Coal, Nuclear, or Conservation?

Commentary by Jim Minick, Bay Journal News Service

A friend recently asked me this: "If you could stop mountaintop removal coal mining by converting all that energy production to nuclear power, would you?" In return, I asked him if he knew the phrase, "robbing Peter to pay Paul," only this also sounded like robbing Paul too. The question is moot. Both mountaintop-removal mining and nuclear power generation are unhealthy, unsustainable means to produce energy. Simply put, if we keep robbing both Peter and Paul, we surely end in Hell.

For whatever disappointing reason, President Barack Obama has jumped on the slowly sinking nuclear ship. Because of the industry's long, troubled financial history, Wall Street won't touch these radioactive investments, so thanks to Uncle Sam, you and I will. Our tax dollars will both build these monsters with all of their cost overruns, and guarantee any of their loans. But a nuclear power plant costs $6-7 billion to construct, takes at least a decade to build, and then it lasts only forty years.

Add onto that the many dangers-vulnerability to terrorist attacks; huge tanks of nuclear waste that remain radioactive for hundreds of thousands of years; massive environmental and health concerns where uranium is mined and processed; and major malfunctions like Three-Mile Island and Chernobyl. Almost a million people died of cancer caused by Chernobyl's meltdown.

Then we have good old-fashion plumbing leaks like those currently befuddling a plant in Vermont. Both state and industry officials now simply assume that the river contains radioactive pollution, but for the longest time those in charge never knew these leaking pipes even existed. How many darters and dragonflies, otters and osprey will die from this ignorance, and how many people?

Obama claims that nuclear is our new carbon-free energy source, but the huge vacuum of decades and dollars put into building one plant could be better spent on wind and solar. Or on boring energy efficiency, an investment that yields immediately and long-term with minimal input. Time Magazine's Michael Grunwald notes that new nuclear power comes in at "about four times the cost of producing juice with new wind or coal plants, or 10 times the cost of reducing the need for electricity through investments in efficiency." But replacing old windows with better ones somehow doesn't have that political and media atomic punch. And though the President has instituted tax credits for many energy conservation measures, insulating attics definitely doesn't have that adrenaline surge of blasting apart mountains

Mountaintop removal amounts to cutting down and burning all of the forest and then dynamiting away hundreds of vertical feet of ancient hills to get at a few feet of coal. That blasted off top becomes Valley Fill, overburden dumped into hollows to erase once vibrant communities of plants and animals. A recent comprehensive study published in Science Magazine demonstrates what happens when we destroy ten percent of a watershed like we presently do. We turn an ecological paradise into a man-made hell.

The scientists found a slew of chemicals like sulfate, magnesium, and selenium at toxic levels in the water flowing from these mines and valley fills. These once-buried elements suddenly are exposed and as a result leach into the surface and ground water with devastating results for all life, from tiny algae to fish and birds, to us humans who drink this water. And though law requires reclamation-the rebuilding of the destroyed ecosystem-the results are pathetic. The report states that "senior officials of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers testified that they do not know of a successful stream creation project in conjunction with mountaintop mining and valley fill". And these engineers have been in charge of overseeing these failed reclamations for several decades.

The Science report ends by stating that the Clean Water Act and other laws exist to protect our streams. Yet "clearly, current attempts to regulate mountaintop mining and valley fill practices are inadequate," and "mining permits are being issued despite the preponderance of scientific evidence that impacts are pervasive and irreversible and that mitigation cannot compensate for losses." The experts conclude that given this record and its many impacts, all future permits for this type of mining should cease until the resulting problems are addressed.

That last recommendation seems like sound advice for the nuclear industry as well. For how can we go on building nuclear reactors when we haven't solved the many problems that result from fission? How can we continue mountaintop removal mining without addressing the destruction it causes? And though these energy "problems" often happen in isolated areas, they affect every one of us. Just drink the selenium-tainted water that flows hundreds of miles from a valley fill. Just breathe the air that traveled thousands of miles around the globe after Chernobyl. We all live on this one whirling, beautiful, fragile planet.

Jim Minick teaches English at Radford University and is author of Finding a Clear Path, a book of essays.

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