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Going way back to 2007 from Scientific American, one of those articles that make you think that the conventional wisdom is almost always wrong.  In the nuclear debate, an assessment of which produces more radioactive waste gives rise to a strange but true moment:

Among the surprising conclusions: the waste produced by coal plants is actually more radioactive than that generated by their nuclear counterparts. In fact, the fly ash emitted by a power plant—a by-product from burning coal for electricity—carries into the surrounding environment 100 times more radiation than a nuclear power plant producing the same amount of energy.

At issue is coal’s content of uranium and thorium, both radioactive elements. They occur in such trace amounts in natural, or “whole,” coal that they aren’t a problem. But when coal is burned into fly ash, uranium and thorium are concentrated at up to 10 times their original levels.

Fly ash uranium sometimes leaches into the soil and water surrounding a coal plant, affecting cropland and, in turn, food. People living within a “stack shadow”—the area within a half- to one-mile (0.8- to 1.6-kilometer) radius of a coal plant’s smokestacks—might then ingest small amounts of radiation. Fly ash is also disposed of in landfills and abandoned mines and quarries, posing a potential risk to people living around those areas.

I take no pleasure in nuclear’s, and by extension, Japan’s misfortunes.  I’ve always said that I have nothing against nuclear apart from thinking that apart in France and Japan it only provides niche solutions in energy.  It’s very expensive, the externalities of waste storage haven’t been solved and it takes a very long time. Gas is far more logical solution, at least for the next twenty years or so.

Nuclear’s troubles should change the shale debate in theory.  People will be able to have grown up debates about energy and decide that there are no ideal alternatives and place shales’ issue in perspective.  Twenty families in Dimock Pennsylvania drinking water shouldn’t amount to much compared to all of Tokyo’s drinking water.

But again, there are choices. I’ve never had the pleasure of visiting Dimock but I do know Western PA enough to ask:  if you don’t have gas, or coal or nuclear, it gets mightly colld and dark there each winter. This isn’t about black, white, red, blue, right, wrong. Life is more complicated . This is not about the best solution to keep the lights on, it’s about the least bad. On that grown up discussion about risk,  natural gas beats everything.

Back to the past, and the SA story,

The question boils down to the accumulating impacts of daily incremental pollution from burning coal or the small risk but catastrophic consequences of even one nuclear meltdown.

No Hot Air, 24 March 2011