What Fukushima can teach us about coal pollution


44 Responses to “What Fukushima can teach us about coal pollution”

  1. I am given to understand that, if coal fired plants were under the jurisdiction of the Department of Energy, and subjected to the same regulations that govern emissions from nuclear power plants, they would be shut down in an instant for releasing dangerous amounts of radioactive particles into the environment.

  2. Dave Evans says:

    As an aside, that image is of the power plant in Moss Landing, California which runs on natural gas.  Lovely photo though, in it’s own way…

    • Maggie Koerth-Baker says:

      True. But yes, it’s a lovely photo. 

      • 3William56 says:

        It is nice to see an article about power plant emissions which doesn’t use a stock image/video of steam coming out of a cooling tower to illustrate teh poollooshuns. For the non engineers – the clouds of white stuff coming out of the big fat chimneys you see at a powerplant is exactly as dangerous at the emissions from your kettle. It’s the clear stuff you can’t see coming out of the small, thin, high chimneys where all the nasties are hiding.

    • Bilsko says:

      Moss Landing Units 6 & 7 (the ones using the tall stacks) are actually dual-fired capable (oil and nat. gas). They’re hardly ever run – capacity factors for the two units are 6-10%.  Its no surprise given how inefficient they are – especially compared to units 1 & 2.

      The confusion about it being a coal plant is understandable – natural gas plants don’t typically have such high stack heights because SO2 and PM10 emissions are low.  Coal plants and BWR nuclear plants (or is it the PWRs that use the super-high stacks, I forget) need the higher stack heights.  So its kind of odd to see gas fired plants that need such high stacks – could be because of the emissions from operating in oil-fired mode or it also could be that the emissions controls weren’t as advanced when 6&7 came online (back in the mid 60s)

  3. pencilbox says:

    Interesting? Yes. Worthy of study? Absolutely.

    But particulates are such a late-stage effect of coal pollution, it’s sometimes hard for me to see why we bother tracking it that far. I mean, shouldn’t something be done at this point
    ?  Or at this point http://ilovemountains.org/ ?

    Not trying to throw out a straw man, but both Maggie’s post and Chris Tucker’s comment got me thinking abt the origins of coal pollution.

  4. Blaze Curry says:

    If I ever get around to switching careers and becoming a super villain, my doom fortress will look EXACTLY like that. But with a big laser on top…a DOOM LASER.

  5. jepollock says:

    I started off wondering how a reactor releases sulphur, then went to, “did they notice coal plants being turned on?” and finally to, “ooooh”.

    That’s a deep bit of research that had to get through 3-5 layers of preconceptions to get to the core of it.  Thanks for the article, it cleared it up.

  6. idontwantafukin says:

    Coal stations also emit the most radoactivity, you know because coal is radioactive, the amount they put out would have a nuke plant closed down , just another hypocricy of life.

  7. Great article, I just want to point out that burning coal also releases a lot of radioactive isotopes too. http://www.scientificamerican.com/article.cfm?id=coal-ash-is-more-radioactive-than-nuclear-waste

  8. Andrew Daley says:

    I think the real question should be “What Fukushima can teach us about the real cost of nuclear energy production and consumption?”  How many more Fukushima’s does the world let-alone Japan sustain before we ask the real question?

    • Chernobyl was the result of the reactor being operated WAY beyond design parameters. We learned that “I wonder what will happen if I push THIS button?” should forever be a rhetorical question.

      Three Mile Island taught us that the TMI Human-Machine interface should have been designed by Apple and that the SCRAM system really should have been triply redundant. Along with equally redundant valve operation sensors.

      We learned that the Japanese were too lazy in 1970 to design against a heretofore unimaginable earthquake and tsunami. So it’s all their fault for not building a time machine back then and seeing what might happen 40 years into the future.(The preceeding was snark, mostly, for all those who have had their sense of humor surgically removed.)

      I note that for every Viewing With Alarm at Fukushima, there is thundering silence about all the other Japanese nuclear plants that went into cold shutdown, as planned, in the aftermath of the earthquake.

      • Daniel says:

        The case against nuclear power isn’t that it can’t be done right in theory.  It certainly can be done right in theory.  The case against it is that it can’t be done in practice.

        The first problem, which is illustrated by Fukushima, is that the modes of catastrophic failure are REALLY catastrophic.  As you point out, plants can be designed to minimize the risk of catastrophic failure.  Unfortunately, you can’t design to eliminate the risk of catastrophic failure.  Furthermore, you can’t really predict the probability of catastrophic failure because you simply don’t know how likely something like the tsunami (or something even worse) actually is.

        The sensible thing to do about this from a risk management perspective is to use energy sources whose modes of catastrophic failure are relatively benign.  For example, a concentrated solar generator wouldn’t spew millions of gallons of radioactive waste water into the environment if it failed, it would just sit there uselessly.

        The second problem is that the design, construction, operation, and retirement of these facilities are performed by fallible human beings, usually operating within the constraints imposed by an even more fallible institution — usually a profit-motivated corporation.  A profit-motivated corporation will necessarily take any shortcut that improves the bottom line throughout these processes.  Obviously, some shortcuts will hurt the bottom line by exposing the company to liability, but as long as there’s enough plausible deniability and the corporation has a good enough legal team, they will do what they can to save money.

        Since all the stuff about generating nuclear energy that is harmful to humans and the environment is necessary for generating nuclear energy, whereas the measures taken for the safety of human beings and the environment is a secondary “nice-to-have” distinct from the actual business of generating nuclear energy, it’s relatively clear what sorts of measures will be shortcut for the sake of the bottom line.

        Short version: nuclear energy would be great if it were provisioned by utterly selfless clairvoyant beings, akin to angels.  It is much too dangerous to put in the hands of human beings.

      • 3William56 says:

        After being in Japan a week before the quake, I also know that Japanese have an unholy liking for godawfully strong cigarettes in tiny bars. They’d prevent a whole lot more cancer by protesting about those.

        • Yep. Until recently, one could smoke anywhere in Japan. There’s a nascent stop smoking movement there. Still and all, between the cold beer and panty vending machines, you’ll likely find a cigarette vending machine that’ll sell a pack of smokes to anyone with the yen.

          • 3William56 says:

            Indeed. I like the fact that smoking outside in Tokyo is restricted to dedicated street corners, but it killed my nights out in because I seriously couldn’t stand the smog in any bar we found. Watching the puffers in the Fukishima protests alternated me between ironic amusement and despair for the lack of perspective.

            I never did find one of those mythical panty vending machines. I think there’s an excellent BB article in the truth or not of them…

      • k7aay says:

        Chris Tucker sayeth: We learned that the Japanese were too lazy in 1970 to design against a heretofore unimaginable earthquake and tsunami.  

        Au contraire, multiple sources show they HAD imagined that level of quake and tsunami. Greed, that’s all, just profits-over-people managers overruling good engineering. 

    • 3William56 says:

      Andrew – the whole point is that it’s not just nuke plants that emit nasty stuff. We need to be taking a balanced view of the costs and impacts of *any* power plant, nuke or not. Sum up the through life emissions of a dirty coal plant, and compare it to the emissions of Fukishima. Only when nuke plants are much worse can anti-nuke action be justified. Knee jerk anti nuke attitudes based on no data risk burying us in much worse doo-doo.

  9. Robert J says:

    All radiation exposure cumulatively increases your chances of getting cancer.  This is a known scientific fact, so why is the added radiation we are presently gathering from Fukushima mysteriously safe?  Answer; it isn’t.

    • Daniel says:

      Well, yes and no.  You need to get a sense for how diluted it is.  I’m just going to make up a unit of radiation exposure called a “del” — the amount the average American gets exposed to every year.

      If your average exposure is 1 del per year and the cumulative effect of the Fukushima fallout on Americans is 10^-9 del, then your probability of cancer has not risen in any statistically significant way as a result of the Fukushima fallout.

      I’m pretty anti-nuke but let’s be realistic about this kind of thing.

      • Maggie Koerth-Baker says:

        Great answer, Daniel. That’s exactly what I was going say. 

        If you can’t separate the risk from the background risk associated with being a human being living a modern lifestyle on planet Earth, then it’s not something to worry about. That’s not the same thing as 100% absolutely safe. But risk is not an absolute all or nothing proposition. And when my risk is so low that I don’t need to worry about it, I consider that safe. If I didn’t, I’m not sure I could manage to get out of bed in the morning. 

    • Every time I leave my house, I’m significantly increasing my chances of being hit by a bus. So perhaps I should just stay at home then? People always polarise the concepts of “safe” and “dangerous” but that’s flawed logic, as there’s always a chasm of “neither safe nor dangerous” in-between. In the case of exposure to radiation, the chasm is huge!

    • 3William56 says:

      Sorry, but that’s not a scientific fact. Cancer risk vs. exposure is very complicated, and not well known at this point. Even if it was, it’s akin to saying that being outside cumulatively increases your risk of being hit on the head by a meteorite, so better stay indoors. Any engineering decision is a balance of risks and benefits. If the risk is small, and the benefit great (or the risks and benefits of the alternative – in this case coal – are worse), you minimise the risk but accept it. I’m no fan of nuke power (really) – but I don’t want to see possible benefits for the greater risk of global warning thrown out based on a one off incident that (correct me if I’m wrong) has killed zero people compared to tens of thousands killed and maimed by the quake and tsunami itself.

    • k7aay says:

      Not Proven. See http://kiloseven.blogspot.com/2011/08/radiation-hormesis-challenge-to-linear.html

  10. OldBrownSquirrel says:

    I’d wondered for years whether the introduction of coal stack scrubbers, catalytic converters, etc. in the West might have played a part in producing the notorious “hockey stick” curve in that they reduced the aerosol emissions that had previously helped counteract greenhouse gas emissions.

  11. Anthony Hopkins says:

    One point that I would like to make to both Maggie’s and Daniel’s points is that though I agree, look at the cumulative radiation exposure that we live with nowadays compared to pre-nuclear times just 80 years ago.  We not only are getting background radiation from the sun and cosmic sources; but terrestrial ones as well (natural) and then there are the man-made ones, be it a nuclear reactor, X-rays from dental offices, et al.  Also, though we may know something about some of their interactions, we can’t calculate all of then together.

    That said, I agree with Daniel’s first comment, that in an ideal world, nuclear is great; but we don’t live there and so, I would rather live without it (if possible) and learn to live with less power-hungry tech (how much of the power we use is actually wasted in the transformer as heat?).

    • Maggie Koerth-Baker says:

      Anthony: The answer is “a lot” (depending of course on the tech gadget). More on that later this year as I post things related to my upcoming book on the future of energy. But, suffice to say, we waste a crap ton of energy because of poorly designed systems. 

  12. Bill Noble says:

    Superb article, Maggie. But one small quibble: In some ways, the most pernicious thing sulfur and particulates do is soften the near and mid-term effects of increased greenhousing. Climate is perturbed less . . . for a while, and so we’re less likely to react. But they’re relatively short-lived in the atmosphere, and when they wash out, all that CO2, methane and the like are still there. So whatever mayhem 400, or 450, or 500 will cause, for centuries or millennia, hits us then, full-force.

  13. Thebes says:

    I keep hearing how “its not a threat to human health”.
    Over and over.
    They even say it in Japan, and yet parts of Chiba prefecture are hotter than the Chernobyl exclusion zone.

    I don’t buy it.
    Maybe with radioactive sulfur, which is water soluble.
    But people in the Pacific NW inhaled a wide array of hot particles. A single hot particle of plutonium is said to cause between a 0.1% and a 1% chance of lung cancer.BB, like other media, downplays the dangers posed by nuclear power. This history of nuclear disasters is a history of such minimization and even outright lies (it “safely shut down”, for example).

    • Maggie Koerth-Baker says:

      I’m sorry you don’t buy that the amount of radiation that reached the United States isn’t something to worry about. The scientists I’ve talked to and the evidence I’ve seen says you’re wrong. All I have to go on is evidence. Without that, you can speculate anything you want. And if you’ve decided you don’t believe scientists and evidence, then I’m not sure there’s much I can do for you. I’m not just going to speculate that the scientists and the evidence are wrong without more evidence. 

      • Thebes says:

        Well I can say this about the “scientists” whose livelyhood depends upon their “correct” answers. They said there was NO increase in radiation in Northern New Mexico from the Los Alamos fires. Then they released gamma radiation data that supposedly proved this. Then three weeks later they released data about the plutonium, americium and cesium found in air filters in the very smoke they expected me to breath. It was a small amount, if you were indoors and I can’t quantify the levels other than saying I found Alpha and Beta emitters in tiny spots upon my solar panels and am damned glad I didn’t buy the initial report of NO increase. Because if there were enough plutonium to have found an increase in gamma I’d be dying of cancer and anyone who has passed a physics class dealing with plutonium and radioactive isotopes knows exactly why.

        Go on burying your head in the sand. There have been rain water levels dozens of times higher than the FDA accepts for drinking water. My community (offgrid, rural SW) largely collects rainwater for drinking. People are being thrown under the bus by the “climate change community” and their bs dream of clean nuclear power.

    • BarBarSeven says:

      As someone who eats healthy and takes care of himself, I have found that folks like you have created a small upswing in the “health nut” community. Bravo, comrade! Now that 9/11 conspiracy nonsense is getting to be played out, Fukushima seems to be good news if you are a paranoid nut.

      For example, thanks to Fukushima loons not only have I had to hear mini lectures telling me what I should eat or not, but I have also seen some bizarre hippie racism against seaweed and foods that are even remotely Asian: “You can’t trust where they come from!” Yup geniuses, you cannot trust that seaweed harvested in the U.S. or bok choy grown on U.S. soil is somehow not connected to a disaster that happened nowhere near it.

    • A single hot particle of plutonium is said to cause between a 0.1% and a 1% chance of lung cancer.

      I live in Boston. I’m far more likely to get run over by some drunken Townie or DotRat, than from ANY environmental toxin.

      Someone in San Francisco is more likely to be murdered by a BART transit cop than die from Fukushima fallout.

      Someone in Los Angeles? Earthquake, wildfire, landslide, traffic accident, O.D. outside the Viper Room. (Note to River Phoenix: Red meat isn’t dangerous. Speedballs, now they’ll fucking kill you!).

      1% chance of lung cancer from a particle of Pu? That’s better odds than my Type 2 diabetes!

      Google “UPPU Club” and get back to me.


  14. hydroguy says:

    Maggie, please refrain from replying to Thebes.  Your last post to him/her was so well executed, I have memorized it for future use. 
    Thebes:  you don’t understand risk.  The more you post, the less credible you become. 

  15. Jiří Baum says:

    So perhaps I should just stay at home then?

    No, the radon will get you there.

  16. jhm says:

    There was an excellent Nova episode about this: “Dimming the Sun.”


  17. dead serfs says:

    Excellent posting. China’s pollution is a very real threat to all of us. That it ties into a possible holesolution in global warming is a bonus. There is much to learn and the sooner we figure it out the better. 

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