Natural Gas Hurts Coal Industry, Asks Why Go Nuclear?

Things are tough in coal country. Even utilities in Kentucky are switching to cheaper, cleaner burning natural gas. Kentucky politicians are blaming Obama administration clean-air regulations, but the era of cheap coal is also past and the price is not competitive either.

Coal used to provide 50 percent of our electrical power. It's down to 40 percent now and is likely to decrease to 30 percent by next year. Press reports show one coal company has announced layoffs of over 700 miners, coal severance taxes which fund local governments are falling, and the unemployment rate in some mining areas of Eastern Kentucky is between 12 and 15 percent.

King Coal, the source of a lot of the Knoxville establishment's wealth back in the day, is ailing badly.

Natural gas is cheaper and burns more efficiently. Utilities are switching coal-fired plants to natural gas. It also will help the utilities meet new air-quality regulations. U.S. Sens. Lamar Alexander and Bob Corker are to be commended for supporting clean air. Corker wants to give utilities a few more years to comply; after all, the regulations have only been coming for a couple of decades.

Given this set of circumstances, shouldn't someone in authority be asking TVA why it is building more nuclear power plants instead of more natural gas plants? We just discovered recently that a repair job at Watts Bar is going to cost $2 billion more than previously estimated. Can anybody, even TVA, really predict what it will cost to build a nuclear plant at the long moth-balled Bellefonte site below Chattanooga?

A lawsuit by North Carolina and the EPA is forcing TVA to convert three of its nastiest coal-fired plants to natural gas by 2020. So TVA will be in the natural gas market pretty heavily. Why then continue to build a nuclear power plant?

I have always supported the idea of nuclear power as cleaner than coal. But TVA has never demonstrated the capacity to produce nuclear power without huge cost overruns. You would think that given the success of France's nuclear program and the reliable and efficient nuclear U.S. Navy (submarines, air craft carriers, and battleships powered by reactors) that the technology and expertise would have progressed to the point that TVA could build a nuclear reactor now without major overruns.

One would assume that the addition of some Democrats to the TVA board by President Obama would have done more to change the course of TVA policy. Or at least stir come discussion, controversy, and debate rather than the usual rubber-stamp for TVA executives.

Tennessee's coal industry is marginal at best. But the jobs up on the Kentucky line are important in a high-unemployment area, and the coal severance taxes fund schools.

What is often forgotten is that the coal miners today are going back to the place where they know there is coal—areas that were mined before and can be reopened with better equipment these days. These old mine sites were often abandoned without being reclaimed, given the disgraceful regulation of them by the state of Tennessee. When the sites are mined again, the Feds are around to see that the area is restored with trees and grass.

No one else is going to clean up these sites unless the Feds make the mining companies do it.

Tennessee needs to be vigilant to see that the present mining is not polluting streams and that the environmental cleanup is done and done correctly. The battle in Nashville has been about stopping "mountaintop mining," giving the impression companies want to mine undisturbed scenic vistas instead of old high-wall mining sites. But opponents to banning mountain top mining seem to think the companies will convert the old mining sites into grazing land for elk herds. We hope so, and the state should see that it happens.

King Coal is ailing. The marginal operations in Tennessee won't last too long into the future. Let's get the jobs and taxes while we can, and do all the environmental cleanup we can, in the meantime.