several demonstration plants in the US.

The technology can even be used to sequester CO2. This is possible by reacting the carbon monoxide with water to produce hydrogen and carbon dioxide. The carbon dioxide can be removed from the gas and stored in a geologic formation.

See www.gasification.org for more info....
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seasat Donating Member (1000+ posts) Send PM | Profile | Ignore Thu Jul-24-03 12:37 PM
Response to Reply #6
8. Nope, I'm skeptical about the clean coal initiative
My "clean coal" comment is in reference to the * administration's constant reference to it but how they give the coal industry and coal fired power plants a pass. However, I have some problems with *'s clean coal initiative.


  1. The idea that you can somehow store CO2 that is produced in large quantities in a geological formation has never been really demonstrated. What are you going to do,bubble CO2 through a solution of calcium hydroxide and hope some precipitates out? We're talking about Gigatons of CO2 emmited each year by the coal industry.
  2. While Shrub is spending 2 billion on this technology, there is not insentive for the coal industry to adopt it. He's gutting the clean air act and let off many companies that were going to be forced to improve their air pollution control systems under the Clinton administration.
  3. While mercury removal is an admiral goal, according to the DOE:

    Mercury. Trace elements of mercury are released when coal is burned. The Environmental Protection Agency was given until December 2000 to determine whether it is necesary to control mercury from coal-fired power plants. The Agency has now decided that it will promulgate new mercury control regulations by December 2003. At this point, however, there is no consistent, reliable technology for removing mercury that works for all boiler types used in coal-fired power plants

  4. Many of the test plants did not work. They have yet to produce a clean coal plant that can meet all the pie-in-the sky goals listed in your post.

  5. Finally the mining of the coal is a dirty polluting business. *'s has cut requlations that now allow waste to be dumped into streams from mining operations.


The postive is some of the research into clean coal can be used to cleanup biomass fuel. Biomass fuel is ulitimately a net sink in terms of C02 production.
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ChemEng Donating Member (314 posts) Send PM | Profile | Ignore Fri Jul-25-03 09:17 PM
Response to Reply #8
9. My response....
I'll respond to your points:

1. Gigatons per yeasr sounds like a lot. However, one would inject the CO2 directly into geologic formations. You may find it hard to believe, but people inject CO2 into the ground today; it's used in a process called a miscible flood in an oil field. But there are other formations that one could inject CO2 into as well, for instance deep salt water aquifers. No reaction is needed to sequester the CO2.

2. I'm not sure what you were saying here, but the process I was describing is a clean coal technology. The incentive to adopt it will be provided by the marketplace. With high natural gas prices, the incentive is probably here today.

3. As I mentioned before, the mercury is removed from the synthesis gas before combustion. This is a well known technology that is used widely by the petrochemical industry. I did not say that it would be removed from a smokestack. There is not a technology that I am aware of that can remove mercury from an existing coal fired planrt's smokestack.

4. These are not test plants!!! The plant in Tampa Florida is running and is producing power as clean as that from a natural gas fired plant.

5. I agree that mining is a dirty business. We need to make sure that the companies that are polluting are held accountable.

The point I was trying to make in my first post is that as long as we are burning coal, there is a technology that works today to produce a clean synthesis gas that will burn as cleanly as natural gas. I would love to have all of the coal plants convert to this technology (such as the Wabash coal plant in Illinois). The amount of pollution reduction would be tremendous.
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CafeToad Donating Member (149 posts) Send PM | Profile | Ignore Sat Jul-26-03 09:07 AM
Response to Reply #9
10. How stable is the sequestration of carbon dioxide
in deep salt water aquifers?

I ask in memory of the carbon dioxide releases from Lake Nyos that killed a large number of people a few years back - efforts are now underway to effect controlled RELEASE of carbon dioxide from this, and similar African, lakes,

more information at:

http://www.thirteen.org/savageplanet/01volcano/01/index...
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ChemEng Donating Member (314 posts) Send PM | Profile | Ignore Sat Jul-26-03 01:27 PM
Response to Reply #10
11. The situation you describe is different...
but nevertheless, a very dangerous one. An active volcano can release tremendous amounts of CO2, and if there is a lake in the crater, then the CO2 will saturate the water. If there is a sudden upwelling of water, the the lower pressure at the surface of the lake will cause the CO2 to come out of solution (simiular to opening a can of soda). That was an interesting article, and it sounds as if they may have a way to prevent future tragedies.

With CO2 sequestration, I think the key is to inject the CO2 into stable geologic formations. For instance, depleted oil and gas fields and deep salt water aquifers. I certainly wouldn't inject near earthquake zones or volcanos.

Until the day when renewables and/or fusion power can supply 100% of our energy needs, we will burn coal. I would like to make it as clean as possible.
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NewYorkerfromMass Donating Member (1000+ posts) Send PM | Profile | Ignore Mon Aug-11-03 10:30 AM
Response to Reply #11
15. RE: Crater lakes- my understanding is different on CO2 releases
My understanding is that the CO2 comes from a mini-eruption where a large amount of CO2 is released from the volcano all at once. The "upwelling" of water is caused by the sudden release of gas pressure which has been building up under the lake. It has happened many times the past 30 or 40 years, the silent deadly cloud of gasses rolling down the mountain sides and killing all animal life.
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seasat Donating Member (1000+ posts) Send PM | Profile | Ignore Mon Jul-28-03 12:54 AM
Response to Reply #9
12. My Rebuttal
Feminist_man wrote: "Gigatons per yeasr sounds like a lot. However, one would inject the CO2 directly into geologic formations. You may find it hard to believe, but people inject CO2 into the ground today; it's used in a process called a miscible flood in an oil field. But there are other formations that one could inject CO2 into as well, for instance deep salt-water aquifers. No reaction is needed to sequester the CO2."

My response: The miscible flood technology is to increase the yields for oil wells not for storage of huge amounts of CO2. If this approach is such a good idea for carbon sequestration then why is it not used now? You could inject the entire emissions from a a coal fired plant into old oil wells without the need for increased pollution control if this was a cost effective solution. It appears to be theoretical that a significant amount of CO2 can be stored this way. I need to do further study but I haven't seen anything yet that shows the CO2 can be affectively trapped in deep wells and that the deep wells would have the necessary capacity. They have problems of permeability of the deep saline aquifers. You also have the problem of transport of the emissions to the appropriate site. You would have to construct huge pipelines to these areas.

Feminist_man wrote: " I'm not sure what you were saying here, but the process I was describing is a clean coal technology. The incentive to adopt it will be provided by the marketplace. With high natural gas prices, the incentive is probably here today."

My response: The gasification technology currently results in the coal product costing more than natural gas. My point is that the Bush EPA has postponed the rules on enforcement of the Clean Air Act on coal fired power plants. Why would a power company have incentive to switch to a more expensive technology when they can burn old dirty coal and get away with it?

Feminist_man wrote: " These are not test plants!!! The plant in Tampa Florida is running and is producing power as clean as that from a natural gas fired plant."

My response: You mean this plant? I'm surprised that the FL DEP actually fined this plant. TECO was cited by the Clinton administration over violations of the Clean Air Act and was going to force them to upgrade their pollution control equipment. The FL DEP stepped in and was going to let them off with a minor fine (thanks to Jebbie). The Clinton administration over road the FL DEP and was going to force TECO to clean up its act. When Shrub took the White House however, this was reversed and nothing was done to TECO except for a small fine. If this is you example of a "clean coal" plant then your program is in trouble. I live in the Tampa Bay area and fish out in the bay. We've go terrible air quality and TECO is a major source of the pollution. I can post more articles on TECO if you would like me to further back this up.

From St. Pete Times Article: " The state fined Tampa Electric Co. $333,100 Wednesday for improperly storing waste at a Polk County plant that's billed as a state-of-the-art "clean coal" facility.
The plant, in Mulberry, is a showcase facility for the U.S. Department of Energy, and regularly hosts visitors from all over the world.
But the Florida Department of Environmental Protection says the plant burned inefficiently, and produced huge piles of unburned coal, ash and a waste product called slag, threatening groundwater."

Feminist_man wrote: " I agree that mining is a dirty business. We need to make sure that the companies that are polluting are held accountable."

My Response: My problem with this the current administration is not holding anyone accountable and is loosening the rules. The clean coal technology is certainly better than the current technology but is not better IMO than biofuels or nuclear power. There is no incentive for the companies to switch to this technology and it appears the cost of using it would far outpace even more environmentally friendly technologies. I also see mixed signals on the effectiveness of clean coal technology when compared to natural gas. Some (environmental groups) report that the emissions are not near as clean as natural gas. Here's some more information on Bush's Clear Skies Initiative.

I'm very skeptical of the "clean coal" initiative since it appears to me to be a bandaid to preserve an outdate mode of non-renewable energy. The time money and research would be better spent investigating new renewable technologies.
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ChemEng Donating Member (314 posts) Send PM | Profile | Ignore Sun Aug-10-03 08:42 PM
Response to Reply #12
13. My respoinse to your points....
On the storage of CO2, I believe if you research this you will find that it is viable today. It is not used today because no one has mandated it. One would not habve to build pipelines to an appropriate site; build the plant where a good geologic formation exists, and transport power by power lines.

You said, "My response: The gasification technology currently results in the coal product costing more than natural gas." That is flat out not true with natural gas at $5/MM Btu. Coal costs about $1/MM Btu. Conversion costs, including capital recovery, indicate one would need an equivalent natural gas price of $3.50 to $4.00 per MM Btu to compete. I am also not saying let coal plants continue with today's technology.

The bit about fining TECO has to do with storage of slag. That has nothing to do with air emissions from the plant, which is what we were talking about. And I do not condone what they did, but that is not a fault of the clean coal technology.
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treepig Donating Member (1000+ posts) Send PM | Profile | Ignore Mon Aug-11-03 06:27 AM
Response to Reply #5
14. is your apparent endorsement of nuclear power
specifically your statement:

"I'd rather us modernize our nuclear plants than go with "clean coal".

(a) a sincere endorsement?

or

(b) a backhanded put-down of clean coal (i.e., along the lines of 'clean coal is worse than something terrible').

i have mixed feelings about nuclear power but i think alot of the problems people have with it would not be so problematic if they'd realize that current plants are based on 40-year old technology and there have been significant advancements. unfortunately when it comes to anything with the possibility of being nuclear or radioactive (or genetic for that matter), the vast majority of people seem to not be capable of rational thought. when it reaches the point of them having to give up their suv's however, my gut feeling is that there'll be a goodly number of people out there who suddenly come to the revelation that nuclear power maybe, just maybe, isn't so bad after all.



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seasat Donating Member (1000+ posts) Send PM | Profile | Ignore Sat Aug-16-03 12:21 AM
Response to Reply #14
16. Sorry, FM, I still prefer nuke to clean coal
Feminist Man Wrote: "On the storage of CO2, I believe if you research this you will find that it is viable today. It is not used today because no one has mandated it. One would not habve to build pipelines to an appropriate site; build the plant where a good geologic formation exists, and transport power by power lines."

My Response:
I did more research on it and most of the sites had this caveat on saline aquifer storage.

From Article:
"And, she says, "we need monitoring technologies to assure us that once the CO2 is stored, it's stored safely and permanently." In the long run, this may be the most important goal of all, the one that determines whether the public accepts the concept of carbon sequestration.
"With ocean and terrestrial sequestration, we need to understand ecosystem impacts and long term effectiveness. With geological sequestration, we need to know that the carbon we put in the ground isn't going to come back up," says Benson. "Otherwise we're just transferring our responsibility to future generations."

The main sites that promote this are government sites and they bill it primarily as a means to increase yields in existing oil fields. I personally would love to see us gradually start running low on oil so that we have incentive to shift away from fossil fuel. A potential problem with deep brine wells is the change in pH due to formation of carbonic acid in the deep brine could eventually corrode any carbonate rock that traps the CO2 in deep storage. Heck, that is probably the reason why they won't even consider it for Florida. We sit on a porous carbonate platform that would probably slowly dissolve in the case of deep injection releasing the gas into the atmosphere or mixing it with our water supply. In the same article it maps the areas where sequestration is possible based on oil and gas fields or deep brine storage. Florida, where I reside, is nowhere near any suitable storage area. We'd have to pie our CO2 across the Gulf to Louisiana or Texas. The article also mentions that the cost is currently prohibitive unless there is a return such as increasing yields in oil or natural gas fields.

Feminist Man wrote: " The bit about fining TECO has to do with storage of slag. That has nothing to do with air emissions from the plant, which is what we were talking about. And I do not condone what they did, but that is not a fault of the clean coal technology."

My Response:
From the article in my previous response:

" But the Florida Department of Environmental Protection says the plant burned inefficiently, and produced huge piles of unburned coal, ash and a waste product called slag, threatening groundwater."

The plant burned inefficiently. That means that because it was not working as billed, the plant produced more pollution. I'm not just worried about air pollution. Pollution from coal fired plants hits us in land, sea, and water. TECO also has faced fines at their coal-fired plants for air pollution. Their response was not to build more clean coal facilities but they are converting the existing facilities to natural gas. They chose natural gas because it is cheaper.


Treepig wrote:

"specifically your statement:

"I'd rather us modernize our nuclear plants than go with "clean coal".

(a) a sincere endorsement?"

My Response:
It is an endorsement. It makes sense to me to go with the improved technology in nuclear power instead of the clean coal technology as a stopgap for power production until we come with something better. Clean coal (IMHO) is a band-aid for technology that is centuries old. At least nuclear power is from this century. When I drive up to Crystal River, FL and snorkel with the manatees, I hardly notice the nuclear power plant nearby. When I go out fishing in Tampa Bay, I see the huge plume of smoke coming from TECO's stacks. That sums it up for me.
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