Environmental Footprints of Renewable Energy vs. Nuclear

A senior nuclear power exec claimed at a recent seminar that the environmental footprint of a nuclear power station was 100 times smaller than an onshore windfarm. (no sizes given unfortunately). What are the comparable eco-footprints? — Polly H., London, United Kingdom

According to wind energy expert Tom Gray (and Director of Communications and Outreach at the American Wind Energy Assocation), “My rule of thumb is 60 acres per megawatt (MW) for wind farms on land.” According to the Energy Information Administration, The Fort Calhoun 476 MW nuclear power plant, operational since August 9, 1973, is located on 660 acres near Omaha, Nebraska and has an easement for another 580 acres, the acreage being maintained in a natural state (see Fort Calhoun link below). So on the face of it, on the same 1200+ acres, nuclear gets 480 MW versus 20 MW for wind, or 40 times more. But the capacity factor for the nuclear plant hovers above 80% and wind is approximately 30%, so clearly the ‘100 times more’ claim seems to be ‘on the mark’ if you chose to forget the nuclear fuel cycle. We now have active farming onsite at large windfarms, and there is no reason to believe we could not also harvest crops between the large wind generators for biomass electric power, which could increase electrical output of the same acreage substantially. But a nuclear power generation plant is not an independent entity like wind. A number of processes are needed to keep the generation plant operational, most of which take place elsewhere or at other times than the actual production of electricity. The total package is referred to as the ‘process chain,’ which consists of the following steps: * mining, refining and transport of the raw materials and uranium fuels; * construction and maintenance of the power station; * conversion of fuel or uranium into electricity; * dismantlement of the power station at the end of its life span; * processing of the resulting waste during the life of the generation plant. Mining uranium takes lots of land. Uranium is widely distributed in the earth’s crust but only in minute quantities, with the exception of a few places where it has accumulated in concentrations rich enough to be economically mined as an ore. The main deposits of ore, in order of size, are in Australia, Kazakhstan, Canada, South Africa, Namibia, Brazil, the Russian Federation, the USA, and Uzbekistan. Storing nuclear wastes also takes lots of land. According to EPA, in 2000, the USA had approximately 600,000 cubic meters of different types of radioactive waste were generated, and approximately 700,000 cubic meters were in storage awaiting disposal. Radioactive wastes in the form of spent nuclear fuel (2,467 metric tons of heavy metal) and high-level waste “glass logs” (1,201 canisters of vitrified high-level waste) are in storage awaiting long-term disposal (see EPA link below). In 2003, The Energy Department has asked permission to reserve use of 308,600 acres of public land across rural Nevada to develop a railroad corridor to the proposed nuclear waste repository at Yucca Mountain, located in Nye County, which has a land area of 11,560,960 acres. Nye County is larger than the total acreage of Massachusetts, Rhode Island, New Jersey, and Delaware. Of this vast land area, only 822,711 acres (or just over seven percent of the total) is private land; the majority of the county’s land is owned by the federal government. In regard to nuclear, add potential land loss to human and technical error, harsh weather and earthquakes, and potentially, to terrorism — and the land issue becomes the least of the differentiations between the technologies. — Scott Sklar Scott Sklar is President of The Stella Group in Washington, DC, a distributed energy marketing and policy firm. Scott, co-author of “A Consumer Guide to Solar Energy,” uses solar technologies for heating and power at his home in Virginia.
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Scott, founder and president of The Stella Group, Ltd., in Washington, DC, is the Chair of the Steering Committee of the Sustainable Energy Coalition and serves on the Business Council for Sustainable Energy, and The Solar Foundation. The Stella Group, Ltd., a strategic marketing and policy firm for clean distributed energy users and companies using renewable energy, energy efficiency and storage. Sklar is an Adjunct Professor at The George Washington University teaching two unique interdisciplinary courses on sustainable energy, and is an Affiliated Professor of CATIE, the graduate university based in Costa Rica. . On June 19, 2014, Scott Sklar was awarded the prestigious The Charles Greely Abbot Award by the American Solar Energy Society (ASES) and on April 26, 2014 was awarded the Green Patriot Award by George Mason University in Virginia.

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