Michael Bloomberg on his favorite energy sources, and the effects of accidents involving nuclear radiation

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Indian Point. (hopefoote, via flickr)
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Mayor Michael Bloomberg thinks coal is the worst, as energy sources go. Everything else, including hydrofracking-derived natural gas and nuclear energy, isn't so bad.

The discussion, which took place this morning during Bloomberg's regular Friday radio appearance, was sparked by his visit yesterday to Chicago, where he joined Mayor Rahm Emanuel in announcing the redevelopment of a coal-fired plant.

“Coal-fired power plants are responsible for something like 30 percent of the greenhouse gases," said the mayor, who has made reducing reliance on coal one of his signature non-New-York-specific issues and last year donated $50 million to the Sierra Club campaign, Beyond Coal.  "If you could get rid of coal in this country, you’d make a big difference.”

Bloomberg offered a separate argument for listeners who don't believe in global warming, emphasizing coal's impact on childhood asthma rates and the mercury that's released from coal-fired plants, which, as the mayor noted, "gets into the water, into the fish, and then you eat it. And it’s terrible.”

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“Coal kills, the estimates are something like 13,000 people a year in America, from the stuff that they put in the air," he said.

The mayor offered much warmer assessments of natural gas and nuclear power, though some environmentalists (and in the case of nuclear, historians) would dispute his version of how such technologies work.

On natural gas, which engineers extract via a controversial process called hydraulic fracturing, and which is now being considered —very controversially—in New York, the mayor said, “We’ve been fracking for 50 years.”

“They drill a hole and then they use high-pressure water to crack the rock, and the gas is in the rock, and then the gas comes out, and without that you wouldn’t get very much gas out of it," said the mayor. He added that fracking should be done in "responsible ways."

The mayor also advocated nuclear energy, which is nothing new. His administration has argued that Indian Point, the nuclear power plant 35 miles north of New York City, is essential to the stability of the city’s energy supply. Some environmental groups, with the support of Governor Andrew Cuomo, are trying to shut Indian Point down.

The mayor offered, and then seemed to instantaneously qualify, the following statement about the technology: “Nuke has never killed anybody, um, I don’t, maybe, I don’t know ...”

He trailed off and it became inaudible as the host talked over him.

A bit later, he resumed: “People say ... ‘I’m scared of terrorists or of a runaway explosion. That’s not what happens. You have a tsunami, which took out their electric supply so they couldn’t cool the reactors. That’s terrible and it did enormous damage. It doesn’t look like it really hurt anybody. People did not really get exposed.”

"Unfortunately, with that stuff, only time tells," said Gambling.

“Well, you know, Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the radiation killed enormous numbers of people," said Bloomberg. "But the radiation afterwards was not what everybody thought that it would be, in terms of killing people.”

Wind, says the mayor, is the most promising.

“Economics of wind power is getting much better, much faster than solar. And there is a lot of evidence that wind power really will in the next five years or so, become a very important part of the energy throughout this country.”

Nothing is perfect," said the mayor. "Nothing is cost free. But coal is the worst. Natural gas is a lot better, but not as good as wind and solar. Wind and solar are not without their problems. Some people say that the turbines, the wind turbines, kill birds. There’s not a lot of evidence of a lot, but you know, listen, you build a building, birds fly into the building and die."

"Birds fly into my window of my house," said Gambling.

Fortunately, these, said the mayor, are not our only options, including, "people trying to harness the tides."

"There’s some research on you put a big solar collector up in a satellite and then you beam down the energy," said the mayor.

"Remember when you were a kid and you had the magnifying glass and the leaf?" Gambling laughed.

"You know, you say this is ridiculous, cost a lot to do it, but once you get a satellite up there, the cost of the energy is zero. It comes from the sun."