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Setting Things On Fire

Date/Time Permalink: 03/10/12 01:50:05 pm
Category: Iowa

Here you sit, using electricity to read this article, which I also used electricity to publish. We're using computers to do this. It still sounds futuristic, and yet what do we use to keep this electronic infrastructure running? The same technology invented by prehistoric cavemen: setting things on fire.

First we burned wood. That made a campfire and gave us a way to cook food, but soon we wondered what else we could do. Eventually we started burning coal, oil, and gas. That gave us light, and eventually, steam power. And then... no, wait, there isn't any "and then". We're still stuck there today. From the internal combustion engine that powers our cars by burning gas to the electricity that comes from burning coal, we still don't rely on any means of generating electricity besides:

  1. Find flammable thing.
  2. Set it on fire.

We're coming up on a century since Enrico Fermi demonstrated the concept of nuclear reaction to the world, and yet here in Iowa the concept of nuclear power makes people jittery. Jittery enough that they'll dress up like zombies and march on the capitol to protest the very idea that power utilities should even consider nuclear options.

I'm not making this up: Zombies.

The protesters mainly emphasize that nuclear alternatives will make our costs go up, but still pay lip service to the typical boogys of health and safety, as if nuclear radiation were this dark witchcraft that will turn demons loose. I know people are beyond hope on that angle, but let's address the cost point:

Iowa currently gets about 75% of its power from setting things on fire - 73% coal and 2% natural gas. Iowa thankfully has vast coal mines... wait a minute, no we don't! We have to haul all that coal in from out of state. For the year of 2008 alone, those coal imports cost $500 million. That has to be delivered by rail from Wyoming. So we have to set more things on fire to power a train to bring coal to Iowa so we can set it on fire.

What is the cost of all this in terms of pollution? Who could begin to guess? We're still trying to establish that global warming is a fact. Somehow, the connection between setting things on fire and producing heat and pollution is still news to some people, even though cavemen knew it well.

And by the way, if you're worried about radiation, guess what? Coal ash is MORE radioactive than nuclear waste! And unlike nuclear waste, which is relatively easy to contain and ship away, when you set coal on fire, it makes smoke, which flies up in the air and gets into everything. You breathe it, you swim in it, you eat it, you have no choice. Need I harp on the fact, I've worked at a coal plant myself and got quite acquainted with "fly ash", the finer ash produced from burning coal. We got decked out in "bunny suit" hazmat gear and face-mask respirators, and after getting off at end of day and scrubbing down, we'd still drive home picking fly ash out of our ears. It's finer than talcum powder; one grain of it in your eyes will blind you for life because the ash grains are shaped like cockleburrs. Yes, precipitators attempt to catch most of it on the way to the smokestack, but even the most conscientious coal-burning plant in the world cannot set something on fire without producing some smoke and ash; it's just a matter of keeping the pollution under EPA standards of acceptable pollution. And when you do catch the fly ash before it gets into the air, what do you do with it then? Well, some of it gets recycled as cinderblocks and cement - the rest goes into a landfill.

Oh, and coal ash is radioactive too.

Nuclear power would bring more science jobs into the state. It would be cheaper in the long run, more than worth the moderate temporary cost of building the plants. It would allow Iowa to continue to lead the way as being one of the more progressive states in the Midwest. And...

(if this is your first time hearing me say something shocking and controversial, welcome to!) would actually be cleaner, overall, than setting things on fire!

Neil deGrasse Tyson agrees

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