Slow-Burning Disaster

A few weeks ago came news that Duke Energy was considering the construction of the first new nuclear plant in two decades (since before the Chernobyl accident in the former Soviet Union), to be built in either South or North Carolina. Now, nuclear power is undoubtedly a bad thing: aside from possible contamination through accidents or terrorism, links to nuclear proliferation, the problem of waste disposal, and the hazards to workers, communities, and the environment posed by uranium mining, there is always the past ruthlessness of the nuclear industry to consider (anyone remember Karen Silkwood?).

Yet somehow it seems more alarming to read that, after a lull in the past two decades, there are currently 74 coal-fired plants planned or under construction in the United States. In the next few years the world faces a tremendous upsurge in coal-burning energy production, as new plants come online in the U.S. and developing nations.

A crucial difference between nuclear and coal is that coal's pollution enters the atmosphere (and eventually your lungs) in far larger volumes, as part of ordinary operation, every day. Coal plants are the single greatest contributor to global warming; according to the Natural Resources Defense Council, they produce 2.5 billion tons of greenhouse gases a year (cars, the second largest source, produce 1.5 billion tons). Also, mercury emissions from coal plants have been linked to the sharp increase in autism in recent years. As an asthmatic, I'm concerned that coal has been associated with a similar rise in asthma (although coal may be a minor contributor to asthma; traffic and indoor pollution, including cockroaches, are probably more important, while some point to margarine as a culprit).

Supposed "clean coal" technologies notwithstanding (and there's lots of skepticism about them), it remains true that "there is no fuel dirtier than coal," as Frank O'Donnell, executive director of the Clean Air Trust, told the Huntington, W.Va., Herald-Tribune.

Of course, in the long run neither nuclear nor coal will do; we need to accelerate the development of renewable energy sources and try to cut down on the fantastic amounts of energy we here in the U.S. are used to expending (as our friends at NC WARN remind us). But maybe we need to invest the public image of coal with the same sense of threat and emergency that most people associate with nuclear power. One encouraging example: last fall activists were arrested while protesting at a Maryland coal plant owned by the Atlanta-based Mirant Corporation, the sort of action that one's more likely to hear about in opposition to nuclear power.