The Energy Spectator

Coal Is the Future?

The latest in '70s wisdom from the Atlantic's James Fallows.

By 11.23.10

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Three weeks ago I wrote about the Weekly Standard'spublication of an Amory Lovins anti-nuclear tract represented a low point in lack of understanding about nuclear power.

That record didn't stand for long. This month the Atlantic Monthly has topped everything with a cover story by senior editor James Fallows, "Dirty Coal, Clean Future." This will probably stand as an all-time monument to the American intelligentsia's lack of curiosity about nuclear energy.

Fallows, you may remember, started in the 1970s as a Naderite before becoming President Jimmy Carter's principal speechwriter. Then blazing a trail that has become well worn, he jumped ship and wrote an exposé of Carter's ineptness. (It was he who confirmed that Carter spent time scheduling the White House tennis court.) In any event, Fallows landed on his feet, becoming a senior editor at the Atlantic where he has reinvented himself as an expert on computers, China's economic development, and flying his own airplane.

In all these years, however, Fallows has never quite lost his 1970s mentality. Nor has he shed an annoying Thomas-Friedmanesque habit of making points by dropping the name of the latest high government official with whom he chatted. (Unlike Friedman, he does spare us the details of what they were eating.) Without these inflections, he probably never could have written the 8,000-word tome in which he tells us, "Sorry, folks, wind and solar energy are never going to make it. We're just going to have to live with 'clean coal'": 

To environmentalists "clean coal" is an insulting oxymoron.… But for now, the only way to meet the world's energy needs, and to arrest climate change before it produces irreversible cataclysm, is to use coal -- dirty, sooty, toxic coal -- in more sustainable ways… because there is no plausible other way to meet what will be, absent an economic and social cataclysm, the world's unavailable energy demands.

Is nuclear energy anywhere in sight? Fallows does mention it four times, always in passing. The longest reference notes that France has "much heavier reliance on nuclear power to generate electricity. Nuclear plants are expensive and obviously create waste-disposal problems, but they emit practically no greenhouse gases." This, however, appears in parentheses and stands aside from the main argument. Fallows has not the slightest curiosity or information about how nuclear power is developing in the world, or what it is even about.

Instead, Fallows is telling his equally uninformed audience in the gentlest or manners that their dreams of a solar and wind utopia are all forlorn. Quoting Robert Bryce's Power Hungry,he notes that, despite all the subsidies and mandates we have pumped into wind and solar construction, "the absolute increase in total electricity produced by coal [between 1995 and 2008] was about 5.8 times as great as the increase in wind and 823 times as great as the increase from solar." Even if wind and solar "doubles or triples, the solutions we often hear the most about won't come close to meeting total demand." Thus, coal is the future.

Even that is not really true. Without nuclear, we are likely to go instead with natural gas. Drawing on recent discoveries in shale formations, utilities have been building gas plants as the course of least resistance. All this leaves us tremendously vulnerable to rising gas prices, since the price of fuel makes up 90 percent of the cost of gas-produced electricity -- as opposed to 25 percent in nuclear, where most of the expense is in construction. Utility executives regard these gas investments as extremely shortsighted, but what can you do? It's the only thing government and environmentalists will allow. California, which is already ten years further down this road, gets 40 percent of its electricity from natural gas, twice the national average.      

What defines Fallows' argument, however, is his extraordinary lack of understanding of what nuclear is about. "[A]fter a century in which medial diagnosis and treatment, computer and communications systems, aerospace and nanotech industries, and nearly every other form of technology have routinely achieved the magical," he writes, "energy production is essentially what it was in the time of James Watt. With the main exception of nuclear-power plants and the hope-for future exception of practical nuclear-fusion systems, we mostly create electricity by burning something that was once underground - coal, oil [or] natural gas."

That's like saying that, except for the invention of the gasoline engine, we essentially drive around the country in the same way we did in horse-and-buggy days.

Let's talk a little science here. Burning coal or any kind of combustion for that matter means transforming infinitesimally small amount of matter into energy in the electrons that surround the nucleus of the atom. These transformations take place according to Einstein's formula, E = mc2. But the electrons make up only 0.01 percent of the mass of the atom. The remaining 99.99 percent is in the nucleus. That means the energy we can draw out of the uranium nucleus is 2 million times as much as we can get from the same volume or weight of coal or any fossil fuel.

Here's what that looks like in everyday life. A 1,000-megawatt coal plant is fed by a mile-long, 100-car "unit train" arriving at the plant every 30 hours. Coal now constitutes more than half the country's railroad freight. On the other hand, refueling a 1,000-MW nuclear plant requires a fleet of six tractor-trailers arriving at the plant with a new load of fuel rods once every 18 months. Does that seem like an improvement over James Watt?

Fallows discovers this in China but doesn't grasp the significance:

Another government energy expert in Beijing said that the only serious limit on how fast Chinese power companies can increase their use of coal is the capacity of the country's transportation system.… "Right now railroads are at capacity, you have entire highways being blocked with coal trucks, and the problems cascade," [he said.] Part of the reason China has committed some $80 billion over the next decade to build light-rail networks across the country is to get human passengers off the main rail lines, opening up more capacity to move coal.

In all these discussions with Chinese officials, however, Fallows somehow never manages to discover that the Chinese are also building 30 nuclear reactors -- more than half the 55 under construction in the world. Among them are four Westinghouse AP1000s, a model for which our Nuclear Regulatory Commission has not yet managed to approve the design. China is building a whole "nuclear city" at Haiyan. It has reverse-engineered the AP1000s and developed a reactor of its own design. Within five years, China will probably join France, Russia, Japan and Korea in marketing reactors around the world. At that point, the worldwide Nuclear Renaissance will kick into high gear.

All Fallows manages to discover in his many trips to China, however, is a single experiment in sequestering coal exhausts. He suggests the Chinese build more of these for our benefit. We'll provide the research and they can build the actual plants, since environmental opposition and bureaucratic lethargy make it impossible to build anything in this country anymore. "China is where the world's 'doing' now goes on, in this industry and many others," Fallows concludes. "Power companies from America, Europe, and Japan are fortunate to have a place to learn." Indeed. We will also be fortunate to have a place to buy as well.

In painting himself into this coal corner, Fallows perfectly embodies a generation of Americans that came of age in the 1970s and for whom the defeat of nuclear was a seminal event of their lives. Since then they have relegated nuclear to a far corner of the mind, embalmed in 1970s dogma. Except for Germany, though, the rest of the world has overcome this fixation and is moving ahead with nuclear. Vietnam, Indonesia, Pakistan, Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Morocco, South Africa, Brazil, Venezuela and Bolivia all have programs to build reactors.

In a horrible sense, then, Fallows may be right. As the dream of wind and solar energy turns out to be a fatuous illusion, the U.S. may end up stuck with coal and natural gas for another generation. At that point, the Chinese, Koreans, Japanese, Russians, and French will rescue us by designing and building for us nuclear reactors. It will be a humiliating outcome for the country that invented the technology. It won't be cheap, either.

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William Tucker is news editor for