Sunday, February 7, 2010

Gas Explosion Kills 5 at Power Plant Site: Is Natural Gas the Best Bet for Safe, Clean Power Generation and Transportation Fuel?

Strange how little public reaction there has been to the catastrophic natural gas explosion at a Connecticut gas-fired power plant this weekend, which killed at least five people and completely destroyed the plant, which was under construction. The explosion occurred while workers were clearing out a gas pipeline, and could be felt several miles away.

If a comparable disaster, with like loss of human life, had occurred at one of this country's 104 nuclear power plants, there would by now be multi-page articles published all over the globe on the presumed monstrous hazards of nuclear power, and thousands of activists and NIMBYs would be mounting demonstrations at plants and at state capitals across the country to demand that all the nukes be shut down and decommissioned immediately. The event would provide fodder for several years worth of anti-nuclear campaigns. There would be congressional hearings and state legislatures would be busy at work hatching legislation to stop further nuclear development. As it is, a minor fire or mechanical problem necessitating a temporary shutdown at a nuclear plant is enough to generate considerable yowling on the part of anti-nuke activists..

And if such an event as that in Connecticut occured at a commercial nuclear event in this country, there would be no chance of getting a new nuclear plant licensed in the U.S. within our lifetimes. As it is, the partial meltdown at the Three Mile Island plant over thirty years ago, in which no one was killed and no injuries were ever proved, cast a pall on the nuclear industry in this country that has set this country back several decades in the development of nuclear. That event, and the explosion at the Soviet-built Chernobyl plant, are brought up at every public discussion regarding the expansion of nuclear power and the development of newer, safer, and cleaner nuclear technologies. These technologies are being aggressively developed by poor, developing, overpopulated nations who have not enjoyed our past abundance of cheap energy and so are not so complacent as we are regarding their ability to power their economies in the future.

Natural gas has been used for so long and is so commonplace in this country that most people, including environmentalists who now strangely favor natural gas as a fuel for autos and trucks, are blind to the health and safety hazards of this volatile, dangerous fuel, and the massive environmental costs of producing it and consuming it. Most people here in Chicago take in stride the numerous gas explosions that have occured in this areas over the past couple of decades, even though they have leveled houses and mult-family buildings and killed a large number of people.

Because of its extremely low density and volatility, natural gas is even more dangerous to transport than gasoline, which is something to consider before we push for the widespread adoption of gas-fueled vehicles on the premise that their fuel burn is "cleaner" than gasoline or deisel. One expert remarked that he would not want his daughter sitting atop a gas fuel tank. Gas extraction and production are major environmental hazards affecting all areas of the country, including the Great Lakes region. According to the Energy Justice Network:

"Natural gas is a fossil fuel that is often promoted as "cleaner" than coal, but which has its own serious environmental hazards. Natural gas extraction threatens ecosystems from northern Alaska and Canada to the Gulf of Mexico, including drilling on farms, public lands, forests and parks, in the Rocky Mountains and other coal-field communities, off of U.S. coastal waters and possibly even under the Great Lakes. Deep drilling technologies such as "hydraulic fracturing" or "fracking" have recently opened areas of the U.S. to drilling, leaving a legacy of groundwater pollution. Hydraulic fracturing is the process of injecting water, salt, and a cocktail of hazardous chemicals deep underground to break open rock formations from which natural gas is extracted. Hydraulic fracking techniques threaten communities facing drilling operations and downstream communities, including communities near "frac" wastewater treatment plants. This wastewater can contain radioactive materials, high levels of salt that affects aquatic life, and carcinogenic elements and compounds such as arsenic and benzene. [1, 2] 
Pipelines and compressor stations add to the harms, crossing all sorts of ecosystems. Even water bodies like Lake Erie and the Long Island Sound have faced proposals to bury pipelines in underwater trenches that involve stirring up toxic sentiment accumulated on lake/sound floors."

Natural gas is a major indoor polluter, as well as a major fire and explosion hazard. Those who are concerned with air quality in their homes, or who suffer from asthma and other respitory ailments or who have babies or young children, urgently need to consider disposing of their gas cooking ranges and getting an electric stove. According to Agnes Malouf and David Wimberly, in The Health Hazards of Natural Gas:

     "Thinking of cooking with gas? Think again.With natural gas rolling ashore in Nova Scotia, it is tempting to believe industry and government promises that if only we could plug into this rich new local resource we could see our fuel bills drop and free up money in the budget for the nicer things in life.

     But would we still feel the same way if we were to learn that, in trying to save those hard-earned dollars, we were undermining our health by polluting the air we breathe in our very homes? It may be discouraging to hear, but now is the time to listen to what the experts have to say before we make what may be the wrong decision for us and for our families.

     Living with natural gas can be a health hazard both for people who are healthy and for those who are already ill. It is especially risky for people who have weakened immune systems, including those who are asthmatic, allergic, or chemically sensitive.  Gas appliances create a constant low level exposure to gas which can cause or increase illnesses.  Natural gas is a sensitizer, which means that exposure can lead to intolerance and adverse reactions both to
it and other substances in our environment."

In view of the multitude of safety, health, and environmental hazards attendent on the consumption, production, and extraction of natural gas, environmental activists and interested citizens might do well to be skeptical not only of the claims of those who are promoting the use of gas for power generation and in preference to nuclear, but the claims of  solar and wind power advocates, who go to pains to downplay the dependence of these "renewable" and "clean" forms of energy upon fossil fuel backups. Promoters of wind and solar admit that these forms of power generation are too intermittent and unreliable to stand on their own without being backed by coal, gas, or nuclear. 




Proenergy said...

Are you suggesting we abandon natural gas as an energy source? Would you rather heat your home with oil or coal?

The North Coast said...

No, I am NOT suggesting switching to oil or coal for heat, and if you'd read the post carefully, you would see that.

I am suggesting, or rather stating, that a mass switch to gas for transportation and electrical power production would be a massive mistake. Not only is this fuel dangerous and volatile, but it is too valuable both as a source of heat for our homes, and most of all, as feedstock for the nitrogen fertilizer we need to grow food in sufficient quantities to feed our swollen population, and perhaps have surplus food to offer less fortunate countries. This is critically important in view of the future peaking of global gas production, which will not be long behind the peaking of global oil production. In ten years we will be having the same discussion regarding natural gas that we are having about oil now.

Electric heat needs a lot of development to be an economical way to heat homes, but it is well on its way, and we will need a feedstock for electrical power generation that will enable us to produce at least three times what we currently generate, especially since it will be necessary to electrify our transportation.

Small-scale geothermal has possibilities. A small geothermal system for one household is expensive to install, but pays back in ten years, in savings in fuel. It will pay back faster as fuel costs rise.

Fossil fuels should be phased out altogether in the generation of electrical power.

My article was merely intended to highlight the folly of embracing gas for power generation while shunning nuclear, which is at least as safe and clean for large scale power generation; and which is the only fuel whose cycle could be extended far into the future.

Nudge said...

Nuclear could be done so ridiculously better in this country if only we could accept some of the newer designs, like the ultra-safe pebble-bed and liquid-thorium reactors. Unfortunately the approach here in the USA is hopelessly mired in the 1950s mode of doing business.

The North Coast said...

Hi Nudge.

The U.S. has become a technological laggard. How tragic! The Liquid Fluoride Thorium Technology is not only a very safe technology that can be scaled to the needs of either a small community or a large city area, but is intrinsically much safer than the Generation 3 light-water reactors now being built.

Better, the LFTR is built at the factory and is small enough to be moved by truck. This means it can be built using far fewer expensive skills, and the reactors, which are sealed in their containment vessels at the factory, can be installed in decommissioned coal plants and other heavy-industry facilities.

Lastly, the thorium fuel cycle produces virtually no waste and can extend the fuel cycle for thousands of years.

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Anonymous said...


Easier said than done. It costs $9-10 Billion per reactor. No company can afford to take on that project without a federal loan guarantee.

Now that Obama has scrapped the Yucca Mountain storage facility the committee he is forming to discuss waste storage will only delay things further.

The North Coast said...

Anonymous, the cost of building a 1 GW plant is about $7 billion, and the among the many reasons that cost is so high is because we are building conventional light water reactors that are massively expensive to build relative to the newer thorium and molten salt technologies. We are still mired in the past, and are not developing these newer,safer, and vastly more economical technologies because of the massive inertia imposed by our regulatory agencies.

It is specious to extrapolate the costs of building the first and second generation plants of the 60s and 70s into the future, for this was a nascent technology at that time, and each plant incorporated many new features. Each plant was custom built, with parts that were not interchangeable with those in other plants. This made the permitting process for each plant much more arduous than it would have been had there been standardization, and of course amplified the costs of components and construction.

The Generation 3 light water plants, which will be mostly AP-1000 plants, will be standardized, as most plants in France are, and this will lower costs considerably. The cost for the first plant will be steep, but will drop steeply for subsequent plants.

Keep in mind that the cost of building a "clean" coal plant that will reduce carbon emissions and toxic pollution to acceptable levels, is equal to and often exceeds that of a nuclear plant. Coal has been a cheap way to generate power only because utilities using it have not been made to bear the costs of the pollution and emissions.

Gas and oil are responsible for massive pollution and emissions, whether they are burned in vehicles or used to produce power. But that is not the core problem with them.

The core problem with all the fossil fuels, whether coal, oil, or gas, is that they are subject to rapid depletion, and that global supplies of oil are peaking, gas will probably peak in 10-15 years, and, surprisingly, coal production will, thanks to the massive upsurge in demand from developing nations like China and India, peak much sooner than anyone predicted previously, in less than twenty years. As these fuels pass their peak, their prices will rise and supplies will become very unreliable and prone to wild occilations in price.

Uranium, the main fuel of conventional nuclear reactors, will peak at some point, too, in less than forty years. Shorten that to twenty if the use of nuclear ramps up as more countries industrialize and as this country switches to nuclear in the face of depleting fossil fuels. Nuclear technologies that use other fissionable materials and produce less waste are essential.

The Liquid Fluoride Thorium technology has the potential to extend the fuel cycle hundreds of years, if not longer, because thorium is vastly more plentiful than uranium, and fissioning it produces another useful fuel. There is almost no waste produced, and the reactors are small, can be clustered together for a large power station, and the technology is infinitely safer than the conventional light-water technology.

Our utilities are not embracing this technology through sheer inertia, born of having guaranteed captive markets and regulatory protection, which is the reason our operators here continued to build custom plants while other nations pursued standardization. This, and the inertia of the regulatory agencies, have worked to hinder the development of new technologies.

But that is not surprising. All mature industries in the United States have become laggards, technologically backward and unwilling to invest in the research and development necessary to remain competitive and to adjust to new and challenging conditions, like the terminal depletion of fossil fuels.

Nudge said...

Anonymous, it's a shame that the laws of physics are different here in the US from the way they are in the rest of the world. Everyone else seems to be able to do nuclear more cost-effectively, but then, maybe they haven't got the same sort of revolving-door pork-o-rama government-business incest that we do.

Tutto bene.

Sildenafil Citrate said...

it is always sad to hear a tragedy like this one even though there was product of a human mistake or not and I think that natural gas must be handle with cautiousness always