NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis


February 11, 2009

The deluge of coal-ash slurry that broke through a retaining wall near the Kingston Fossil Plant, a power plant in eastern Tennessee, on Dec. 22, 2008, and inundated 300 acres with more than a billion gallons of sludge, points out the enormous amount of waste generated by conventional power plants.  By contrast, the Tennessee Valley Authority also operates a nuclear power plant a few miles away at Watts Bar which produces much less waste, says Robert C. Duncan, a research scientist with the University of Texas.

About 96 percent (by weight) of the Kingston plant's waste has vanished into the air through tall, twin smokestacks:

  • In 2007, Kingston emitted 11 million tons of carbon dioxide, 51,000 tons of sulfur dioxide, 12,500 tons of nitrogen oxides, 1,700 tons of hydrochloric acid aerosol, 330 tons of sulfuric acid aerosol, 230 tons of hydrogen fluoride, 11 tons of ammonia and 30 tons of toxic heavy metals in airborne particulates (smoke).
  • Except for the carbon dioxide, all these substances harm the respiratory systems of people and animals. Because Kingston uses "clean coal" technology, particles of smoke and ash, mostly in the 10-micron range, are captured and hauled off to storage.

At the nuclear power plant, by contrast:

  • In 2007, the Watts Bar nuclear reactor produced 26 tons of waste with a total volume of 3.5 cubic yards, stored (for now) in fuel rods that are immersed in water.
  • In a well-guarded building on the grounds of the Watts Bar plant, there is a concrete-lined pool smaller in area than an Olympic-sized swimming pool that holds all the plants used fuel rods.
  • Furthermore, 95 percent of nuclear "waste" can be burned as fuel in advanced fast-neutron reactors after reprocessing ("pyroprocessing"); this promises to wring about 20 times more energy out of "spent" fuel rods than they have produced so far.

The ultimate waste of nuclear power generation will likely consist only of fission products that decay after only 400 years to a level of radioactivity equal to the uranium ore from which the fuel originally came.  Kingston produces 400,000 times more waste, all released into the environment. Watts Bar's waste stream is fully contained and minuscule, says Duncan.

Source: Robert C. Duncan, "Nuclear Power vs. Clean coal's dirty mess," Fort Worth Star-Telegram, Feb. 8, 2009.


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