MCC explores research possibilities and findings and through up-to-date reports, peer-reviewed scientific papers, conference proceedings, brochures, maps, books and other publications to share with Maryland, best practices in managing our natural environment in a smart, sustainable way. Thanks to its experienced and diverse leadership team of experts which provides knowledge and insight on ways to protect our natural environment and to ensure that people in Maryland have the knowledge and tools to protect and conserve the environment.
|Transportation of High-Level
Radioactive Material, i.e. Spent
The transportation of highly radioactive material, including used reactor fuel, causes great concern
among the public as a result of the way it is presented by the news media and in literature from anti-
nuclear power organizations. The threat of harm to health depends on three factors: 1) the
likelihood of a transportation accident which would 2) release radioactivity from the transportation
containers, and 3) the harm to health if radioactivity were released.
The National Research Council (NRC) of the National Academies of Science (NAC) published a book-
length report on the transportation of high-level waste (1).
2: Likelihood of an accident
The fire in the Howard Street rail tunnel in Baltimore on July 18, 2001 led to much speculation
about radioactive releases had the train been carrying high-level radioactive waste. This tunnel has
particular significance because it is one of the most outstanding bottlenecks in the entire US rail
transportation system (2). Several organizations issued reports that concluded that this tunnel
constitutes a severe hazard for the transportation of used fuel rods and that similar events at other
locations on the rail system might constitute similar hazards:
“If a train carrying atomic waste were to catch fire, the only thing standing between
people and deadly radiation would be the nuclear waste transport casks, which could leak in
a severe accident, releasing radiation. Spent nuclear fuel, even decades after removal from
the reactor, could deliver a lethal dose of radiation in just a few minutes time.” “The big
question is, could high-level atomic waste containers survive such severe accident conditions?
If not, we could be looking at our own Chernobyl catastrophe — on wheels.”(3)
Many articles in a similar vein can be found by searching the web for: “Baltimore Tunnel Fire.”
The validity of these claims rests on the likelihood that “…a train carrying atomic waste were to
catch fire.” The NRC mentions two approaches to minimizing the probability of a prolonged fire
involving a train carrying high-level radioactive material: 1) separate such material from cargo
consisting of flammable, explosive, or corrosive materials, i.e. general freight, or 2) test
transportation containers against longer and hotter fires than have been used presently. The report
states that the second approach is currently under way (see below).
The first approach (physical separation) is in fact being practiced, in contradiction to statements
from many anti-nuclear organizations which imply that high-level radioactive material has been,
and will continue to be transported on general purpose freight trains. This is not, and actually
never has been the case as stated in a report from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (4):
“It should be noted that although the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) and the U.
S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) do not have regulations requiring dedicated trains
to transport spent nuclear fuel (i.e., trains shipping only spent nuclear fuel), the Association
of American Railroads (AAR) has developed a performance standard for the transportation of
spent nuclear fuel by rail. This performance standard dictates the use of railcars that have
been analyzed and tested to minimize the possibility of derailment. Standard tanker cars
used to ship flammable or hazardous materials would not meet this performance standard.
Therefore, if this performance standard is followed, carriers would not ship hazardous
materials on the same train as commercial spent nuclear fuel. To date, the practice in the
industry has been to make spent fuel rail shipments by dedicated trains, and the industry has
been self-regulating in this respect.”
In the aftermath of a severe rail accident in England in which 10 tank cars loaded with gasoline
derailed in a tunnel and burned for four days:
“… an operational rule was established that prohibited English trains carrying spent fuel
packages and trains hauling flammable materials from crossing in rail tunnels.(1, p81).
Thus, the transportation of spent fuel in the US at present is subject to voluntary compliance with
the practice of using dedicated trains. Mandatory compliance is entirely possible. The Association
of American Railroads, which is a standards setting organization, made the following statement in
hearings before the Senate Committee on Science, Commerce, and Transportation on September 24,
“The rail industry commends the DOE for recognizing the benefits of dedicated trains, and
commends the U.S. Navy for agreeing to conform with S-2043. However, despite its 2005
policy statement in favor of the use of dedicated trains generally and its statement to the STB
[Surface Transportation Board] that it will use dedicated trains on its own Yucca Mountain
line, DOE has not committed to use dedicated trains for SNF [spent nuclear fuel] shipments on
other rail lines, including shipments to Yucca Mountain. The U.S. Navy has not yet agreed to
use dedicated trains for SNF shipments. Railroads respectfully suggest that policymakers
should strongly encourage the DOE and Navy to do so.”
The Association of American Railroads has also recommended that the dedicated trains be
composed of rolling stock that is more road worthy than the usual, having electropneumatic brakes
that stop the whole train simultaneously and that also allow electrical detection of malfunctions by
the engineers; their recommended practices for spent fuel and high level waste are for maximum
speed of 50mph (5).
The hazards of rail transportation of used reactor fuel, which are currently voluntarily prevented
from contact with general freight, could be permanently prevented by regulatory or legislative
action. The probability of a rail accident is very low.
3: Likelihood of container leakage
The report, issued in 2003, from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (4) about the fire and its
potential consequences concluded:
“that for a 10 CFR Part 71 approved spent fuel transportation cask subjected to the
Howard Street tunnel fire, no release of radioactive materials would have resulted from this
postulated event, and the health and safety of the public would have been maintained.”
The NRC’s report (1) makes the following general observations about transportation technology:
“The important question to be answered by testing is not whether a package could be
made to fail; as noted previously, it would certainly be possible to design tests that would
accomplish this goal. Rather, the question that needs to be answered is whether there are
credible accident conditions that would result in releases of radioactivity to the environment
that would endanger emergency responders or the general public. It is clear from the
modeling and full-scale tests described in this chapter that transportation packages are
extremely rugged. The committee judges that packages designed, fabricated, used, and
maintained under current regulatory standards are very unlikely to encounter loading
conditions under real-world conditions, with the possible exception of very long duration
fires, that would lead to releases in excess of regulatory limits. The committee recognizes,
however, that even minor releases from package containment might have important social
implications.” (1, p.106)
“The committee strongly endorses the use of full-scale testing to determine how packages
will perform under both regulatory and credible extraregulatory conditions. Package testing
in the United States and many other countries is carried out using good engineering practices
that combine state-of-the-art structural analyses and physical tests to demonstrate
containment effectiveness. Full-scale testing is a very effective tool both for guiding and
validating analytical engineering models of package performance and for demonstrating the
compliance of package designs with performance requirements. However, deliberate full-scale
testing of packages to destruction through the application of forces that substantially exceed
credible accident conditions would be marginally informative and is not justified given the
considerable costs for package acquisitions that such testing would require.” (1, p.107)
Last edited 5/8/09 12:00 AM
been covered, nor more recent data from the Life Span Study from the Radiation Effects Research
Foundation. Conservationists today are faced with a serious dilemma. They are certain that the use of fossil fuels
is leading toward a global catastrophe. But at the same time they are increasingly aware that many types of renewable energy, because of the large amount of land that they require, will have a seriously
detrimental impact on the natural world, especially if their use expands. After thoughtful deliberation, the Maryland Conservation Council adopted the following four ways to reduce our carbon footprint and to ultimately eliminate the emission of green house gases, while minimizing impact on increasingly stressed habitats; they are listed in order of decreasing desirability:1) Stabilize, and then reduce human population. This has long been a position of the MCC because we believe that population growth is the main cause of environmental degradation. More information will be found soon on this website. We recommend two thorough papers recently written by Tom Horton: http://www.abell.org/publications/detail.asp?ID=140 (short version) and htt
p://www.abell.org/pubsitems/env_Growing_808.pdf (full version).
2) Decrease per capita use of electricity as well as other forms of energy by fostering a conservation ethic, and increase the efficiency with which energy is used by supporting the development a
nd acceptance of more efficient appliances and by shifting demand to off-peak hours. “The best
power source is the one which does not have to be built.”
3) Utilize solar power produced on existing structures, not on open land. Deserts are ecosystem
s too. Maximize the use of geothermal heat pumps for residential heating and cooling.
4) Use nuclear power to the greatest extent technically feasible. An informative web site promot
ing the use of nuclear energy and which also mentions the problems created by unending popula
tion growth is: http://www.coal2nuclear.com/index.htm
Taking these four parts of MCC’s energy policy in account, the Board voted at its November 2007 meeting to support Constellation Energy’s proposal to build a third reactor.The MCC concludes that nuclear energy, which produces no carbon dioxide or other greenhouse gases (2) also has a smaller footprint or impact on biological diversity compared to wind, solar, or biomass; in some cases, orders of magnitude smaller. When cost is stripped of various forms of governmental assistance, and the actual, not theoretical, effectiveness is used to calculate the size of the installation needed to generate a given amount of electricity, nuclear power is the least expensive.The MCC has also concluded that commercial reactors of the type now used in the United States have
a sound safety record, even considering the accident at Three Mile Island (TMI), and that there is no
credible evidence that there has been harm to health by these reactors. MCC further concluded that t
he hazards of transporting used nuclear fuel have been badly exaggerated, and that recent proposals
about the storage of used fuel will reduce the technological difficulty of construction a long-term repository. Each of these subjects is treated in detail on its own page on this web site, as the links at the top of this page indicate.In the debate over energy production, impact on the environment is a primary concern. From the biologist’s or conservationist’s viewpoint, the environment, in addition to being a resource base for human development, is an object of wonder and source of learning through science, and it thereby acquires value that is independent of economic or material considerations. It becomes an intellectual resource, a challenge to the ability of humans to understand extraordinarily complex and fragile objects.
This view values aesthetics, and affirms that the natural world, untouched by man, is an object of great beauty, mystery and challenge. The opportunity for humanity to hone its intelligence on, and enjoy the beauty of the natural world is an essential complement to a healthy life – it does not conflict with it. The MCC believes that support for renewable energy should take this into consideration.
It bears repeating that the MCC is not giving an unqualified endorsement to nuclear power; our conclusion is that nuclear power is the least destructive of all the alternative technologies, but that the best policies are to stabilize population and reduce per capita demand.
The following page compares the relative impact on habitat of nuclear power generation to generation by renewables. Other pages present a thorough analysis of the health impacts of accidents at nucle
ar power plants, especially Three Mile Island; the safety of the methods developed for the transportation of used nuclear fuel; and a technically simpler goal for the long-term storage of used fuel.
Accuracy is a serious concern; if anyone questions our data or methods, please contact our website e
ditors at: firstname.lastname@example.org
(1) Norman Meadow, PhD retired in 2006 after 34 years in the Biology Department of The Johns Hopkins University. He held the
title of Principle Research Scientist; and now holds the courtesy position of Doctor of the University. He spent about 45 years doing biological and biochemical research, first on the physiology of the aging process at the Gerontology Research Center of the National Institutes of Health, then on the biochemistry of solute transport in bacteria at Hopkins. He has coauthored 39 papers in the peer-reviewed scientific literature, and 5 methods papers and reviews. His research required the use of tracer radioisotopes.William Biggley retired in 2001 after 38 years in the Biology Department of The Johns Hopkins University. He held the title Senior Researcher, and was also the Radiation Safety Officer for the Homewood Campus. His research interests included oceanography, the ecology of the Chesapeake Bay, insect and marine bioluminescence and the spectroscopy of chemiluminescent reaction
s. He has coauthored 32 papers in the peer-reviewed scientific literature.
D. Daniel Boone is a professional ecologist and natural resources policy analyst with 30 years experience studying wildlife and their habitat throughout the Appalachian region. He began his career as a wildlife biologist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and later served as coordinator of the Maryland Natural Heritage Program in the Department of Natural Resources. He also was employed for several years as a Forest Ecologist with the Wilderness Society. He now works as an independent environmental consultant. He co-authored the recent report: “Landscape Classification System: Addressing Environmental Issues Associated with Utility-Scale Wind Energy Development in Virginia” (available via
www.VAwind.org. He has been actively engaged with issues and concerns regarding utility-scale wind energy development for four years.2) While the construction and fueling of nuclear reactors does produce some carbon dioxide, the amount is very small and a com
parable amount is produced by other sources of renewable energy:
http://www.iaea.org/Publications/Magazines/Bulletin/Bull422/article4.pdf – see p.21.)
5/22/13 11:00 PM
|IMPACTS ON HABITAT – Nuclear
2: MARYLAND’S ELECTRICITY CONSUMPTION
The Power Plant Research Program (PPRP) is an agency of Maryland which “…provides a continuing program for evaluating electric generation issues and recommending responsible, long-term solutions.” It posts a useful web page on Maryland’s electricity industry (3). According to the US Energy Information Agency, the yearly total amount of electricity used by the average household in Maryland during 2005 was 13.4 MWh (3a – open the “Table 1“ tab in the spreadsheet) (see Sidebar for electrical units) while the entire State used 63.2 million MWh (3b – see
the column “Retail Electricity Sales”). The latter is the total amount used by private consumers, industrial plants, and commercial operations such as office buildings, stores, etc. during 2005.
3: THE NEW CALVERT CLIFFS REACTOR
The reactor proposed for Calvert Cliffs will have a maximum output of 1600 megawatts of electrical power, and its capacity factor (see Sidebar on Capacity Factor) will be about 90% (4). Thus, the actual annual average power output of the reactor is expected to be 1440 megawatts; this will be referred to as 1 Reactor
Equivalent of electric Power (1 REqP). The annual energy output of the reactor will be 12.6 million megawatt-hours per year (5). We will refer to this amount of electric energy as 1 Reactor Equivalent of electric Energy or 1 REqE).
The land occupied by the installation will be about 300 acres. The reactor is designed to have a working life of 60 years; it will use existing transmission lines, eliminating the need for additional land; and its newly designed cooling system will use only 2% of the water needed by the two older reactors on the site. Its estimated construction cost is from $6.5 to $8.6 billion.
From the PPRP data above we see that the proposed reactor will provide the electricity used annually by about 940,000 homes. To supply the State’s total electricity consumption from within (residential, commercial, and industrial) would require about 6 such reactors (note that a significant fraction of Maryland’s electricity is presently generated out of state).
4: WIND POWER ON LAND IN MARYLAND
Wind power is receiving a lot of attention in the news media as a source of “clean” electricity. But is it effective? That is, can it meet a significant portion of the electricity consumed in the region without occupying a large area of important habitat and at a competitive cost?
Turbines require winds of a defined range of speed. For the type now being used in the Appalachian Mountains, the wind must be at least 9 mph and no more than 56 mph. There is limited amount of land in Maryland with wind of suitable speed, and all of it is in the western mountains where the turbines will be erected on undisturbed
forest (see Biological Effects below). The turbines recently installed in Pennsylvania and West Virginia have a maximum generating capacity of about 2 megawatts, so if you assume that they would produce power consistently at this capacity (i.e., capacity factor = 100%), which they don’t, you would need 720 of them to produce 1 ReqE, probably too many for the land with suitable wind speed. Keep in mind that this is the number required to substitute for only one nuclear reactor.
Throughout the US, wind energy is at its least in the summer–when demand for electricity is highest. Figure 1 shows the monthly capacity factors of two wind installations in Pennsylvania. Note that they were just over 10% in the summer; never exceeded 50% at any time during the year; and the yearly averages were below 30%.
The managers of the PJM grid (the grid that transmits Maryland’s electricity) have assigned an “effective class average Capacity Factor” of only 13% to the wind plants in its region (6). As another example of low productivity at critical times, the large wind installations in California operated at about 5% of their capacity during a hot spell in 2005. The average annual capacity factors from Denmark and Germany are 24 and 16 percent respectively (7).
So, if we calculate the number of turbines needed to substitute for the reactor from the yearly average 30% capacity factor of the two Pennsylvania plants (Figure 1), it increases from 720 to 2400, a number far beyond that which can be accommodated.
When the Capacity Factor of 13% is used, 5,500 turbines would be needed, if they were intended to supply electricity during the summer, which is when demand is highest (Table 1). Installing 5,500 turbines, if it were even possible, would require clearing something like 18,500 acres of forest (including a modest 3 acres per pad plus the land needed for service roads and transmission lines) and they would occupy over 700 miles of ridge line if the turbines were spaced at 7 per mile.
run 100% of the time, and
none, when running, is able to
produce power constantly
throughout a year at its
maximum designed rate (i.e.,
at its “nameplate” generating
capacity). To indicate the
effective performance of any
power plant, the term
“capacity factor” is used. It
represents the actual power
output during a given time
interval divided by the
maximum potential output
operation, with no
maintenance or other
shut-downs, and no loss of
“fuel”, e.g. fossil fuels, wind,
or sunlight. Capacity factor is
expressed as a percentage
over a stipulated time period.The managers of the PJM grid
define the “Capacity Factor”
of a generator as the average
of the last three years’
capacity factors that are
obtained only during the peak
demand periods of from 2 PM
to 6 PM in the months of June
through September. When wind and solar power
installations are mentioned in
the news media, their output
is often stated as their
maximum generating capacity
(i.e., “nameplate capacity”) as
opposed to citing the effective
generating capacity of these
intermittent sources of
electricity. For example, 500
2-MW wind turbines (i.e., 1,000
MW of nameplate capacity)
would have an effective
generating capacity of only
300 MW if these wind turbines
operated annually with a
typical average capacity
factor of 30%. This practice
makes wind and solar
technology appear more
effective and less expensive
than they are in reality.
|The CAPACITY FACTOR –
a CRITICAL FACTOR
amount of energy put into the machine or process. It is expressed as a decimal (always less than 1), or as a
percentage (always less than 100).
|1: COMPARING RENEWABLE AND NUCLEAR ENERGY|
2: MARYLAND’S ELECTRICITY CONSUMPTION
|3: THE NEW CALVERT CLIFFS REACTOR|
|4: WIND POWER ON LAND IN MARYLAND|
|5: WIND POWER OFFSHORE IN MARYLAND|
|6: SOLAR POWER|
|7: AUXILIARY POWER AND ENERGY STORAGE|
9: HOW TO READ THE NEWSPAPERS
|10: AN ESSENTIAL CONCERN: EFFECTS ON THE WORLD OF
11: ENDNOTES PAGE (The individual reference numbers in the text
also link to this page.)
12: TABLES-IMPACTS (Here, the tables in the text are placed on a
separate page for printing. The links in the text also go to this page.)
Please note that our web for your patience.
1: COMPARING RENEWABLE AND NUCLEAR ENERGY: THEIR IMPACTS ON THE WORLD OF BIOLOGY AND THEIR COST TO SOCIETY
Comparing the effectiveness, cost, and environmental impact of different technologies for electricity generation may involve several factors, including different geographic regions; commercial, industrial, and consumer demand considered either together or separately; and increases in efficiency, reductions in use per capita, and shift of demand to off-peak hours. But analyzing larger areas, more classes of users, and changing demand make comparisons complex and can obscure the relative effectiveness of competing technologies (1).
Impacts on habitat and biological diversity are of paramount importance to the MCC, while many comparisons ignore, downplay, or even dismiss them. Our analysis is based on estimating the costs of generating an amount of electric energy equal to that produced by the proposed reactor throughout a year. This approach gives a clearer picture of the relative effectiveness and monetary cost of the different technologies because it includes the parameters that affect production by different technologies at different times of the year. We recognize that there are no proposals to replace fossil fuels with a single renewable technology (1); our intent is to show clearly how each of the competing technologies compares to nuclear in monetary cost and degree of intrusion on the natural world. We want the reader to understand what the costs of producing electricity will be when its production cannot be avoided through conservation or increased efficiency.
Nuclear reactors produce electricity summer and winter, day and night, and in good weather or bad, while some renewables work only when certain conditions are met, for instance when the wind has a certain speed or when the sun is shining.
Tables 1 and 2 summarize the data showing that renewables are both more damaging to habitat and more expensive than nuclear power. The text describes how the data were obtained and it ends with a discussion of the environmental consequences of large scale implementation of renewables and how their performance has been overestimated to the public.
Accounts in the news media and from some proponents of wind power rarely state clearly what capacity factor is being used to make claims for their installations, either existing or proposed. Sometimes it is clear that the measure is the “nameplate” capacity, which creates the misleading conclusion that turbines operate with a capacity factor of 100%.
The annual average value is used occasionally, but the low values characteristic of the summer are almost never mentioned. These practices badly overestimate the ability of wind to produce electricity during the summer, and create an illusion about its effectiveness and cost.The actual cost of installing a 2 MW turbine is presently at least $4 million, so 5,500 turbines would cost over $22 billion, compared to about $6.5 to 8.6 billion for the reactor (Table 2). That is, if you had enough suitably windy land to erect them. The expected working life of wind turbines is about 25 years; the cost of replacing a facility would perhaps be less than building it anew, but would still be significant. The proposed nuclear reactor has a design life of 60 years.5: WIND POWER OFFSHORE IN MARYLANDWinds over the Chesapeake Bay and off the coast are stronger and more reliable than the wind in the mountains (8). Capacity factors for offshore installations are not readily available (there are none in the US), but values of 45% for the yearly average and 25% for summertime are reasonable. The turbines can be larger; the recently announced offshore plant in Delaware will use 3 megawatt turbines (9), but they are also more expensive (10). The number of such turbines needed to equal the output of the single proposed nuclear reactor is 1070 if the yearly average capacity factor of 45% is used, but the number increases to 1920 if the power demand in the summer is to be met (Table 1).The largest offshore installation in the world is in Denmark. Each 2 MW turbine cost about €3.4 million to install in 2002 and its capacity factor is 43% (
10). These turbines can use wind of from 9 mph to 56 mph (10). If the summertime capacity factor is assumed to be 25%, then using the 2002 prices, a turbine installation capable of producing an annual average of 1 REqE would require about 2,900 such turbines and would cost (assuming 1 € = $1.40) about $14 billion (Table 2). The working life of marine turbines is similar to that of the land turbines.6: SOLAR POWER
The MCC believes that solar power offers an acceptable alternative to fossil fuels, but only if installed on existing buildings or other structures where it will not disturb land.
Currently, the generating capacity of thin film solar photovoltaic panels is about 1kW/ 100 square feet (
11); the annual capacity factor in an area like Maryland is about 13% (it ranges from 9% in cloudy to 19% in sunny climates) (11, 12, 13). Another measure of the poor effectiveness of solar installations in Maryland is the fact that the PJM grid managers assigned solar installations an “expected class average capacity factor” of only 38% (6); this capacity factor is derived from performance during afternoons in the summer, at time period when there is no darkness, and the
capacity factor might be expected to be close to 100%. Therefore, about 11,100 megawatts of solar panels would have to be installed to produce 1 REqE and these would cover about 110 square miles (Table 1). There may be this much rooftop and parking lot available, but the installed cost is presently about $8 million per Megawatt so the total cost would be $89 billion (Table 2) (12). Large commercial arrays now cost about $4 per installed watt, but they must be located in deserts and require long and costly transmission lines to bring their power to population centers.A recent article in the Washington Post (
14) reported on two home installations that cost more than $20,000 each. There is little likelihood that many residents would, or could, willingly pay for such expensive devices, even if partially offset by government grants. Prices will have to come down considerably.There is reason to expect that solar devices will be developed that will have a higher generating capacity than current ones. The thermodynamic efficiency (see sidebar) of these devices is currently about 10% (
15). Increases in thermodynamic efficiency will reduce the area required to produce a given amount of electricity, but the cost of devices with improved efficiency is not known.Currently, residential solar panels have shorter working lives than the nuclear plant. Silicon solar cells have a life in excess of 20 years, but their generating capacity may fall by as much as 20% over its useful life (
11, 15). The payback period of residential installations is estimated at about 20 years (16), which means that they will have to be replaced at about the time that they begin to pay off the initial investment.7: AUXILIARY POWER AND ENERGY STORAGE
Neither wind nor sunlight is available continually. This intermittence is presently dealt with by conventional power plants of various types. Since wind and solar power supply such a small proportion of the demand at present, some of the auxiliary generators were built as peakers (
5). But if solar and wind were to produce a significant portion of the electricity supply, then conventional plants will have to be dedicated to compensate for the intermittence, so when the renewables fail to generate electricity, carbon dioxide will be produced. The cost of these plants must be added to the
cost of the wind or solar installations which they back-up (17).Storage technologies proposed to compensate for intermittence include pumping water into elevated reservoirs, compressing air into large caverns, or batteries. Batteries are very expensive. Reservoirs displace habitat. Although the authors of a recent paper on solar power propose that nighttime generation of electricity can be supported by compressing and storing air in caverns during sunlight hours (
15), the availability of sufficient cavern volume is questionable (18), and the practicability of the idea on larger than demonstration scale is not established.An article in a recent issue of Science and Technology provides a thorough analysis of the availability and costs of auxiliary power and/or energy storage technologies needed to offset the intermittence of wind and solar power, a subject not always mentioned in literature on renewables (
Biomass, often mentioned as a source of automotive fuel, is now being proposed as a source of heat to produce electricity, a use for which it is remarkably ineffective. Because both woody and non-woody material have similar heat content, the following calculation is based on switch grass (
20). It would require about 7.2 million metric tons of dry switch grass a year to fire a boiler capable of producing 1 REqE of electricity. (It would take about 6.5 million tons of coal.) The per acre yield of any crop is variable; but assuming a yield of 10 metric tons of dry switch grass per hectare per year (higher than the current average yield) leads to the conclusion that 2,700 square miles of land would have to be planted in the grass to supply a 1440 MW boiler for a single year! If the average yield of grass is used, the required land area would be even larger (Table 1). Keep in mind that this refers to only the one reactor proposed for Calvert Cliffs, Maryland now uses an amount of electricity that is the equivalent to the output of 6 such reactors (5); biomass can supply only a trivial amount of electricity at an enormous cost to the environment.9: HOW TO READ THE NEWSPAPERS
The data shown above might be surprising because both the amount of land required by renewables and their cost is so much larger than the values usually seen in the news media. The reason for the discrepancy lies in the choice of the capacity factor used to calculate the land needed and cost. Some articles appear to use a 100% capacity factor because they mention what is either explicitly or probably the “nameplate” capacity. Sometimes a yearly average capacity factor is used, but capacity factors characteristic of the unavoidable minima in production (e.g. weak wind or clouds)
are almost never mentioned. The latter severely limit the effectiveness of wind and solar technology. Low Capacity Factors force you to install a lot of generating capacity to be able to meet demand under the least favorable circumstances.
Again we are not implying that there are any proposals to replace fossil fuels with just one renewable technology. Our intent is to show that all of the renewable technologies are inferior to nuclear reactors in terms of the amount of electricity they can produce on a given land area and also that they are much more costly. Apples-to-apples comparisons are clearer; evaluating complex mixes of technologies that also include changes in per capita consumption doesn’t provide a clear view of relative effectiveness or cost. We are describing the monetary costs and environmental impacts to be expected if each renewable technology were to replace the nuclear reactor throughout the year.
Whenever you see a report, note whether the capacity factors of the devices–and the time of year to which they apply–are clearly stated. If they are not, you are not being given the information needed to evaluate the effectiveness of the proposal.
A common practice is to report the number of households that a proposed installation, like a wind plant, will supply and the amount of carbon dioxide production that it will prevent; these numbers are intended to make the proposal seem very effective. These numbers are frequently misleading. Data from the Power Plant Research Program state that each household in Maryland consumes 13.4 MWh of electric energy per year (
3). When there is enough information to calculate the consumption per household, the claims frequently appear to have been based on much less than 13.4
MWh per household per year. The amount of carbon dioxide that a proposed project is stated to prevent should be weighed against the total amount that is now produced; that is, is it a reduction significant enough to be worth the environmental damage? According to the Environmental Protection Agency (21) electricity production in Maryland released 33.7 million tons of carbon dioxide in 2004 (67.4 billion pounds). This enormous quantity does not take into account the amount of carbon dioxide released from electricity produced in other states that export electricity to
Maryland. An remember that the claim of carbon dioxide emissions prevented may be based on an overestimate of the amount of electricity that will actually be produced.Getting back to households, it’s telling that the actual number of households in our State is never shown in literature that supports renewables. According to the US Census Bureau there were 2,089,000 occupied housing units in Maryland in 2006 (
22). So, when the number of households supposedly supplied by a wind installation is compared to the total, the usefulness of the renewables seems less significant. Finally, keep in mind that the total amount of electricity used by each person is much larger than the amount that they use in their home; the electricity used by the
stores they shop in, by their workplaces, and by the industries that make the things they use is about 2.5 times the amount that they use in their homes (3).A comprehensive analysis of the capabilities, costs, and needed engineering advances associated with providing a higher proportion of electricity with renewables is presented in a recent issue of Science and Technology, a magazine supported by the National Academies (
19). The authors (all from Carnegie Mellon University) represent themselves as supporters of renewable energy–they mention nuclear power only in passing.10: AN ESSENTIAL CONCERN: EFFECTS ON THE WORLD OF BIOLOGY
From MCC’s perspective the amount of habitat negatively affected by renewable technologies is paramount. Intense popular support for renewable energy sources is based largely on the premise that they are the only means of supplying electricity without the production of green house gases. The MCC, however, has concluded that nuclear power can achieve the same goal, and we present data that will dispel the belief that nuclear power is a significant hazard to health on another page of this web site. Here we have shown that nuclear power is far more benign to the natural world
than renewables. Both facts are central to our support for nuclear power. The renewable sources of energy, wind power, solar power, and biomass, if employed to replace a significant portion of our demand for electricity, will have far reaching effects on a biological world that is already under inordinate stress from habitat displacement, encroachment by invasive species, the spread of pollution, and a global climate that will continue to change no matter what measures are taken now.
The damaging effects of renewables include direct mortality from turbines which kill birds and bats. The extent of the harm has not been measured accurately because the owners of wind plants have obdurately resisted attempts to do research on their property. While offshore turbines are being promoted as a source of reliable wind energy, determining the effect of offshore turbines on bird mortality will be almost impossible because it is unlikely that any carcasses will be found. A detailed account, produced by Dan Boone, of the impact of wind turbines on forest ecology can be found at (
23).The effects of the unnatural sound and vibration from turbines on both terrestrial and aquatic environments is rarely mentioned, let alone studied. Many creatures live or nest in the ground, and many organisms, horseshoe crabs for example, don’t mature reproductively for a decade or more. Long term studies of the effects of turbine noise are necessary but will be difficult, time consuming, and costly. Properly designed research must include at least several years of surveying before turbines are installed. For the most part, we don’t even know what to look for. One has to
question why the needed research has not been done and why organizations that endorse these facilities don’t demand such research in return for their support.
Extensive installations of wind turbines in the Midwest or solar panels in the Southwest will require the construction of large transmission lines to the Coasts where the bulk of the population lives (
24). It is likely that attempts will be made to locate these lines on publicly owned land because that would eliminate legal struggles with large numbers of private land owners. Public lands are facing increasing pressures from growing population. There was a recent attempt to ask the Maryland DNR to lease land in a State Forest for a wind plant. The growing stampede toward renewables will make these inroads harder to resist.The most damaging effect of renewables is the direct destruction of habitat. Land proposed for biomass production is often referred to as “marginal”; solar installations in the southwestern deserts are to be placed on “barren” land. From the perspective of the biologist, or conservationist–or almost anyone interested in the outdoors–all land and water is habitat, none of it is “marginal” or “barren.” Ecosystems differ in their species diversity and their attractiveness to tourists, but they are all challenges that far exceed our ability to understand scientifically. The region in which
humanity evolved from ape-like ancestors is not particularly species rich when compared to rain forests or coral reefs, and except for the occurrence of “charismatic megafauna” would not be a big tourist attraction. Even the driest areas of Antarctica support an array of microbial life. There is beauty in and much of practical value to be learned from the organisms that thrive in challenging circumstances.
To produce a significant amount of electricity from biomass, enormous areas of habitat will have to be converted to agriculture, replacing biological diversity with monocrops. Another proposal involving biomass appeared in a recent report the Maryland Commission on Climate Change (
25) proposed the use of “slash” from commercial timbering operations for the production of both electricity and heat. If this proposal is effected it will have several destructive effects on our forests. First, it will result in the removal of organic matter (the “slash’) that would and should be
allowed to be returned to the soil as compost, clear cutting is bad enough; this will make it even worse. Although the Commission suggests that this material be removed in a “sustainable” manner, the determination of sustainability will be made, in part, by parties interested in maximizing the monetary return from timbering operations. Second, it will create pressure to reduce the length of the rotation period in all forests to maximize the production of this so-called “clean” energy. Third, it will increase demand for timbering on State Forests, rather than reducing or eliminating it,
as all conservationists believe should be done.We conclude by reemphasizing a point of major importance to the MCC: Renewables are far more damaging to the biology of the earth than nuclear power is.
Last revised 7/7/09, 7:30 PM