Monday, November 26, 2012

Coal, mercury and green hypocrisy

 One of the things that pro-nuclear advocates find so irritating is the obsession on the part of many with nuclear waste, as if the waste products from nuclear power were in some way more toxic or uncontrollable than other kinds of industrial waste.

Mercury that is released into the atmosphere becomes methylmercury that is easily absorbed by plankton in the oceans and works its way up the food chain through the process of biomagnification. At each stage in the food chain the mercury is concentrated more and more, so that end stage predators such as swordfish, shark and tuna can sometimes have toxic levels of the element in their flesh. This can cause a serious problem, especially for pregnant women. In the U.S., the largest single source of mercury contamination is the coal industry.

While this is a serious environmental problem it is never accorded the same danger status as minute amounts of nuclear contamination in the flesh of seafood, far too low to actually cause illness to humans, and in fact only detectable because the instruments that can detect the contamination are extraordinarily sensitive. This is the case for various fish catches around the Pacific that have minute levels of caesium that have been attributed to the Fukushima accident.

While reports of radioactive contamination in fish invariably elicit reactions of horror, contamination by mercury while acknowledged as dangerous is considered to be much more routine. In the movie The Cove, which critically examines the dolphin hunting industry in Japan, this mercury contamination is continually mentioned as a reason for humans to avoid the consumption of dolphin meat. Yet the source of the mercury is not mentioned, let alone the only real alternative to this constant release of mercury into the environment, which has to be nuclear power.

I very much doubt that the people who made The Cove (or indeed, many of the people who saw the movie) are realistic about the implications of their obsession with mercury. If followed to the rational conclusion, if indeed people have the goal of reducing the danger of pollutants in the atmosphere and oceans, it is inevitable that the best way to do that is to replace coal power with nuclear.

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