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Front Page » August 19, 2008 » Carbon County News » Coal-fueled generation plants represent reliable source o...
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Coal-fueled generation plants represent reliable source of power


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By RICHARD SHAW
Sun Advocate publisher

Experts in energy agree that coal powered power plants aren't going away anytime soon. While solar power and wind power are good alternatives to provide power, there is no good way to store vast amounts of electricity during down time of these kinds of power sources. If the sun doesn't shine or the wind doesn't blow there needs to be a solid, standard backup, and right now that source of power is coal.

But what does the future hold? Many people who only a few years ago opposed construction of new nuclear reactors for generating power, have now switched and want to see coal power slide down the rung and nuclear pick up the standard. The reason? Their concern about global warming.

Utah has been blessed with energy sources most states do not have. Some of the largest coal reserves are in the west and Utah is one of the leaders. The state also has produced its share of oil and gas as well.

During the 1950s, Utah's uranium mines supplied the federal government with large amounts of nuclear material to use in the building of weapons during the cold war. But in the early 1960s the incentive to mine uranium died down; the government had enough of what they needed and the price for uranium fell, causing most mines in the state to shut down operations, and all but two of the processing plants to close.

Despite that, Utah is still the third largest producer of uranium in the United States. Two processing plants, the White Mesa plant near Blanding and the Shootaring Mill near Ticaboo still exist. Utah has produced about 130 million tons of material for use in weapons and reactors over the years. However actual mining activity at present is still nill.

The total production that Utah has produced over the years would run all the reactors in the country for a little more than two and a half years. And for the first time in many, many years, mining of yellowcake could be in the future for Utah as more and more nuclear power plants are being planned.

At present, there are companies that are exploring opening new mines in southeastern Utah, as well as re-energizing some old ones. During the 1950s the largest production of yellowcake came from the Lisbon Valley which produced about 54 million tons during its heyday. Today the Lisbon Valley is still the center of some exploration and development activity, but there is also a lot going on around La Sal and the Henry Mountains.

The global market for uranium products is tight. Presently only 60 to 70 percent of the worlds needs are being supplied by mines that are active, while the remaining percentage is being supplemented by left over material from weapon production and the disposal of weapons under international agreements.

What the future holds for uranium mining and production in Utah is anyones guess, but it appears with the price of uranium going up in markets and the active exploration going on in the area, the chances are that it will grow considerably. With even environmental groups calling for a growth in power production from nuclear power plants, a point of view that would have been totally unexpected only a few years ago, and at the same time calling for a reduction in the burning of coal, things in the Utah energy industry could change.

Presently coal is the one source of energy that the United States is not dependent upon foreign countries to supply.

Known reserves in the country could supply power needs domestically for hundreds of years. That is an advantage for the coal industry.

The coal mines in the United States supply five percent of the country's needs for nuclear material.

At first glance, per mined ton of coal appears to be less efficient than nuclear materials.

The power from burning coal is rated at 6,150 kilowatt hours per ton. That means a ton of coal will produce 6150 kilowatts for one hour.

So if a machine powered by coal generated electricity requires one kilowatt per hour to operate, the fact means that one ton of coal could power 6,150 such machines.

On the other hand, a standard uranium reactor can produce 2,000,000,000 kilowatts per ton of material.

However, one ton of nuclear material requires a great deal more treatment and processing than the one ton of coal does. Pure numbers may not tell the complete truth.

In today's age of global warming and concern about energy efficiency, coal seems to have become the villain the natural resource was supposed to replace during the 1970s when nuclear plants were considered to be worst thing to build in a neighborhood.

Currently, advocates of nuclear energy claim that the burning of coal provides more radioactivity to the atmosphere than nuclear plants do.

Some scientists maintain that, since coal contains uranium and thorium, the burning of it concentrates those elements into the fly ash, making that ash up to 100 times more radioactive than waste that is produced at nuclear plants.

However, most officials indicate that the threat from radiation in fly ash is nill compared to the problems that coal creates in terms of atmospheric problems such as acid rain and global warming.

The newest rush to going nuclear could herald economic problems for some regions.

In Utah, the spurred development toward mining and processing nuclear materials could make up for jobs lost in the coal industry as laws like California's no coal powered electricity being imported into the state start to pop up in other places.

But the relocation of jobs and economic factors could affect coal mining areas negatively, while positively building economies in other towns in the state that fall closer to the uranium mines.

A recent study in Australia pointed out that the transition that will be taking place in New South Wales, where coal mining and coal burning plants produce a good portion of the countries electricity, would be not devastating but invigorating.

The plan is to convert a coal based economy into a renewable energy community with coal miners, related industrial workers and associated industries being retrained and retooled to work on alternative energy projects.Examples include wind, solar, nuclear and biomass options.

How that kind of thinking could translate to eastern Utah remains to be seen.

For at least the transition period of the next 30 to 40 years, coal burning power plants will continue to rule the roost.

Electrical industry analysts and experts indicate that coal and gas burning plants are the most stable source of power and will operate when other types of power generation are off line.

New technology in the coal industry will change the coal industry. Examples of the technology include sequestering of carbon dioxide in the ground and removal of other pollutants from stacks.

But whether emerging technology will change the situation enough to prevent nuclear power from becoming the largest generator of electricity remains unclear.

Editors note: This is the second of two articles on nuclear energy and how it will affect coal producing areas. Sources: www. nuclear tourist, Geological Society of America Science Magazine

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