Lesser of Two Evils?

Coal and nuclear power provide the vast majority of our electricity. Coal brings environmental and health hazards with it every step of the way, from mine to smoke stack. Nuclear energy, with all of its benefits, comes with its own risks (as ill-perceived as they may be). So which is the least bad solution? Seed magazine asked a panel of experts and came up with this interesting quorum. [%comments]


I really hadn't expected the experts to respond so favorably towards coal. That said, I think the risks with regard to nuclear power are way way overblown.

I think Benjamin Sovacool really nailed it though. Energy is scarce, and we've been through this with oil. When oil became scarce, we used less of it, and got more out of what we used. We need to do the same with electricity. More efficient computers, TVs, appliances, and better building design could go a long way towards reducing our demand for dirty electricity, and buy us some time to replace the dirty electricity with cleaner sources.


We need to get away from a one-size-fits-all mentality and have multiple solutions. Those who think wind will never meet the bulk of the demand have never visited the plains states. We need to expand this conversation to include the costs (financial, environmental) of transmission and fuel transportation. Perhaps we shouldn't be shipping coal across the country to be burned when nuclear would be more sensible. We most certainly should avoid constructing nuclear plants in southern CA, when they have ample sun to take advantage of solar. Let's stop trying to force an either/or solution, when it really needs to be an all/by region solution.


I vote Nuclear.


The answer my friend is blowing in the wind.


Why must we choose evil? Energy generation is not like some bizarre form of pseudo-democracy where there are only two choices.


My problem with nuclear isn't with the hazardous waste (although that doesn't help). Rather, it's two things:

1. Like coal, it depends on a rare, finite, and expensive fuel which must be mined and refined (an additional environmental cost, often overlooked) and which is subject to shifting markets and costs.

2. It's extremely expensive. Show me a nuclear plant that came in ahead of schedule and under budget and I'll show you a polka-dotted flying elephant. A quick look at all the lawsuits from the 80's related to canceled nuclear plants will show you why investors are loath to spend money on them without ridiculous government subsidies and guarantees. Just look at this current debacle in Finland: http://www.nytimes.com/2009/05/29/business/energy-environment/29nuke.html

Do we really want OUR country to be the one dealing with those kinds of headaches? I don't. Wind and solar are simple, relatively MUCH cleaner, and can be built quickly. It' s just a matter of building enough of it.

Plus, nobody ever mentions the #1 cheapest source of energy: EFFICIENCY. I guess turning off the lights just isn't as sexy as a gleaming new industrial eyesore.


Johnny E

If you want to flatten W. Virginia and displace all the people, pollute their streams, and eat mercury-laden fish, opt for coal. Where do they dump all the ash? Human-caused global warming is real and will cause problems for future humans.

If you trust everybody opt for nukular. I knew a guy who worked security for the construction of a nuclear plant and he was worried. The corruption and shoddy workmanship of the contractors forced them to close the plant before it was brought online. Scientists back in the 70's were already warning about terrorists crashing planes into nuclear power plants. We still haven't solved the waste problem politically or technically. Cooling water is becoming less available because of drought and other uses. All human made devices eventually fail. The only benefit is lack of greenhouse gases and doesn't require massive amounts of fuel.

Putting solar collectors on every building would distribute the production without requiring major upgrades to the grid. The income generated could fund the scaling-up of the program. The titans of industry wouldn't get their mega-profits from the distributed approach, however. Having numerous wind turbines is little different than having radio towers and power lines across the landscape. If enough were built they would be reliable enough because power can be moved to where the wind is light.



Johnny E, wrote" Putting solar collectors on every building would distribute the production without requiring major upgrades to the grid. The income generated could fund the scaling-up of the program. The titans of industry wouldn't get their mega-profits from the distributed approach, however."

And that in is the rub, who controls the profits. Each time I few into a hot, sweltering Dallas, TX I could not but notice the hundreds of dark roofed houses just sucking up sunlight and requiring HVAC cooling especially at the worst times of the day. If someone could "mine" roofs for the solar sunlight and control the output then it could be done.

Christopher Strom

Per Gary (#1), I agree that Sovacool's focus on demand-side management to improve efficicient use of energy as the most cost-effective approach is not given enough attention.

@ paulwesterberg (#5): Two choices seem to be what humans are most comfortable with. We divide the problems in our world into black and white, mutually exclusive options, where the "truth" is somewhere between the two extreme positions.

@ Logan's (#6) point 2: Nuclear power plants are remarkably expensive for two main reasons: (1) they were designed to use isotopes produced as byproducts of nuclear weapon fissile material manufacturing, and (2) due to public ignorance and paranoia surrounding radioactivity, they were built to be operated with zero measurable risk of radiation exposure to the surrounding population.

Designing a nuclear power plant for zero risk of radiation exposure is at least an order of magnitude more expensive than designing the same plant to be no more of a health hazard to the surrounding public than the sun or something considerably less dangerous, a coal-fired power plant.

But people are just more frightened of radiation than of asthma, lung cancer, and global warming.


James Aach

As is typical when energy is discussed, none of the experts appears to have ever worked in the private sector producing power on an industrial scale. As a longtime worker in nuclear power, I can tell you it's different than book-learnin', research, and the occasional plant tour. Few in the public or among the chattering classes have any sense of how its really done. I think we'll make better decisions about our energy future if we first genuinely understand our energy present.

{{ If you'd care for an insider's picture of nuclear power, my novel "Rad Decision" will show you the good and bad, and it is available free online - with no adverts or sponsors - at http://RadDecision.blogspot.com . There's a paperback too. (I get no $$ from any of it.) }}

Eric M. Jones

Radiation is not something you can avoid by burning coal. In fact there is far more radioactivity released into the environment from coal and its fly ash than any properly-functioning nuclear plant.

Cinderblock made from fly ash is the most radioactive thing you can build your house with. (Granite countertops can excite a radiation detector, too.) See:



It is revealing that the only two "experts" they could find in favor of coal are researchers whose jobs depend on the continued preeminence of the coal industry. All the others think coal plants are dangerous, toxic, deadly - regardless whether they are for or against nuclear power as well...


Nuclear, all the way. If clean coal were proven and didn't kill so many people (all coal is dangerous), then maybe. But think of it this way - Utilizing the nucleous of the atom is always going to be more efficient than trying to squeeze all the potential energy out of the electrons. Electrons are the fuel of wind, solar, hyrdo. etc.

We are taking huge risks by NOT using more nuclear. Its really sad when coal which is far more dangerous is more prevalent than nuclear.

Its strange: Roughly 100 nuclear reactors power 20% of this country. Extrapolating that, we could be nearly emission free if we built 400 nuclear power plants. At ~ $5 billion per power plant that is only $ 2 trillion dollars. Not bad to be nearly emission free...solves a hell of a lot of problems.


I am in favor of removing the perks for the energy plants. wind, which produces cheaper energy than either coal or nuclear costs consumers more because of some of the kickbacks other energy types get. That said rather than flattening Appalatchia for coal, we could put 30% effiecent wind plants there and produce more, cheaper energy than the coal gained from mountain removal.



I'll vote for nuclear power beacuse its cleaner. But only issue is with the intention of hands that are using it.

If cautiously used it can prove far better....


I'd really like to see people speaking about this issue stop misleading the public and obfuscating the issues.

1. Bio-ethanol/bio mass is a red herring, it won't ever be practical because it has a huge food production opportunity cost. Not to mention corn ethanol actually release MORE carbon into the environment than equivalent quantities of petroleum. The only bio-mass fuel that is AT ALL practical is if we can breed a strain of algae to produce bio fuel, using corn for bio-fuel is a stupid idea when parts of the world are starving.

2. Stop talking about how photo voltaic sucks, yes we know it sucks, it's an undeveloped technology that has very poor efficiency right now, but it's getting better and more efficient every year. Lets talk about the REAL power maker with regards to solar: SOLAR-THERMAL power plants which are field ready now and produce power with much less land use than photo-voltaic cells do.

3. Clean coal is also a red herring, it will never be practical because it poisons the soil and ground water if you actually succeed at sequestering coal. It's just more industry propaganda to try and hold onto their stranglehold on power through fossil fuel scarcity.

4. The type of nuclear reactors that produce weaponized nuclear material are different from the type typically employed in civilian power production. It is possible to produce nuclear fission power without also producing weaponized/enriched uranium. Also most of the threat to nuclear power plants from a terrorist attack is overstated, even if you blow up the plant in most cases the reactor immediately shuts down by dropping the control rods into the reactor core via gravity (it releases them and they fall into the core shutting the reaction down).

The best approach to power generation is, as others have already stated, a blended approach based on local conditions and advantages. Solar thermal for desert regions, nuclear for cold, northern regions with ample water supply, wind for the plains states, wave turbine for coastal regions, etc...


Don Corwin

"Power to Save the World" by Gwyneth Cravens should be required reading for 100 senators, 435 Reps, 1 president, 1 VP and any one interested in a very informational apologetic of the nuclear power industry. Solar, geothermal, wind and conservation cannot begin to cover the baseload energy requirements of 2030.