Fossil Fuels, Global

Warming & War

The specter of Kuwaiti oil fields burning and spewing black clouds of pollution across the landscape at the end of our war with Iraq in 1991 brings into focus the entire range of environmental and security problems that surround our dependence on fossil fuels. Fossil fuels promise not only environmental problems, but also a growing entanglement with world politics on far away foreign soils. American men and women will be called upon to die for the sake of protecting hydrocarbon lifelines.

At the center of much of the opposition to Yucca Mountain is the notion that by opposing and destroying the nuclear energy option in the United States, we will somehow stop the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction. Saddam Hussein, however, was well on his way to making weapons of mass destruction (both biological and nuclear) without help from American radioactive materials, funded in large part by oil revenues. Sadly, the stagnation of America's nuclear energy capacity over the past decade, caused by the successful delay tactics used by the Green movement, may well have contributed to provoking the hostilities with Iraq. America had no alternative but to respond to a threat to its oil supplies while France, which receives 73% of its energy from nuclear power, was notably smug. France remained aloof in the Iraq war knowing its energy jugular wasn't being severed.

The world economy's increasing electrical energy needs are likely to be met through one of three alternatives: hydrocarbon, nuclear or solar energy. Unfortunately, solar energy can only supply part of the energy needs of civilization and nuclear energy is in the process of being blocked, specifically at Yucca Mountain. Surprisingly, fossil fuel in conjunction with coercive energy conservation measures, seems the policy choice most advocated by environmental activists, despite the fact that fossil fuels are by their very nature a polluting and unrenewable source of energy. But just how polluting are fossil fuels compared to, say, nuclear energy? A prime example is coal:

As an initial perspective, it is interesting to compare nuclear waste with the analgous waste from a single large coal-burning power plant. The largest component of the coal-burning waste is carbon dioxide gas, produced at a rate of 500 pounds every second, 15 tons every minute. It is not a particularly dangerous gas, but it is the principle contributor to the "greenhouse effect." . . . (of the other wastes) first and probably foremost is sulfur dioxide, the principle cause of acid rain and perhaps the main source of air pollution's health effects, released at a rate of a ton every five minutes. Then there are nitrogen oxides, the second leading cause of acid rain and perhaps also air pollution. Nitrogen oxides are best known as the principle pollutant from automobiles and are the reason why cars need expensive pollution control equipment which requires them to use lead-free gasoline; a single large coal-burning plant emits as much nitrogen oxide as 200,000 automobiles. The third major coal burning waste is particulates including smoke, another important culprit in the negative effects of air pollution. Particulates are released at the rate of several pounds per second. And next comes the ash, the solid material produced at a rate of 1,000 pounds per minute, which is left behind to cause serious environmental problems and long-term damage to our health. Coal-burning plants also emit thousands of different organic compounds, many of which are known carcinogens. Each plant releases enough of these compounds to cause two or three cancer deaths per year. And then there are the heavy metals like lead, cadmium and many others that are known or suspected of causing cancer, plus a myriad of other health impacts. Finally, there is uranium, thorium and radium, radioactive wastes released from coal-burning that serve as a source of radon gas. The impact of this radioactive radon gas from coal burning on the public's health far exceeds the effects of all the radioactive waste released from nuclear plants. [Bernard Cohen, The Nuclear Energy Option, Plenum, 1990, p174]

If fossil fuels are so environmentally destructive, what options are left? The two industrial scale alternative energy sources which have underutilized potential but which are also environmentally sound are nuclear power and solar energy.

Despite the claims of environmentalists about the rosy future of solar power, there are fundamental technical hurdles that will keep solar from being the major source of energy in the forseeable future. Chief among the problems are solar power's intermittency and low energy density, and the fact that it is source intensive, requiring large amounts of infrastructure. Other alternative energies have problems too. Hydroelectric power generation is not likely to grow from its present level because the U.S. river system has already been dammed to capacity. Geothermal is geographically limited. Wind power is capital intensive, is plagued by structural failures, and suffers from the same intermittancy problems as other solar alternatives.

Clearly, some part of the energy equation will have to be reformulated and it is difficult to imagine air-conditioners and microwave ovens in our future unless nuclear energy (and therefore Yucca Mountain) plays some role in our energy mix. This may not sound like much of a choice until one considers the form of wastes from hydrocarbon and nuclear power plants. The Second Law of Thermodynamics says that all processes create waste, so no matter what energy generation system we use, it will create a waste problem in some form. The only choice is which type of waste poses the least potential disposal problems.

The big difference between nuclear and hydrocarbon wastes is that nuclear residues are concentrated and eventually end up as solids while the waste from coal and petroleum powered plants is gaseous carbon dioxide, carbon monoxide, nitrous oxides, sulfur oxides, ash and a host of other chemicals that end up dispersed worldwide. True environmentalists might endorse nuclear power plants whose waste is compact and can be buried in one spot at a site like Yucca Mountain rather than being dumped on the wind for all to suffer. It may well be that future generations will view the the most environmentally destructive agents of our age as those who opposed nuclear energy and the construction of a geologic repository, thereby promoting the dispersal of carbon based combustion products into the atmosphere.

Unfortunately, Nevada's politicians and Green activists seem to prefer global pollution to the thought of burying the waste from nuclear energy creation in a drift 800 feet below the surface. Apparently, they would rather risk the threat of massive global warming from fossil fuel waste gases than admit the possibility that nuclear waste can be safely disposed of in a geological repository. This traces to the political agendas of these groups more than to their environmental concerns with radiation. Restructuring society seems to be a higher priority than promoting technologies that actually solve environmental problems.

Particularly disturbing is the possibility that by opposing nuclear power, environmentalists are ensuring we all will be subject to more radiation than before. As mentioned by Cohen above, coal fired plants are in themselves a source of radiation, releasing more radioactive elements into the air than nuclear plants. Perhaps ignorance of the physics and chemistry of nuclear and fossil fuel energy cycles is bliss.

In the real world, however, the record of nuclear energy in preserving the environment stands on its own. According to the United States Council for Energy Awareness:


- Today, 420 nuclear power plants produce about one-sixth of the world's electricity. This is more than the electricity generated from all fuel sources as recently as 1958. As well as enhancing international energy security, nuclear power has reduced greenhouse gases and air pollution in the 26 countries that use the atom to generate electricity. Since the first oil embargo in 1973, nuclear power plants worldwide have:

- reduced cabon dioxide emissions by 13.4 billion tons

- cut sulfur dioxide emissions by 109 million tons

- eliminated 48 million tons of nitrogen oxides


- Since 1973, nuclear power plants worldwide have cut fossil fuels used to generate electricity by:

- 17.6 billion barrels of oil, worth $470 billion

- 2.2 billion tons of coal

- 26 trillion cubic feet of natural gas

- Since 1973, nuclear power in the United States has saved:

- 4.6 billion barrels of oil, worth $135 billion

- 1.1 billion tons of coal

- 7.9 trillion cubic feet of natural gas

[USCEA, InfoBank, 1993]


Environmentalists seem driven by an apocalyptic vision in which nuclear technology eventually pollutes the world through dispersal of radioactive substances, possibly through nuclear war. However, there is an alternative scenario possible in which the anti-nuclear solar utopianism of the Greens is achieved, but becomes a nightmare because of its internal contradictions. Some elements of this nightmare are easy to envision:

1) For lack of American nuclear expertise (both in reactor construction and waste disposal), Russian fails to clean up its ever widening nuclear contamination.

2) Iran finally constructs a missile system for its burgeoning nuclear bombmaking abilities. Oil production is halted by Iran as it seeks retribution and power.

3) America losses 22% of its electrical energy producing capacity as aging reactors are retired. To compete in global markets, it is forced to import ever increasing amounts of petroleum products.

4) For lack of sophisticated U.S. nuclear reactor designs, the Third World turns to increasingly "dirty" reactors that are environmental time bombs.

5) Mixed oxide reactors which include plutonium in their reaction mix proliferate as America's involvement in world nuclear matters diminishes. Weapons proliferation is the end result.

The combination of the above factors obviously lead to war scenarios. While some of the above scenarios are more believable than others, it is clear that environmental pacifists need not be the only ones carrying visions of Armageddon in their pockets.

The anti-nuclear movement likes to portray itself as a both a pacifist and environmental movement, opposed to destruction of Mother Earth through pollution of any form. A war over hydrocarbon energy resources, fought with tactical nuclear warheads, would certainly be one of the most environmentally destructive events imaginable. But unless we coercively limit the populations of the Third World, or unless the industrial nations return to subsistance societies, there is little hope of preventing frictional global competition for hydrocarbon fuels. Consequently, nuclear energy seems a critical element in the effort to save the environment, and perhaps a significant portion of the human race from energy wars.