Friday, July 24, 2009

Thinking While Reading

I recently read an odd little book entitled Uncommon Carriers by John McPhee. Mr. McPhee takes a ride along some of our country’s transportation routes and describes what he finds. Tractor-trailers delivering chemicals, barges on the Mississippi (and its tributaries) and coal trains. (I’ve skipped the canoe trip with Thoreau’s writings because I skipped over it. Strange.)

It was the coal train that stuck with me. Because coal in the West is lower in sulfur, we’ve switched from high-energy Eastern coal to Western coal. (If you don’t know, America is called the Saudi Arabia of coal.) In order to get the coal to where it is needed, we rely on trains. This story really caught my eye in that the coal train in question was on its way to Georgia Power’s Plant Scherer just down the road from where I live.

The staggering statistics really got my attention. Essentially, there are 35 coal trains -- each over a mile long -- that make a continuous loop between the Powder River Basin in Wyoming and Plant Scherer in Juliette, Georgia. The million-ton pile of coal the plant keeps in reserve is roughly equivalent (in terms of power) to a tractor-trailer full of uranium for a nuclear plant.

It sounded like a powerful argument for nuclear power. It bothered me because I don’t like nuclear power. (I don’t like coal power either but I like having power. Ignore the argument for now and lets concentrate on the thinking.) The book would have you equate 35 miles worth of coal trains with one tractor-trailer of uranium. It sounds like a no-brainer. At least until you think about what it takes to get that one load of enriched uranium.

Not to mention, what do you do with the waste ?

A mine for coal or a mine for uranium ? A train for coal or a truck for uranium ? Mountains of coal ash as waste or tons of radioactive waste. That is the “64,000 year half-life” question. Too bad there aren’t any easy answers.

Don Brown
July 25, 2009

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