Clean Coal and Nuclear Technologies

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Because renewable technologies need further development, some experts argue that currently abundant fuel sources, such as coal and nuclear energy, may have to be relied on until better energy sources are available. The United States, for example, already uses coal to produce much of its electricity, and it has enough coal to last another 250 years. President Bush has proposed that more coal plants be built to reduce the country's reliance on foreign oil, but the problem is that coal is a fossil fuel that produces harmful emissions when burned. Entrepreneurs therefore are researching ways to produce a form of clean, emission-free coal. One of their ideas is coal gasification—a way of chemically converting coal into a cleaner-burning natural gas by using steam and high pressure. Another idea currently being researched is carbon sequestration—a method of capturing the carbon dioxide that is produced from burning the coal and burying it deep underground so that it does not escape into the atmosphere. In the future, supporters say these two technologies might be combined to produce zero-emission coal energy.

Critics, however, claim that there is no such thing as clean coal and that even zero-emission coal plants will produce toxic wastes and damage the environment. As reporter Kari Lydersen explains: "[Critics are] skeptical of the relatively untested clean coal technology and worried about the solid waste the plants will produce. . . . And nothing about zero-emissions technology can help . . . West Virginia, where strip mining is permanently removing vast swaths of the mountain range to feed the nation's power plants."36

Indeed, critics say that clean coal will create just as much pollution as older coal plants because clean coal plants take heavy metal toxins like mercury out of the air but leave higher levels of these toxins in solid waste ash, much of which ends up polluting ordinary landfills. In short, air pollution is traded for ground pollution. In addition, clean coal technology remains very expensive, so its usage may be limited in any case.

A protester wearing a mask of Australian prime minister John Howard pretends to clean coal at an Australian energy and water conference in 2006. Many environmentalists say that there is no such thing as clean coal.

A protester wearing a mask of Australian prime minister John Howard pretends to clean coal at an Australian energy and water conference in 2006. Many environmentalists say that there is no such thing as clean coal.

President Bush has also championed nuclear energy, an energy source that currently provides about 20 percent of America's electricity but one that has fallen out of favor because of environmental concerns. Nuclear power plants in the past have leaked radiation and caused accidents such as the one at Three Mile Island in Pennsylvania in 1979. And they pose a problem of how to dispose of the end product of nuclear fission—radioactive nuclear waste. As a result of these environmental and safety issues, no nuclear power plants have been built in America since the 1970s. Today, however, the nuclear industry is gaining support as a possible alternative to fossil fuel options because it does not produce greenhouse emissions. Supporters also argue that nuclear plants can be operated safely. They cite the safety record of countries such as France, which relies on nuclear power for much of its electricity.

Even if the public can be convinced to accept the risks and solid waste pollution of nuclear power, however, nuclear (like coal) is expensive. Experts say a typical nuclear power plant costs $2 billion to build, making nuclear power substantially more costly than electricity made from wind, coal, oil, or natural gas. Because it can only be used to make electricity, not fuel for transportation, it also addresses only part of the emissions problem. Neither coal nor nuclear, therefore, appears to be the perfect solution for global warming.

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