Tuesday, February 18, 2014

The "Nuclear Energy Creates Thousands of Square Miles of Uninhabitable Land ...for Centuries" Argument

Photo of the Montlake landfill near my home courtesy of Alexandra MacKenzie via Flickr
To see some great pictures of birds spotted at this former dump (once a lakeside wetland), go to Birds of Montlake Fill. More photos of wildlife, including beavers, otters, raccoons, turtles, frogs, etc can be found here.

From Wikipedia:
Formerly the Montlake Landfill, University Dump, or Ravenna Landfill, it was used by the City of Seattle for residential and industrial solid waste from 1911 to 1966. It was fully closed five years later and overlaid with two feet of clean soil.
To this day you can find rebar poking up in the water and the occasional old tire appearing out of nowhere. I wonder if the regular visitors to this dump would protest the installation of wind turbines in it?

As with the global warming debate, and thanks to our human nature, new anti-nuclear arguments tend to take hold when old ones (like nuclear power safety, see aside below) are put to rest ...an endless game of whack-a-mole. Thanks to the usual lack of critical thought exacerbated by the internet echo chamber, the "uninhabitable land" argument has been popular of late.
Aside: The safety argument against nuclear has been losing popularity thanks to overwhelming rational arguments to the contrary on the internet. Really big renewable energy accidents have been known to kill tens of thousands at a time (dam failures). Three Mile Island and Fukushima caused no loss of life. The Chernobyl accident death toll has been estimated to be roughly four thousand when potential cancer related deaths are included. Contrast the combined total of those three nuclear power incidents over half a century with the fact that about forty thousand Americans are killed in their cars annually. 
Two of the grand total of three nuclear power plant incidents of note over the last half century resulted in land being abandoned by the sentient primate species Homo sapiens sapiens for the same reason tens of thousands of other abandoned industrial sites all around the world are not inhabited by our species--they harbor excessive amounts of one or more of the 450 carcinogens listed by the EPA, which can lead to an increase in cancer rates, or some other toxin, like heavy metals. Go here to see a list of 1,280 Super Fund sites.
Super Fund Sites
The Tar Creek Superfund site covers roughly the same area as the Chernobyl exclusion zone, and it isn't the largest Superfund site. In this documentary about it, a narrator says "this is being unreclaimed by nature" (meaning that it is so damaged that even Mother Nature doesn't want it back).

But that certainly isn't always the case, as this PBS documentary about the wildlife at Chernobyl and  the aforementioned landfill a few miles from my home attest. Were it not for that landfill, the edge of that lake would likely be lined with the waterfront homes of the wealthy, as might yet another abandoned industrial site near my home, Gas Works Park.
Gas Works Park in Seattle
I suppose you could call this a silver lining of sorts. We sometimes lose control of the land we usurped from nature for industrial or agricultural purposes and are forced to give it back, assuming the land isn't so badly damaged that nature doesn't want it back!

From Wikipedia

According to Wikipedia, there are four main ways of looking at land degradation and its impact on the environment around it:
  • A temporary or permanent decline in the productive capacity of the land. This can be seen through a loss of biomass, a loss of actual productivity or in potential productivity, or a loss or change in vegetative cover and soil nutrients.
  • Action in the lands capacity to provide resources for human livelihoods. This can be measured from a base line of past land use.
  • Loss of biodiversity: A loss of range of species or ecosystem complexity as a decline in the environmental quality.
  • Shifting ecological risk: increased vulnerability of the environment or people to destruction or crisis. This is measured through a base line in the form of pre-existing risk of crisis or destruction.
The Soviet military industrial complex gave us Chernobyl, the poster child for how to do nuclear power wrong. It killed roughly 4,000 (compared to the 40,000 annual death toll of our highways) and permanently displaced about 300,000. Humanity learned a great deal and today's nuclear power is  more reliable as a result. We also learned that instead of creating mutant armies, a disaster like this can create vibrant wildlife preserves (much to chagrin of many anti-nuclear ideologues).

To put the amount of land lost to agriculture by the Chernobyl accident into perspective, consider that the American dust bowl alone removed roughly 100 times more land from agriculture than the Chernobyl accident (156,000 square miles  verses 1660 square miles). And that dust bowl was just the tip of an iceberg. There have been similar dust bowls in China, Africa, and the former Soviet Union.

Human beings have been destroying land for a long time. Archeologists had a hard time finding the site of ancient Troy which was located next to a bustling sea port. Because agriculture denuded the surrounding hillsides causing them to erode into the bay, the site of ancient Troy is now located roughly three miles from the coastline. Easter Island, like some of the Greek islands, was once covered in forest.
Easter Island, Wikipedia Commons
Fukushima pales in comparison to Chernobyl for a number of reasons:
1) Although the quake induced tsunami killed somewhere between ten and twenty thousand people, the damaged Fukushima reactors did not cause any fatalities (much to chagrin of many anti-nuclear ideologues).

2) Chernobyl, for the foreseeable future, returned to nature roughly 1660 square miles (envision a rectangle 20 miles wide by 80 miles long) while roughly 430 square miles were temporarily evacuated for Fukushima. As of today, approximately 70% of that 430 square miles is safe again and most if not all of the remaining 129 square miles is expected to be safe again at some point in the next few years. Nature may not get any land back. In the United States alone, coal ash landfills and ponds cover 124 square miles.

3) Chernobyl was the result of human error, while Fukushima was damaged by a magnitude 9 (literally 1000 times more powerful than the quake that flattened Haiti) quake induced monster tsunami ...what insurance companies sometimes refer to as "an act of God."

So, the next time you read that nuclear energy creates thousands of square miles of uninhabitable land, remind them that only one accident in half a century did that. To put it further into perspective, remind them that it became Europe's largest wildlife preserve, and in comparison to all of the land that can no longer be used for industrial agriculture thanks to human activity, the Chernobyl wildlife preserve is a drop in the bucket.

Saturday, December 14, 2013

Pumped hydro storage will eliminate wind and solar intermittency ...really?


I'm a big fan of wind and solar if properly sited to minimize impact to wildlife and ecosystems. I'm a fan because I know that nuclear energy can't replace fossil fuels on its own. I'm a fan of nuclear energy because the latest National Renewable Energy Lab study demonstrated that renewables can't do it alone. I wrote this article so that I (and others) can point to it the next time I (we) encounter someone claiming that storage is the answer for intermittency.

According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration there are only 40 pumped hydro storage sites in the entire United States (producing just 2% of our electric power) because the powerplants have to be situated near two bodies of water that have very different elevations and there are not many places with those characteristics located where powerplants need to be. From the EIA:

"The last pumped hydroelectric facility to come online in the United States was in 2002, with the prior facility built seven years earlier.

There has been increased interest in building new pumped storage plants, although construction has not yet been authorized. According to the National Hydropower Association, as of January 2012, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission had granted preliminary permits for 34 GW of pumped storage capacity over a total of 22 states, which would more than double existing capacity. There are, however, significant challenges to building new pumped storage plants, including licensing, environmental regulations, and uncertainty in long-term electric markets.
In 2011, pumped storage plants produced 23 billion kilowatthours (kWh) of gross generation—roughly as much as petroleum-fired generation in that year [2 %]. Pumped storage plants, however, consumed 29 billion kilowatthours (kWh) of electricity in 2011 to refill their storage reservoirs, resulting in a net generation loss of 6 billion kWh. "

In other words, the relatively few potentially economically viable sites suitable for pumped hydro storage have largely already been spoken for. If pumped hydro were always an economically viable thing to do, all powerplants would have it. There are not anywhere near enough suitable sites to eliminate the intermittent nature of wind and solar power.

Ironically, it is thanks to pumped hydro that some nuclear power plants can produce both steady baseload power and extra power from its pumped hydro to help make wind power more viable by taking over when the wind quits blowing:

"Pumped storage plants play an important role in electric load shifting. They typically consume electricity during low-demand hours (e.g., nighttime), helping baseload plants to operate more efficiently by minimizing unwanted cycling on and off (a particular concern for nuclear plants, where cycling is extremely expensive and time-consuming). Subsequently, the gross generation that pumped storage plants put back on the grid is produced when electricity demand is high (daytime). This load shifting helps reduce generation from less efficient and more expensive plants, such as combustion turbines, that would otherwise operate during peak-demand hours."

Personally, I can't see humanity reducing GHG emissions in time, so this is largely an academic exercise for me. Because it is unlikely that renewables and nuclear together will be able to replace most fossil fuels in the time frame necessary to prevent the worst impacts of global warming, ocean acidification, etc, anyone who claims to know with certainty, or thinks we should take the risk that one or the other can do it alone has failed to grasp the sheer magnitude of the problem.