Monday, March 23, 2009

Pollution: part 1 of a series on energy

The creepy thing about pollution isn't so much that we make it, but that it seems to get into everything. Air pollution from the US, Europe, and China floats up to the Arctic, phthalates from our plastics end up in our organic veggies, and soot from smokestacks blackens white marble buildings. "Creepy" really is the only word to describe a plastic bottle that's navigated all five oceans--twice, once inisde a whale--and turns up on the very shore where it was tossed in, completely unharmed.

The old reason for not polluting was that it's bad for the earth--and it is, to have so much crap lying around, breeding bacteria and being eaten by turtles which go on to starve to death. The new reason: this shit really does come back to bite us in the ass. Nobody likes to think that they're getting schizophrenic meds from their trout, or that their "boys" are shriveling because of the plastics in their new carpet (the latter is still a matter of debate; I would err on the side of caution and reduce one's use of plastics). To hell with global warming--what is in the air these days, and how can it possibly be good for us?

Coal power plants are amongst the worst polluters. The problem begins with coal itself; mining techniques are generally not kind to the land, and the groundwater can become heavily contaminated with heavy metals. Burning coal unleashes floods of sulfuric and nitric compounds, contributing to acid rain and air pollution, rendering lakes sterile and damaging marble buildings--and possibly killing people.

The technology to "scrub" the smoke from coal power plants exists, but so far only 40% of the power plants in the US have them installed, despite the fact that scrubbers have been around since 1977. The main contention with scrubbers is what to do with "sludge"; there have been proposals to make something out of it, while regulations call for it to be buried. Either way, the power plants end up ponying up for the disposal--is it any wonder that most of them don't care to have these?

But what if I told you that there was a way to supply electricity in such a way that would have almost zero pollution? And on the scale that could power whole cities? Dependable electricity, the kind that doesn't depend on weather, can be made just about anywhere? Where the waste that's generated actually stays where you put it? Where, unlike coal, the regulations of the fuel are in place, and extremely strict?

You might be wondering what science fiction book I'm reading (Pandora's Star, by Peter F. Hamilton). But the truth is, this kind of power already exists: nuclear power.

Now, I realize that advocating nuclear power is, in the minds of most, like being an animal rights' activist (I hate PETA, by the way) who wears fur. And really, once you start looking at mining uranium and the enrichment process, it's actually not as green as many nuclear advocates would have you believe. Mining is usually open-pit mining, where it's basically a huge hole in the ground. Then the metal has to be leached from the soil, and that involves trickling a weak acid or alkaline liquid through the slag and catching it and the uranium, a process that can be "leaky". The enrichment process consumes massive amounts of electricity, though it's hard to say whether it's more or less than refining gasoline from crude.

But all of the pollution produced can be contained and dealt with. The technology and regulations already exist to ensure that uranium can be mined safely (as safely as mining anything can be done). Incidents that result in pollution stem more from the lack of oversight and individual incompetence rather than flaws in the methods that are used, problems which could be mitigated by giving the EPA some real teeth and letting it shut problem plants down. Theoretically, radioactive substances are tracked with an insidiousness that makes it almost impossible to lose any to pollution (in my lab, like most, we have to log every microliter we use)--it's more a matter of convincing individuals that it is, in fact, worth their while to play by the rules.

Containing pollution is, in my book, half the battle. If we can contain it--if we know where it is--then we can also know how much there is, and see if methods to reduce it actually work, as opposed to guesstimating if the methods make a difference.


Studd Beefpile said...

You can make nuclear reactors that enrich new fuel as they burn their current fuel. They're called breeder reactors, but they aren't built any more. Breeder reactors are high maintenance, and it turns out to be more cost effective to use the electricity your reactor generates to enrich fuel the traditional ways. Uranium mining is also no better than any other sort of mining, but quantities matter. A few grams of uranium can produce as much energy as several tons of coal or oil.

I maintain a rule of thumb that anyone who claims to be an environmentalist and who isn't for nuclear power is fundamentally unserious.

Don Blankenship said...

A description of the pollution caused by energy use and electricity generation. The page is aimed at kids.Pollution Probe is facilitating a series of workshops across Canada in order to foster a shared understanding of how energy is produced, distributed .
Don Blankenship