‘Coal or nuclear?’ is the wrong clean energy mentality

Have you ever listened to an argument for a while and thought to yourself, “You know, both sides are missing the point entirely”? That’s how I feel when the coal and nuclear camps fight about which side is a cleaner form of energy.

You’ve got articles like this one that claim that coal is more dangerous than nuclear and articles like this one applauding how safe nuclear power is, and yet no one addresses the bigger problem: high levels of energy consumption are what breed the high demand for different types of power. Instead of focusing most of our efforts on fulfilling a current standard of energy needs, why aren’t we more vocal about and focused on energy efficiency? Instead of building more power plants to meet the status quo, we should be looking for ways to reduce the need for those extra power plants by making our energy go further. Individuals should be reducing extraneous energy consumption too, but I’m focusing on the bigger entities and how they’re spending their time and money and brainpower.

The argument between nuclear and coal seems like a dead end because both are dangerous in different ways. Admittedly, I agree that coal power is more dangerous than nuclear power. Coal pollutes the atmosphere with carbon dioxide, sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxide, carbon monoxide, mercury, arsenic, and lead; acid mine drainage from abandoned coal mines leave waterways running orange with excess iron, aluminum, and acid; mountaintop removal mining leaves toxins in the air and water, not to mention leaving people’s homes wide open to extreme flooding.

But I don’t want this to be interpreted as a free pass to nuclear — nuclear isn’t crystal clean. The difference is that coal is guaranteed to be constantly polluting the atmosphere, endangering communities nearby and often leaving coal miners to work in unsafe and dangerous conditions, so the flow of danger and the actual negative consequences are constant and expected. Nuclear is regularly lauded as a safe alternative, but the problem is that when nuclear malfunctions, the results can be instantly catastrophic. It’s a constant, predictable stream of pollution with coal versus the possibility for a gargantuan amount of pollution if things go awry with nuclear (e.g. current worries in Japan about high radiation levels in food and radiation seeping into the groundwater under the plant). And of course, there’s the problem of where to store all that radioactive nuclear waste.

Anyway, commentators solely focusing on which is the cleaner energy source are missing the point. It shouldn’t be about which new type of power plant we build, but about how we can harness energy so that we don’t have to build new power plants. Energy efficiency breakthroughs are definitely still happening, but it’s disheartening that they aren’t more salient in the clean energy discussion. So yeah, nuclear power currently might be the lesser of two evils, but that isn’t where we should be setting the bar, and “coal or nuclear?” isn’t the question we should be asking.

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2 Responses to “‘Coal or nuclear?’ is the wrong clean energy mentality”

  1. Captain Dreamboat Says:

    Spot-on analysis.

    Natural Gas is getting thrown into the same ring pretty often these days as well… with much emphasis on how much cleaner it is to burn but while downplaying the damages to natural areas and communities in the process of getting it out of the ground.

  2. Don Blankenship Says:

    The “Coal” plant in that image is a Nuclear power plant, and the massive I could be wrong, but I think you are mistaking the shape of those smoke is largely invisible and doesn’t further their “power plants are evil” mentality.

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