Abstract: Coal is ‘base load” energy in many countries, and poisons, earth, wind, ocean, and life. With present technology, we need to bring nuclear energy out of the closet, lest we want to destroy civilization.

In the Arctic, mercury vapor in the air condenses, and poisons everything. It comes from burning coal. Burning coal produces billions of tons of various wastes.  By comparison, the yearly High Level Waste from nuclear energy, worldwide, is 12,000 tons, and most of that is actually precious nuclear fuel, and could be reused in advanced nuclear reactors.

The arguments against nuclear have to do NOT with principle, but with execution (that is, law and practice). In other words, clean nuclear is just a matter of deciding to have it. Not so with coal.

Nuclear fission is part of a carbon free future, not because it’s so pretty, but because there is nothing better, for now. Let those that think otherwise rise, and whine. Thanks logics, and truth, Obama, and now the Congress of the USA, have decided to spend around 20 billions towards nuclear.

A good decision, but, to help the world’s ecology, and the world economy, research into advanced reactors (generation IV and V) has to be pushed much more.



Some republican senators are huffing and puffing about the “cost” of Obama’s health bill. But as Obama and Larry Summers have pointed out, the aim, and intrinsic nature of the health plan, is to save money, for the entire nation. The Obama health plan targets cost to the nation first, so to brandish its cost to sub-entities is irrelevant. Revealingly, the right’s counterproposal is to give tax breaks for private insurance, another case of taxing the poor to help the rich.

Morality? When it’s big enough, the big picture makes details irrelevant. Same with nukes: the big picture there, too, is to save cost. This time the cost is measured in world pollution.

Energy from burning renewable carbon allowed ever greater human comfort and population for one million years. But now we are desperate, and burning non renewable 300 million years old fossils, on an inconceivable scale. The waste produced pollutes the atmosphere massively, collapsing the climate, and more than half of the pollution goes in the oceans. There the CO2 reacts with H2O, acidifying the oceans. Moreover, since coal is extracted from the ground, it comes out with lots of poisons, such as radioactivity and mercury. The mercury goes into all the large animals of the sea, slowly killing them and making them poisonous. Officially coal extraction kills about 2,000 miners in China a year, but it’s rumored to be ten times this. In the USA, pollution caused by coal officially kills 24,000, and probably much more.


“Hands down, coal is by far the dirtiest pollutant,” said Dan Jaffe, an atmospheric scientist at the University of Washington who has detected pollutants from Asia on peaks in Oregon and Washington. “It is a pretty bad fuel on all scores.” China burns about two billion tons of coal (2009) and its inky smoke contains at least 600 tons of MERCURY VAPOR. In sixty years, that would be 36,000 tons. scaled up to the entire world, we get about 100,000 tons. In the atmosphere, and then in the ocean. Interestingly really high energy nuclear waste in the USA is said, to be 60,000 tons. Yes, mercury is about just as bad.  (To be fully honest, the coal burning in the USA is supposed to pollute the air with only as a third of the mercury as China; still hundreds of tons a year).

A by product of burning coal is coal ash, a hazardous substance, if there ever was one, although it is not regulated as such. It contains plenty of heavy metals, arsenic and selenium, that have leached into waterways, and sometimes has apparently induced cancer rates as high as 1 in 50 for those living near the worst sites.

Nuclear energy development was started by France (1938), and then propagated to Britain and the USA. The idea was to atom bomb the Nazis, before they got there first. Japan had also no less than three frantic nuclear programs, but got atom bombed first. Then attention turned towards Stalin, and his minion, Krutchev. Krutchev, in 1956, during his invasion of Hungary, where he was killing 36,000 Hungarians, threatened to atom bomb Paris and London. In this ambiance, nuclear energy was long axed around bombs, to stop fascism whatever it took. Thus corners were cut, even in the West, and the death of hundreds of thousands (!), or long term pollution, was no a primary consideration (see note).

The nuclear waste problem is caused by what has now become primitive, ridiculously inefficient technology. Brick walls are also a problem, because if one bangs one’s head too hard on them, one dies. Not to say that nuclear waste is an excellent thing. It is a very bad thing. But High Level Waste augments by 12,000 tons a year, worldwide, that’s two stories piled up above a basket ball court. Just the Chinese waste from coal is several billion tons a year, spread into the atmosphere, falling and flowing into the sea.

Panicky anguish from Greenpeace asserts that nuclear materials (say Plutonium 239, half life 24,000 years) would have to be contained for 240,000 years. This is much better than the containment one would need for fossil fuel, though. If one put 1,000 tons of gasoline in a tank, one would have to contain it for one billion years. At least, with Plutonium 239, it would be all gone after a million years, from its natural decay. Now, of course, why would Greenpeace want to store gasoline forever? Why not to burn it, instead? So, sure, Greenpeace would put the fuel in boats and philosophically correctly go harass whalers somewhere. After a while, Greenpeace would have burned all the gasoline, and would not need to store it anymore: problem solved. So the question to Greenpeace is this: why not to burn the Plutonium 239, too? Well, in the past one did not know how to burn Pu 239. But advanced reactors can be designed to burn whatever.

But first thing first. First of all, nuclear energy in the USA uses an open cycle. The nuclear fuel is burned once in the USA, using only 1% of the energy inside. Then the fuel, being contaminated by decay products, cannot be used anymore in the primitive reactors. Those are so finicky that when the fuel is not just so, they stop working. So the mostly unused fuel is disposed of. But of course it’s very dangerous, since it still has 99% of its energy, or so. The USA has thus accumulated 60,000 tons of this so called “Highly Level nuclear Waste”. Except it’s not waste. It’s as if when fueling up a tank with 15 gallons, use just a pound, one would re-extract the rest and store it in a shed in the courtyard. Dangerous and wasteful, sure. But also perfectly idiotic.

Instead, France uses a more advanced CLOSED CYCLE. French engineers, may be exaggerating, claim that, if they have enough of them, they can mix any transuranic elements and make them into fuel. That mix is known as MOX (Mixed OXyde). Nowadays, French reactors use only MOX. The French are so good at MOX, they MOXed plutonium warheads from the arsenal of the USA (making bombs into fuel). Advanced reactors can burn that waste, because, in truth, that waste is fuel. The great fear of having to wait 240,000 years with Greenpeace turns into 200 years at most in some cases. (The real problem may come from low level nuclear waste from industrial and medical sources.)

Today’s industry and agriculture are NOT sustainable. Not only this, but they are absolute, clear, and present disasters. All the hysteria about nuclear waste has diverted from observing much worse pollution. For example agricultural areas that have been intensely cultivated for at least 3,000 years in France are now sitting on poisonous groundwater, thanks to fertilizers, and the like (it’s not me who says it, but the European authorities in charge of enforcing basic safety, and they want to fine France). Swiss studies have shown that land devastated by fertilizers and other standard chemicals is so deeply dead and poisonous, it would take many millennia to recover, if not much more. Some will scoff, and ask what it has to do with nukes. Simple: the scaling up of old obsolete technologies has become unsustainable. It may be time to do away with a lot of them. Maybe cutting forests to grow sugar cane or corn should be discontinued, and agriculture should be grown without soils (so called “hydroponics”). The efficiency is very high, the pollution minimal. All what’s needed is energy.

People legitimately worry about nuclear reactors exploding. But that all depends upon how they are built. A nuclear bomb is made to “burn”, or more exactly fracture by chain reaction a lot of uranium or plutonium nuclei in a short time. But, similarly a napalm bomb is made to burn lots of fossil fuel in the shortest time. The famous Chernobyl reactor, which underwent a nuclear explosion of sort, and a dramatic meltdown, was designed like a bomb (it had a positive heat coefficient, and a positive void coefficient, among other absurdities), moreover the operators forcefully removed all the safeties (they wanted to see if the reactor would cool down with absolutely all the safeties removed). The reactor tried to shut down, but the operators kept on overriding it. Some similar will to override the safety mechanisms animated the operators at Tree Mile Island. But because the reactor type was not as dangerous, things did not get as bad. Moreover Three Mile Island had a containment building, which Chernobyl did not.

Containment buildings can be made arbitrarily strong. Just make them as strong as giant Nazi submarine installations in France, and they will last forever (and in particular resist to anything may be even a nuclear bomb).

Advanced reactors tend, and can be designed, to have a negative temperature coefficients: if temps go up, or anything goes wrong, the nuclear reactions stop, on their own. It is just a matter of a more sophisticated design. There was the same problem with train brakes: initially power had to be applied for trains to brake. There were spectacular accidents, with hundreds killed. Then it got to be understood that it was better to apply power to prevent trains from braking. Clever change of design, no more accidents. 

As North Korea demonstrates, the world cannot control rogue states that want to go militarily nuclear. Now that North Korea has threatened us with nuclear war, the ultimate rampart is to have better technology, and win that war. To prevent getting there with other countries, there is no choice but an intrusive program of inspections, worldwide, as world nuclear disarmament proceeds apace. Pacific nuclear energy would allow to give a pretext for such intrusive inspections.

Solar has a great future, and should be pushed to the maximum. The best, latest photovoltaics in the lab are competitive with anything. Still, there is an energy storage problem: solar does not produce 24/7, except in the polar regions, half the year. This cannot be solved partly by pumping water up into the same dams nuclear energy also replenishes in the middle of the night, but it will allow to draw down the dams less. Another problem is that the best sites are in the desert, far from cities, or wet, cold, and dark lands. Thus big electric grids will have to be built, but those are sensitive to terrorism and decay, besides being expensive eyesores.

Wind has been pushed as an alternative, but, first, it’s not base load: it’s not present 24/7, as nuclear is. There is deeper major conceptual problem with wind. Indeed the world atmosphere is a CARNOT ENGINE. It transforms the difference between a heat source and a cold sink into motion: winds and sea currents. The problem is that, as the planet warms up, the cold sinks, the poles, are warming up much faster. That will accelerate as the ice is lost, and heat is absorbed there instead of being reflected back to space. It is known what happens in the end: dinosaurs in Alaska and Antarctica, roamed the forests. At this point, there will no more Carnot engine, and normal winds will stop. it is already well know that on the day where more power is needed, on the hottest days, the wind, in places such as Texas, tends to die.

That means the winds could die. (Giant hurricanes and super thunderstorms would increasingly happen, though; recently in the Inter tropical Convergence Zone thunder storm clouds (“mesocyclones”) going up 20 kilometers have been observed.) already claims have been made that the world wide average of wind speed went down 10% in thirty years. This is grave for wind energy, because a decrease of 10% in wind speed leads to a decrease of 30% in efficiency (above 100 km/h, wind resistance, hence power is proportional to the cube of the speed).
Well, geothermal and the energy of the sea. Geothermal works, but not everywhere, and it’s not clear (to me) how it will age, outside of volcanic zones (plants exist in California and France). Another problem is that geothermal will cause some quakes (it did cause a 3,4 Richter quake in Basel in 2006; it could be argued that in quaking zones, it could relieve built up stress, though: Basel was ravaged by an 8 Richter quake in 1356 CE…). But the energy is enormous (thousands of times what the USA uses).

The energy of the sea comes in various forms, from sea current to temperature differences. France has operated a large tide power plant since 1966 (the 240 MW Rance plant). More are coming, and various sea currents turbines are tested around Britain and France. Such turbines are much more dependable and powerful than wind mills. Plants using the difference of temps between sea surface and the depths are possible on paper, a large prototype is planned in Hawai’i.  But, with the sea, the devil is in the barnacles.

Also, of course, there are fuel cells: they are much more efficient than Carnot engines (which all nuclear reactors are). The hydrogen they would use would have to be produced cleanly from the sun or from advanced high temperature nuclear reactors. Meanwhile the hydrogen can be produced from natural gas (not perfect, but not bad). Weirdly, the department of energy has decided to stop supporting research in fuel cell cars (although Honda, Ford and GM have demonstrated what looked like very promising fuel cell cars, Dr. Chu decided to ax that, and when Science magazine, an institution representing the AAAS came to ask questions in May 2009, Dr. Chu refused to explain; it all sounds childish and irrational!)

Efficiency is a must. It means high speed electric trains, clean cars, efficient houses and factories, compact cities. It means a carbon tax.



To establish a new energy source often takes 50 years. In any case, it requires a lot of energy. So one needs energy to get more energy.

That is a big problem with wind. If my reasoning above of the earth as a Carnot engine is true, the wind could die on us. Since if wind speed goes down 10% wind energy down 30%, wind is problematic as a long term solution to heating. As I said. On the other hand, thanks to coal, to cook eggs, any stone will do.

A bit more subtle is the problem of having enough energy to scale up new energy sources. First, you don’t want to depend in a major way on a source that may die on you (wind). But conventional photovoltaic based on silicon has the problem too that it requires a lot of energy to make the crystal. So it scales up poorly as a new energy source, because it takes so much energy to make it. That’s why it was important to find cheaper ways to make photovoltaics (and they are now for sale).

Many will say that nuclear is subsidized. Maybe, but much less so than coal, or oil, or a fortiori renewables. Roads get a subsidy of more than 100 billion dollars a year from the general budget of the USA. Now civil nuclear energy (including the grotesque Chernobyl explosion) has killed very few people, whereas coal kills enormously, and the coal catastrophe gets  ever worse.  It’s high time we all stop breathing mercury vapor.

Conclusion: REAL ECOLOGISTS HATE COAL: The keeper of official US government stats, the EIA says that: “Fossil fuels supply 85 percent of the primary energy consumed in the United States and are responsible for 98 percent of emissions of carbon dioxide.” We are talking about making as many dents in the 85% as possible. I doubt charging windmills can do it. Britain is not happy with its huge wind power deployment: the winds are synchronized, from Cornwall to Scotland. They all die down together, and I gave a new argument for wind energy being more problematic in the future, as heat goes up. Wind energy is at risk of the entire planet becoming a warm still blanket, as it used to be. The sun is a great hope, and is no doubt coming.

Fossil fuels, especially coal, are an unmitigated disaster. All and any talk about clean coal is just propaganda: there cannot be such a thing, except by making coal too expensive.

Nuclear has to take some of the base load energy production, and the more advanced it is, the better. Besides, it will help the economy of the USA considerably, because advanced materials and techniques of advanced reactors will provide the USA with comparative advantage, leaving China behind in the (coal) dust.

Patrice Ayme.

Notes: 1)  My bare minimum for immediate ecological relief: I would put a massive worldwide carbon tax and tax aviation fuels, both with the effect of impacting massively international exchanges of goods and people; I would also extend the European Union Value Added Tax of a minimum 15% to the entire planet, to reduce consumption; I would re-people vast expenses of the developed world with man trampling, man eating mega fauna, and evacuate human abuse from most of the land surface.

2) During the fifties, nuclear fission explosions above the ground created intense radioactive pollution in the following weeks, which seems to have killed hundreds of thousands (from epidemiological studies, for example as hospitals observed consequences of nuclear fall out on New England from bombs exploding in Nevada). Abysmal, but irrelevant to the present debate, except to point out that horrors were not pointed out in a timely manner in the past, and then pointing out that all indicates that this is the problem with coal now. Except that the coal problem is orders of magnitude worse than the worse radioactive pollution brought. 

3) As Paul Krugman puts it, June 17, 2009: “And I was on the grassy knoll, too: One of the funny aspects of being a somewhat, um, forceful writer is that I’m regularly accused of all sorts of villainy. I was personally responsible for the demise of Enron; my nonexistent son worked for Hillary; etc.. The latest seems to be that I called for the creation of a housing bubble — in fact, the bubble is my fault! The claim seems to be based on a piece of … economic analysis. What I said was that the only way the Fed could get traction would be if it could inflate a housing bubble. And that’s just what happened.”

Krugman concentrates on economic and political analysis, which are inseparable. The present author is worse, being totally omnivorous, respecting only facts and logics, very little besides, and having no reputation to lose.

4) Funding for next-generation, Generation IV, nuclear plants would rise to $191 million in Obama budget, a six percent increase. Way too little. Nuclear fuel cycle research and development would receive $192 million, a 32 percent increase from the current year.  “These technologies will support potential of nuclear power as a secure, efficient, cost-effective, and emissions-free source of energy”, says DOE.

5) The nuclear energy programs were started in a panic in January 1938, when the French Ministry of War withdrew from public scrutiny patents deposited by some French scientists about nuclear chain reaction. France wanted to develop nuclear energy before Hitler and his minions. Soon France enrolled Norway in the effort, using what was once the world’s most powerful hydro plant, producing 12 tons of heavy water a year. In 1940, the French Government purchased the entire stock of heavy water from Norway. The Germans had offered to purchase it, also, but the Norwegian Government was told by the French of its possible military use. Hitler reacted by invading Norway (he wanted also to protect his iron he was getting from “neutral” Sweden through Norway). France and Britain counter-invaded in the north, defeated elite Nazis, and were going to invade Sweden, when France fell.

The French nuclear program, with scientists and equipment fled to Britain. Boats were switched, and the first one was sunk in a Nazi Luftwaffe bombing, in the hope of making the Nazis believe the nuclear threat was over. That worked. Nazi scientists were in one house full of microphones on August 6, 1945, when Hiroshima happened, and they could not believe it. It took Heisenberg three days to figure it out.

The nuclear program then fled, well, to Manhattan, and even Chicago, and all over the USA. It was found that boron was better than heavy water to slow down the neutron, and soon the first nuclear pile produced energy in Chicago. Things were amateurish in the beginning, and rushed by war. Many scientists believe that, since Nobel Prize winner Irene Joliot-Curie had told everything to Lise Meitner and Otto Hahn, the Nazis knew that a fierce, self feeding nuclear chain reaction was possible. But as luck had it, not so.

6) Total wind energy is 121 GW (2008). UK’s 3 GW of wind power ranks eight, just behind France. 25 GW in the USA (number one) and 23 GW in Germany (second)… Spain has 17 GW, China 12GW, and India 10 GW…The point with the UK is that one cannot use wind power for baseload (because it fluctuates all over simultaneously). Besides, who wants a big, 1,000 feet high wind mill in their backyard… This being said, wind has a great future, especially back on ships…



  1. Sergio Tunes Says:

    Nice article. Thanks.


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