October 20, 2006

Big Coal book by Jeff Goodell

As pointed out to me by Kirk Sorenson of Thorium Energy

Review 1 of Big Coal by Jeff Goodell

the American Lung Association estimates that 27,000 people a year still die prematurely as a result of pollution from coal-fired power plants. Coal-fired power plants are also the largest emitters of mercury in the United States, releasing forty-eight tons of this potent neurotoxin each year. Combustion wastes from coal plants — fly ash, scrubber sludge — are also a significant environmental and public health concern.

Coal is the most carbon-intensive of all fossil fuels, and it is not an overstatement to say that 200 years of coal burning by industrialized nations is largely responsible for the fact that carbon dioxide levels in the earth’s atmosphere are higher than they’ve been in the past 650,000 years. Today, about 40 percent of the U.S. emissions of carbon dioxide come from burning coal. To put that in perspective, one big coal-burning power plant I visited in Georgia emits about four times as much carbon dioxide as all the cars and trucks built by the Ford Motor Company in a single year.

Review from the New york Times

"Big Coal" includes a chilling quotation from Joel Schwartz, a public health researcher who produced some of the first detailed studies of the toxic effects of air pollution: "I see more people dying of particle air pollution than are dying of AIDS, and I need to call people's attention to that."

Goodell's writing, so fiery and committed through the narrative parts of "Big Coal," turns oddly tentative when it comes time to endorse solutions. He waves off green dreams like wind and solar electricity. He pins much of his hopes on a kind of national psychotherapy program to "change our thinking" and "make the invisible visible," which translates into a vague endorsement of new emissions taxes and regulations.

Goodell does identify two specific, promising solutions: carbon trading and carbon sequestration. Carbon trading defines the cost of pumping carbon dioxide into the air and lets the market choose the best way to reduce emissions. Sequestration is an experimental technique for snatching carbon dioxide out of the power plant and pumping it into the ground — a technique that dovetails with a highly efficient new way of burning coal, known as the integrated gassification combined cycle.

Jeff Goodell connects all the dots but the last. Mass produced nuclear power plants are what can really turn the tide.

Carbon sequestering costs $100-300 per ton of carbon emissions avoided. They hope to get it down to $10 per ton by 2015. We need to get rid of 6 billion tons of carbon each year from human activity. $600 billion to 1.8 trillion per year at current costs and down to the "bargain" price of $60 billion per year just to get rid of the new stuff and if we stop increasing the carbon generated.

This article explains how nuclear power got killed by unreasonable regulations by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission and financing costs GE and other U.S. firms currently build 1,000 MW and larger nuclear units in Japan, Korea, China, India and Taiwan in 4 to 5 years. The cost for recent nuclear plants in China is $3 billion for 2 GW of power. China is planning to build two 1-GW reactors every year for the next 15 years.


Kirk Sorensen said...

Mass produced nuclear power plants are what can really turn the tide.

Bingo...this is how you make the difference. And the next question is, how do you mass produce nuclear reactors?

From the top view, we have to radically increase the safety, simplicity, and capital costs of the reactor and its asssociated power conversion system. Everything needs to get smaller and lighter.

How does that happen? Look where the mass is in a conventional nuclear plant and figure out if there's another option that let's you do it lighter.

Big steel pressure vessel--can you use a reactor that runs at atmospheric pressure?

Triple and quadruple redundant safety systems--can you design a reactor that's passively safe, and doesn't require engineered safety systems?

Huge steam turbine...can you use high-pressure compact helium gas turbines?

Complicated reprocessing facilities and transport of highly-radioactive material...can you design a reactor whose reprocessing is so simple that it's co-located with the reactor and runs continuously?

Not in my backyard mentality--can we build reactors small enough that they can be sited underwater and out-of-sight, immersed in their heat sink?