Oceans of Acid: the seven seas are the dumping ground for million-year “clean” fossil fuel waste

If you want to keep a modern society running cleanly and efficiently, you need large-scale sources of electricity. You can generate that electricity in one or more of only three ways: coal, natural gas, and nuclear. Coal and natural gas are fossil fuels. To generate electricity with them you have to burn them. Burning fossil fuels creates carbon dioxide (CO2), the principal man-made greenhouse gas. Most people are not aware of the sheer amount of CO2 that electric power generation dumps into the air—10 billion tons each and every year. And that number is growing.

Not one single gram of those 10 billion tons of CO2 comes out of a nuclear plant. Almost all of those 10 billion tons come from coal and gas plants (some also comes out of oil-fired plants).

What happens to that CO2? Well, it swirls around in the atmosphere, acting as a trap for heat energy that would otherwise radiate into outer space. It does this for literally hundreds of thousands—some say millions—of years. CO2 is an extremely tough and stable molecule. I know: one of my R&D projects aims to deprive CO2 of one of its oxygen atoms, in order to turn it into a reactant to make other products. Hiving an oxygen atom off CO2 requires a lot of energy and ingenuity.

Left on its own in the earth’s atmosphere, without people like me devoting time and effort to split it, CO2 remains subject only to time. And time—hundreds of thousands of years of time—eventually does bring it back to earth, by entraining it weathering rock and water. Most of our planet’s surface is water, so most of that CO2 winds up in the oceans, making them more acidic.

This has profound implications for the future of life on this planet. The entire ocean ecosystem, from phytoplankton to blue whales, is a giant carbon sink. Dr. Sylvia Earle, an oceanographer, points out in the video clip below that ocean acidification—the conversion of atmospheric CO2 into carbonic acid in water—is the result of the rate at which CO2 is becoming entrained in the oceans. Too much carbonic acid will kill ocean creatures, thereby depriving us of an enormous source of atmospheric oxygen.

Ocean acidification is recognized by many, including many of the leading environmental groups, as a major problem. The Natural Resources Defense Council (NDRC) warns against it, and recommends, not surprisingly, steep reductions in CO2 emissions. The NDRC obviously went to a lot of trouble producing the fancy videos on its site. It obviously feels ocean acidification is a serious problem.

Presumably, NDRC feels that the CO2 from power generation, which to repeat dumps 10 billion tons of CO2 into our air each and every year, should be one of the first places to start with the necessary carbon reductions. So which of the three power generation fuels—coal, natural gas, and nuclear—does the NDRC recommend we uptake in a big way?

The answer may surprise, upset, and disappoint you. While waxing eloquent about the perils of ocean acidification, the NDRC, from the other corner of its mouth, proceeds to in effect advocate for coal and natural gas and against nuclear.

With this kind of mealy-mouthed hypocrisy at the cutting edge of the self-styled “environmental movement,” is it any wonder that 10 billion tons of CO2 are getting dumped into our air and oceans every year.

The “environmental movement” is the oceans’ and atmosphere’s worst enemy.

0 0 votes
Article Rating
Notify of

Newest Most Voted
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
11 years ago

Hi Steve

Thank you for this blog post. I think ocean acidification is a huge danger that is usually minimized. Dr. Earle is correct that the oceans are our lives. She also is correct about the dangers of acification. However, she drops that topic very quickly, and gets into “don’t eat fish.” Perhaps we shouldn’t eat fish. Some fish are endangered, but not all fish are endangered. Anyhow, what bothers me is that there is a global problem…ocean acidification…and what are we supposed to do about it? Don’t eat fish. It’s like the “save energy, disconnect your cell phone charger when not in use.” Well, that will help, but not much.

Maybe it is because it is the new year or something, but I feel particularly aware of this attitude right now. I am on my town’s Energy Commission, but I am thinking of resigning. On the Commission, I meet with a group of people who are perfectly willing to close down Vermont Yankee, indeed, EAGER to do so. And we discuss energy-saving strategies like streetlight replacement and campaigns about replacing light bulbs at home. All these things are GOOD, which is why I joined the Commission in the first place. But right now, it is beginning to feel hypocritical to be on it. “Yes, let’s prevent global warming by buying new light bulbs and closing Vermont Yankee.” That is the attitude.

Sorry to be so cranky. Thank you for this post!

Have a wonderful, happy New Year!


Steve Aplin
11 years ago

Meredith, thanks — I learned about Dr. Earle via an ABC (Australian Broadcasting Corporation) radio interview that I heard very early on New Year’s Day. In that interview she elaborated in much more detail on acidification. In my hurry to get that post done before rushing out for breakfast, that YouTube clip was the best I could come up with. I agree, it’s a bit thin on acidification.

Easy for me to say, but you should stick with the Commission even if it’s a bit taxing. If you don’t make the case for Yankee, who else will? It’s annoying, I know—I hear that mamby pamby stuff all the time, about how compact lightbulbs will save the planet. Expensive gloom, I call it. But someone has to make the case: if Yankee is shut down prematurely, the power feeding all those dim-watted CFLs will come with millions of tons of CO2 that will just get dumped into the ocean. Seafood in Vt will come with mercury AND acid!

11 years ago

Fossil fuel burning is now dumping over 30 billion tons of CO2 every year, not 10 billion. It’s around 9.3 billion tons of carbon. I don’t think I’m being pedantic, because the difference is rather dramatic.

Steve Aplin
11 years ago
Reply to  Rob Painting

Rob, thanks. Please note however that I was careful to point out that the ten billion tons are from power generation; they’re not total anthropogenic CO2.

I’ll accept your claim of thirty billion tons. That’s pretty sobering.

Dwight Zerkee
11 years ago


It is not correct to state that not one single gram of CO2 is emitted from nuclear plants. Every nuclear plant will emit CO2, just not in the very large quantities from fossil-fuelled plants.

CANDU reactors use CO2 as their annulus gas (between the calandria and pressure tubes) and there is always a small amount of leakage from this system. When the main generators are degassed for maintenance, the hydrogen is first replaced with CO2 before being purged with air (to avoid the risk of explosion that could occur when hydrogen and oxygen are mixed). This CO2 is vented to the atmosphere. CO2 in the form of dry ice is sometimes used to form ice plugs in systems that cannot be isolated for maintenance purposes.

It is more correct to refer to nuclear plants as very low CO2 emission plants, not CO2 emission free.

Dwight Zerkee

Steve Aplin
11 years ago
Reply to  Dwight Zerkee

Dwight, thanks for the clarification. I’ll stick with the original statement, and here’s why: the bulk of the emissions you refer to—purging during maintenance—are more properly in the “lifecycle” category. The power generation category is about the direct emissions related to making electricity: what comes out of the exhaust stack of the gas-fired turbine engine, for example.

I don’t include gas’s lifecycle emissions (and they are substantial, in the order of 25 million tons per year in Canada) in the per-kWh estimate, so won’t do that either with CANDU-nuclear.

Besides, we are talking about kilograms versus millions of tons—a difference of something like nine orders of magnitude. For practical purposes, nuclear is zero-carbon power.

11 years ago

Thanks Steve. More of the world needs to respond and try to fix the problem. Glad you’re covering the ocean. It’s too easy for us to ignore. Oil spills also dramatically affect the oceans. I’d like to know if anybody has calculated the damage done by oil spills plus of course ships that routinely dump their oil.