Blue Ridge Naturalist: Nuclear Energy More Wildlife-friendly than Most “Green” Alternatives

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Dominion Resources’ Chesterfield Power Station is the largest fossil fuel-powered plant in Virginia. Replacing such plants with solar and wind farms isn’t necessarily the best choice. Photo: Marlene A. Condon.

Thanks to the burning of fossil fuels, global climate change is now a term everyone knows. But do we talk about limiting population growth and the particular aspects of consumerism that have brought about this dangerous alteration of our atmosphere?

After all, as long as the human population keeps increasing, there will be a corresponding increase in demand for energy just for basic needs, such as heating homes and cooking—never mind the energy gluttony of our modern era of computers, cell phones, automatic doors that open and close constantly, etc.

Yet as power companies attempt to provide the energy that our modern lifestyles are commanding, they are lambasted for their efforts. In Virginia, a lot of contentiousness exists about bringing fuel through the state via three huge natural-gas pipelines as well as the movement of electricity through gargantuan transmission towers.

That’s not surprising. What person who appreciates the natural beauty of a rural area wants such unnatural-looking features running through it? However, every American whose house is larger than absolutely necessary, or whose computer runs 24/7 for no good reason, bears some responsibility for these situations.

Many people insist that we don’t need coal or fracked hydrocarbons (environmentally destructive sources of energy) to supply our energy demands. They suggest we just need to develop “green” energy, such as can be obtained from sunshine, wind, and water.

But these so-called green energy sources are not synonymous with “harmless to the environment” as many people seem to think. Although “green” power sources may emit fewer or no carbon emissions as compared to coal, their use—when employed on a large scale—results in a variety of wildlife losses, both directly by infrastructure and indirectly by habitat alteration or destruction.

Dams built across rivers to create hydropower stop migratory (and edible) fish from being able to continue as far as they need to go in order to abundantly reproduce.  And the concept of gathering energy from wave action presents such problems as alteration of habitat for benthic organisms (creatures that live at the lowest surface of a body of water, including on the sediment surface and in some sub-surface layers) and animal entanglement due to underwater moving parts.

Huge wind turbines kill migratory birds and bats that hit the spinning blades.  Placing the bases of these structures within the ocean creates noise that can negatively impact sea life, especially cetaceans (whales and dolphins) that must communicate with one another over long distances.

The deployment of acres and acres of solar-panel arrays destroy habitat for the variety of wildlife they displace, and in some instances, the solar array itself has caused the deaths of particular species of birds, many of which are already recognized as endangered.

That said, solar panels on top of a roof (which are very common) and small wind turbines in a home landscape that no longer supports wildlife anyway are both great ways to obtain energy for the homeowner’s needs. However, large-scale solar- and wind-energy projects are too destructive of the environment. If people are going to continue to demand enormous amounts of energy instead of using energy more frugally—as I believe they should—the “greenest” alternative to coal is nuclear power.

Yes, people tend to be terrified of this radioactive fuel source, and admittedly with good reason. Radioactivity can be exceedingly dangerous should we be exposed to too much of it by a radioactive release from one of these power plants. And, of course, there’s the problem of leftover radioactive waste that needs to be properly disposed of. But are nuclear power plants “prohibitively dangerous,” as I’ve seen written?

There have never been deaths in the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom, or Europe due to nuclear power. Indeed, it has been in use now for over five decades and has a very good safety record.

The sum total of accidents in over 16,000 cumulative reactor-years of commercial nuclear power operation in 33 countries is three: Three Mile Island (United States, 1979), Chernobyl (Ukraine, 1986), and Fukushima (Japan, 2011).

Three Mile Island was contained without anyone being harmed, and there were no adverse environmental consequences.

Chernobyl involved an intense fire in a reactor designed without provision for containment of radioactive material should an accident occur. This design flaw is not allowed in Western countries. This incident killed 31 people and the ensuing environmental and health consequences have increased that total to at least 56.

Fukushima was designed to withstand an earthquake, which it did just fine.  The operating units shut down and backup diesel generators started automatically to keep the nuclear safety systems powered. The problem was the huge tsunami that knocked out the backup power systems, allowing the reactors to overheat and release some radioactivity. Lessons have been learned; in the United States, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission now requires that portable electric generators and water-pumping equipment be stored onsite in a building away from the units so it’s available if needed to keep them safe.

Some folks worry that a nuclear power reactor might explode like a nuclear bomb.  However, the fuel is not enriched anywhere near enough for that to happen.

Can spent fuel rods be enriched and then employed in bomb-making? Yes, but that’s why operating staff are monitored carefully, especially if they handle fuel. And new methods of mining uranium and improved technologies for building reactors that run on less-enriched uranium fuel should help make nuclear power even safer.

Although nuclear power stations emit about 17 tons of carbon dioxide per megawatt when producing power (compared to coal at a whopping 1000 tons), that’s not much more than wind and geothermal power, which emit the lowest amounts.

In terms of electricity production, the main advantage of nuclear power is that it delivers energy almost constantly. This makes it well-suited for providing the always-on “baseload” power supply we depend upon for reliability.

The main disadvantage in terms of electricity production is the problem of nuclear waste. According to the Nuclear Energy Institute, all of the used nuclear fuel produced over the past 50 years, if stacked end to end, would cover a single football field to a depth of about 21 feet.

The plan is to eventually store nuclear waste in underground repositories, but for now it is stored onsite at nuclear power plants in steel-lined, concrete water-filled vaults or in massive steel or steel-lined concrete dry containers. Although some folks worry about the possibility of equipment failures and personnel errors, there has yet to be a major incident.

Energy conservation should be practiced much more than it is, but the reality is that people are highly unlikely to change their ways. This fact was demonstrated by the need to legislate the use of more energy-efficient bulbs when people could have simply shut their lights off.  That said, nuclear is far “greener” than most other sources in terms of maintaining the very existence of our natural world.

13 COMMENTS

  1. Very true. Thank you.

    All energy technologies have their warts, but in terms of harm to the environment, nuclear is the best of the lot. John Holdren, the President’s Science Advisor, once made the observation that we should continue to pursue nuclear fission and fusion technologies because we don’t have enough atmosphere for fossil fuels and we don’t have enough land for renewables.

    And importantly, there are nuclear technologies such as High Temperature Gas Cooled Reactors and others that have profound safety and efficiency advantages over the existing (and already safe) light water reactor technology.

  2. Even if the nuclear plants did not have the issues of cost, waste and security and safety concerns it would still take 20+ years to bring on a new fleet of reactors. We simply do not have that kind of time. Other renewables can be brought online quickly and cheaply. They are the best solution we have.

      • And since we could start building 10 GW of new capacity every year, we could totally eliminate CO2 from the grid in about 50 years.

      • The people who build nuclear power plants in the US either lie about how long it takes to build them, or they are terrible managers. There are 5 reactors under construction in the US today. All 5 of them are years late. All 5 of them are over budget. 4 of these 5 reactor started construction right around 2013, they are all the same design (AP 1000) and they are all late. Watt Bar 2 is not finished and it is 35 years delayed in completion.

        You can come up with excuses for these reactors. But when you look at the history of nuclear power construction in the US, you find that everyone one of the last 70 reactors built in the US we both over budget and years late in completion.

        So you will forgive me if i am skeptical about your promises that reactors can be built quickly.

        • Having been in the nuclear industry for over 4 decades I am a little familiar with the construction processes and the cause of most of the delays. Yes, if past history is an indicator, then none of the 5 plants under construction will be on line for another 10 years. However, that is not the case. Our current delays are a result of inexperience, having not built new ones in over 3 decades. The new modular system of construction has and will save time building future AP1000 plants. lessons learned in building Vogtle 3 are being applied to Vogtle 4 with significant time and cost savings. But, that will not bring the second unit on line faster because it the operators for the units can’t be trained at the same time, hence the one year difference.

          Having been in startup in the “old days”, there were several contributing factors that delayed them and drove up the costs. Yep, some mis-management, large projects with 10,000 workers are hard to coordinate effectively. Three Mile Island cause significant re-designs and changes to safety systems. Interest rates rocketed to 25%, which add to the costs. But none of those contributed significantly to the massive cost overruns. Can you guess what the largest single contributing factor was and it had absolutely nothing to do with the actual construction of the plants. Getting the operating license. Yep getting past all the anti-nuke hurdles, you know law suits. The largest single factor to cost overruns was litigation, it accounts for 47% of the $4B in cost overrun. Attorneys got nearly $2B fighting the antis at Seabrook. I was there and saw it. 100 attorneys on retainer of $100K each, ten million a year.

          Thank goodness they went to the combined operating license process.

    • Jamie, the problem is that there’s just no way that renewables are up for the job. They are far too diffuse, requiring a lot of habitat disruption (as this article outlines) and by themselves are unreliable sources of power since the intermittent fuel availability can’t be tailored to our needs.

      Thus storage is required. Lots of it! Like TWh levels of storage. Nothing that battery technology is up to dealing with. The best storage solutions to date involve pumped water schemes but they suffer from inefficiencies (thus even more diffuse renewables required) plus they require yet more real estate, real estate with unique properties allowing both an uphill and downhill reservoir. There’s only so much real estate with such properties and again would cause more habitat disruption. Many of the low-hanging fruit prime locations have already been cherry-picked.

      The bottom line is that as renewables share of global power supply increases, it becomes increasingly a problem to maintain the power being demanded without a) brownouts and even blackouts or b) fossil fuel backup. Guess which choice power utilities are choosing. So much for the CO2 reductions promised by renewables. Don’t believe me? Look to Germany and witness how they are making out. They have spent billions on renewable power yet they haven’t reduced CO2 levels!

      Meanwhile Germans say they are going to shut down the remaining nuclear power plants. The only way they could do so is applying the a) brownouts and even blackouts or b) fossil fuel backup choices. Guess what, they will chose the latter if they can’t get over their nuclear phobia! But I predict they will get over their phobia, they are way too clever to continue with their current Energiewende. And I trust folks on this side of the pond are just as clever (though I have to admit it sometimes doesn’t appear that way)

      Finally, I see signs that the current nuclear stagnation is about to change. Many signs but I see these as the top three:
      Huge Chinese manpower and funding of both Gen III+ builds and gen IV nuclear R&D
      Invigorated Australian interest in nuclear (they could leapfrog USA technology because they have nothing to decommission)
      The current US administration showing signs of supporting advanced nuclear R&D, the Nuclear Energy Innovation Capabilities Act with bipartisan support was passed by the House of Representaives as well as by the Senate by something like 57 for and 4 against. http://tinyurl.com/hzu2s5h

      So in spite of the current reactors approaching end-of-license-period and not being judged to be financially viable at least in part due to environmentalist opposition, colour me bullish about nuclear!

    • Yes, it would take 20+ years to complete building a fleet of nuclear reactor to replace fossil fuels to generate electric power. That doesn’t mean that some of them wouldn’t be completed in much less time. Some of them should be on line in 5 years or so.

      However, the statement that large quantities of renewables can be brought on line quickly is a myth. The renewables have to be manufactured and the plants that make them have limits on capacity. Also, consider that it takes 50 square miles of Silicon solar PV panels to produce as much electricity as One Westinghouse AP1000 nuke and you can see that it might not be as easy as installing solar on your roof.

    • Quickly and cheaply? Well you get what you pay for. For example, Ivanpah solar in CA is 377MW, $2.2B with 30 design year life. VC Summer nuclear is 2200MW, $9.8B, 60 year design life.

      To recoup the construction costs over the life of the plants, using capacity factor of 25% for solar and 90% for nuclear, you’ll find that Ivanpah will have to bring in $100/MW-hr and VCS about $11/MW-hr.

      So, which is really cheaper?

  3. I always hate it when a Nulear Industry Wonk gets it wrong, but then they have to tow the policy line and I do not.

    Turns out, the following statement is wrong. “The main disadvantage in terms of electricity production is the problem of nuclear waste. According to the Nuclear Energy Institute, all of the used nuclear fuel produced over the past 50 years, if stacked end to end, would cover a single football field to a depth of about 21 feet.”

    As it turns out, about 97% of the Spent Nuclear Fuel (SNF) is NOT waste but unspent fuel. If we used fluorination and pyro-processing to extract the unused fuel from the SNF and then extracted the stable isotopes and useful isotopes from the remainder, what was left, the true “radioactive waste”, would barely represent a tripping hazard if plated onto an endzone. And it would be as safe as the dirt it came from in about 300 years.

    Just a thought.

  4. What is this ? Suddenly Marlene Condon is a shill for expansion of nuclear energy ? Let’s begin with the start of the nuclear cycle – mining and milling uranium. Mining and milling of uranium in the Four Corners despoiled not only the natural beauty of the area and the creatures that lived therein but resulted in cancers in the population of Navajo miners. Enrichment of uranium (i.e., processing ore into fuel rods for reactors) in Paducah Kentucky was not carbon free. Two TVA (Tennessee Valley Authority) coal plants ran full time to do this.The Paducah plant has been the largest single-meter consumer of electric power on the planet and it’s the largest single-source emitter of the very worst atmospheric gasses—chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs). I believe CFC’s harm humans as well as wildlife.

    This is just the beginning. Marlene- look a little deeper. Perhaps you should stick to raccoon life cycles.

    • Well, you believe wrong. (Try Google next time, took all of 1 minute to find this.)

      Absorption/Metabolism
      CFCs are primarily absorbed by inhalation, and to a lesser extent through ingestion and through
      the skin. CFCs are preferentially stored in fat tissue. Almost all absorbed CFCs are cleared from
      the body within 24 hours.

      Short term (acute) Effects
      Exposure to pressurized CFCs, such as may occur with a refrigerant leak, can cause frostbite to
      the skin as well as to the upper airway if inhaled. CFCs exposed to high temperatures can degrade
      into more acutely toxic gases such as chlorine and phosgene.

      Inhalation of CFCs at high concentrations affects the central nervous system (CNS) with
      symptoms of alcohol like intoxication, reduced coordination, lightheadedness, headaches,
      tremors, and convulsions. Very high concentrations can cause disturbances in heart rhythm.
      Intentional sniffing of the vapors has caused some deaths, presumably from disruption of heart
      rhythm. In an acute inhalation study, humans were exposed for several hours to increasing concentrations
      of CFCs. As concentrations of CFCs increased, health impacts also increased.

      Long Term (Chronic) Effects
      In occupational studies, workers exposed to CFCs at the occupational standard showed no
      adverse health effects. In a study of laboratory animals exposed orally to CFC11, in creased mortality was observed. Guinea pigs exposed to CFC12 by inhalation had liver effects. Other species of laboratory
      animals exposed under the same conditions showed no adverse health effects.

      Carcinogenic Effects (Ability to Cause Cancer)
      Research involving different animal species exposed to CFCs did not show any evidence of
      carcinogenic (cancer) effects. Although the U. S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has
      not yet formally evaluated CFCs for their carcinogenic potential, the available studies’ results
      seem to indicate that their potential to cause cancer is low.

      Reproductive/Developmental Effects
      Laboratory animals exposed to high levels of CFCs have not resulted in any observable adverse
      health effects.

      Source: http://des.nh.gov/organization/commissioner/pip/factsheets/ard/documents/ard-ehp-34.pdf

    • Elena – do you have a similar life cycle discussion for solar panel production and waste disposal? And please make sure you compare it on a per MW basis with your apparent condemnation of nuclear. Or is it only the nuclear life cycle that has hazards that need worrying about and criticism of any author that dares suggest that nuclear should be included in the energy mix?

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