15 December 2007

Power plant pollution: a few personal thoughts

Over at SciAm’s blog the point is made that coal ash is more radioactive than nuclear waste. My instinct says that the headline is at least somewhat dishonest — power plant ash can’t undergo runaway reactions and unlike nuclear power generation waste, isn’t likely to find its way into the nooks and crannies of the body if/when it’s released into the environment.

For all that, I’m sympathetic toward the prospect of a resurgence in nuclear power generation, and atmospheric carbon is the least of the reasons why.

Somewhere in the boonies of Missouri…

As regular readers know, I spent eight years living 160 miles’ drive from where I am now, in Columbia, Missouri. I finished high school and undertook my abortive undergraduate studies there, and spent most of that time living within easy walking distance of one of the three coal power stacks in town. As a result, I have a couple of anecdotes.

Pretensions to be Los Angeles

During my first week at HHS, I distinctly recall sitting in my biology class, looking out the window during a brilliantly sunny day… and seeing a layer of smog on the skyline, not unlike whipped-cream frosting slathered between two layers of a cake. That I would see something like this in a town of 70,000 people, located two hours’ drive from the nearest large city, annoyed and mystified me.¹ Since the power plants were, apart from engine emissions, the only sizable sources of atmospheric pollution in town, I can only assume that they were the greater source of the smog I saw.

On the other side of town…

The University of Missouri’s public works are completely separate from those of the surrounding town, so they have two coal stacks of their own. During my time as a student, the conventional wisdom was that living at Twain — the res-hall closest to the power plant, and then the ritziest of the lot — would do one hell of a job on the finish of your car. This begged the question of what power plant emissions were doing to folks’ health.

About two months after I moved to San Diego, the Maneater trotted out the story once again, and not without cause.²


¹ In Portland, which has run for the longest time on hydroelectricity and for fifteen years (ending in 1992) on fission-generated electricity, smog is usually the consequence of layer inversions during the winter, and increased economic activity during the summer. Of course, at the time I moved to Columbia, Portland had a population roughly 20 times greater. Seeing smog in a much small town was, as I said, a shock.

² A quick scan of search results from the Maneater story archive reveals that the prospect of switching the MU power plant to alternative fuels has gained some currency. Also mentioned is Columbia’s unique practice of using power plant waste to clear the roads of snow.


Marcel said...

"...power plant ash can’t undergo runaway reactions..."

Neither can nuclear waste.

"...unlike nuclear power generation waste, isn’t likely to find its way into the nooks and crannies of the body if/when it’s released into the environment..."

Wow. Ash can't find its way into the body. I guess smoking or smoke pollution are terms you never encountered...

In general, whenever I strongly dislike a blog author (like I did with you after the whole CSS thing) I try to read some more, maybe he had a particular brainfart on that issue. It doesn't seem that way with you though. Oh well, no biggie.

Marcel said...

Thanks for making the effort to leave feedback somewhere where I would read it.

The reason I dismissed your opposition to CSS frameworks is simple: things aren't black and white. Yes, most people would benefit from learning "proper" CSS. However, there is obviously a set of people who would not make the effort, but who WOULD use a framework if it existed (given that using a framework is easier than writing the equivalent - or better - CSS by hand; an assumption I am not committed to, but one it seems you agree with). Your way would prevent those people from doing something, no matter how inelegant.

By analogy, I would prefer that people used better languages like Javascript, myself - however, I am a GREAT fan of Visual Basic (even though I never used it and I hate it) because it created a million programmers. Lousy ones, sure - but they WRITE SOFTWARE. They create wealth. And that's always a good thing.

As for nuclear power plants - I agree with your opinion that "such plants once built can be efficiently supervised and operated in the United States given the regulatory environment here".

Marcel said...

Ah... where's an edit button when you need it. I agree that *it is unlikely* that such plants... and so on.