But as we showed in an earlier article, The Dimensions of the Challenge, windmills and other part-time energy sources will never take the place of coal. Since nuclear is the only energy source that can, it's fair to compare the effects of both kinds of waste.
Nuclear opponents can't point to a single incident in which nuclear power wastes have caused harm to any person or any thing. So let's consider coal wastes, in comparison.
Jeff Goodell's book, Big Coal: The Dirty Secret Behind America's Energy Future (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 2006) makes grim reading. He recounts how coal companies have kept their operating costs down by poisoning the environment. On page 41 he describes the effects of the wastes of one coal mine in West Virginia and how they affect the local residents' water.
In this excerpt, "Massey" refers to Massey Energy Company. Don Blankenship is the CEO.
"A few years ago, Dr. Diane Shafer, a busy orthopedic surgeon in Williamson, the Mingo County seat, noticed that a surprising number of her patients in their fifties were afflicted with early-onset dementia. In addition, she was hearing more and more complaints about kidney stones, thyroid problems, and gastrointestinal problems such as bellyaches and diarrhea. Incidents of cancer and birth defects seemed to be rising, too. She had no formal studies to back her up, but she had been practicing medicine in the Williamson area for more than thirty years, and she knew that many people who lived in the hills beyond the reach of the municipal water supply had problems with their water: black water would sometimes pour out of their pipes, ruining their clothes and staining porcelain fixtures. Many people had to switch to plastic fixtures because steel ones would be eaten up in a year or two. The worst water problems were in the town of Rawl, near Massey's Sprouse Creek slurry impoundment pond, where millions of gallons of black, sludgy water is backed up. Were the health problems in the area related to the pollutants leaching into the water supply from the slurry pond? Dr. Sharer suspected they were.
"Dr. Sharer is the lone physician on the Mingo County Board of Health. Despite her urgings, she could get no one at an official level to take much interest in the water problems in the area. So at her recommendation, a group of concerned citizens contacted Ben Stout, a well-known professor of biology at Wheeling Jesuit University and an expert on the impact of coal mining on Appalachian streams, to study the water quality in the area. Stout tested the water in fifteen local wells, most of them within a few miles of the Sprouse Creek impoundment and one just a short distance from Blankenship's home. Stout found that the wells were indeed contaminated with heavy metals, including lead, arsenic, beryllium, and selenium. In several cases, the levels exceeded federal drinking water standards by as much as 500 percent. Of the fifteen wells tested, only five met federal standards. Stout says that the metals found in the water samples were consistent with the metals in the slurry pond and the most logical explanation for how those metals got into the Williamson drinking water was that the impoundment pond was leaking into the aquifer. He also pointed out that coal companies often dispose of excess coal slurry by injecting it directly into abandoned underground mines, where it can easily migrate into the drinking water.
What if coal wastes had been handled as conscientiously as nuclear-energy wastes have been? It's a pointless question. Coal wastes can't be isolated from the environment because of their massive quantities. Here's what the US Department of Energy says about it:
"Nuclear power produces around 2,000 metric tonnes/per annum of spent fuel. This amounts to 0.006 lbs/MWh. If a typical nuclear power plant is 1000 MWe in capacity and operates 91% of the time, waste production would be 45,758 lbs./annum or slightly less than 23 tons. The solid waste from a nuclear power plant is thus not the volume of the waste, which is very small, but the special handling required for satisfactory disposal. A similar amount of electricity from coal would yield over 300,000 tons of ash, assuming 10% ash content in the coal. Processes (specifically scrubbing) for removing ash from coal plant emissions are generally highly successful but result in greater volumes of limestone solid wastes (plus water) than the volume of ash removed."
There clearly is no environmentally-sound way to dispose of 300,000 tons of ash (or more if the flue gas is scrubbed) at every power plant, every year. As long as we keep on burning coal we'll keep on polluting the groundwater.