Environmental Externalities of Nuclear

Environmental externalities are an important cost associated with energy, but are a much more dispersed cost. Most of the other economic factors discussed in this report have related directly to the costs of energy companies, unless paid for by subsidy. For example, energy companies will have to buy the fuel, account for the reliability of an energy source, and build the necessary capital development. However, the environmental costs of an energy source are something not only paid for by energy companies, but by everyone to some degree. We all have a vested interest in the environment in varying degrees of capacity, which means we all foot the bill in some kind of way for environmental externalities.

Each energy source has some kind of environmental externality which is either obviously seen or more hidden. However, comparing environmental effects can be difficult as the effects are generally in completely different metrics. For example, how many birds and bats would have to be killed by wind farms in order to equal the amount of pollutions given off by a coal electricity generator? How much radioactivity exposure is equivalent to the environmental damages caused by liquid natural gas spills? It is like comparing apples to oranges.

Being emission-free is a popular concept and buzzword among many people. Out of the primary sources of energy which have been examined in this paper, wind, solar, and nuclear are all emissions free during the production of electricity. Hydro and geothermal are both emission free as well.

However, while this may be the case, emissions are not the only form of environmental effects related to energy production. A lot of the environmental externalities faced by energy production are faced during the mining of fuels, instead of the generating of electricity. For natural gas, reserves must be drilled to at depth. For renewables, rare earth elements must be mined. For coal and nuclear, mining also needs to take place.

When it comes to the environmental effects of nuclear energy, almost all of it has to do with the release of radioactivity, which is a unique from other forms of energy, which most concerns deal with emissions, animal deaths, etc. According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, there are two forms of radioactive waste associated with nuclear power: low level waste and high level waste. Low level waste is radioactivity associated with the mining of uranium which would include mill tailings and tools that came into contact with the uranium during mining. The current and common practice with dealing with low level waste is to seal it with barrier so that radon is unable to escape into the environment.

High level waste is more difficult, as this is the spent reactor fuel after electricity has been produced. High level waste is generally dealt with on a case by case basis. For Fort St. Vrain, the former nuclear power plant in Colorado, fuel is kept on site and is under the discretion of the Department of Energy. Thought there is currently no permanent repository for nuclear waste disposal in the United States.

The environmental effect, and in turn the health effects, of high levels of radiation should not be understated. After large amounts of radiation were introduced from Chernobyl, 42,000 people had to be evacuated within a 30 kilometer distance. Out of the 129 firefighters responding to the accident, 17 died of radiation sickness, and 13 others became seriously ill. Furthermore, residents experienced increased higher rates of thyroid cancer.

According to the EPA:

Ionizing radiation has sufficient energy to cause chemical changes in cells and damage them. Some cells may die or become abnormal, either temporarily or permanently. By damaging the genetic material (DNA) contained in the body’s cells, radiation can cause cancer. Fortunately, our bodies are extremely efficient at repairing cell damage. The extent of the damage to the cells depends upon the amount and duration of the exposure, as well as the organs exposed.

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Nuclear: Cost of Source Mining

This post will compare the spot prices of the mineral resources that go into different energy sources, and compare them to the price of uranium, U3O8. The sources that will be looked at are coal, natural gas, oil, and rare earth metals, which are used in renewables like solar energy. Since prices change depending on market conditions, it should be implied that the price indicated is an approximation of what the source fuels cost.

The price of natural uranium, U3O8, is $25.50 per pound, according to Ux Consulting Company. The ten year price ranging from $19 per pound to $139 per pound. The price of coal is $52.05 per short ton. The ten year price ranging from $50 per short ton to about $125 per short ton. The price of natural gas is $3.30 per million BTU. The ten year price for natural gas has ranged from $2.00 per million BTU to $12.00 per million BTU. Indium and tellurium are both rare earth elements that are frequently used in solar panels. Indium costs about $720.00 per kilogram, and tellurium costs about $51.34 per kilogram.

However, these units are all different from each other, and need to be converted to a comparable unit, which will be in heat content measured in BTUs. According to the Energy Information Administration, a short ton of coal produced about 20.16 million BTUs. According to the World Nuclear Associate, one pound of natural uranium in a light water reactor can produce 214,961 million BTUs. Since solar power is a renewable source, it is difficult to figure out how much heat content 1 kilogram of tellurium or indium will provide via energy generated. Not only is the source renewable, but it is also incredibly variable, as it depends how much sun is shining, what kind of solar array is being used, and what kind of maintenance is performed on the arrays.

With the numbers provided, the heat content provided per dollar spent on a fuel source can be calculated. For every dollar spent on coal, about 387,320 BTUs are produced. For every dollar spent on natural gas, about 303,030 BTUs are produced. For every dollar spent on uranium, about 8,429,843,137 BTUs are produced. It is worth noting that this is not the full price of generating this heat content, but just the price spent on fuel only. However, when considering fuel prices, nuclear energy is without a doubt the cheapest source.

Nuclear Energy: Uranium Mining in Colorado

Colorado has a long and controversial history with uranium mining. While uranium did not get into extremely high demand until the early 1950s due to the Cold War and the development of nuclear weapons, Colorado began similar mining with radium in the 1910s and vanadium in the 1930s, which were popular for more commercial uses like paints and clays. Both radium and vanadium are indicator minerals for uranium, hence why their mining and extraction are so interrelated.

The first uraninite, also known as pitchblende, found in the United States was found near Central City, Colorado. While most the uranium used for nuclear weapons, specifically the Manhattan Project, came from Congo and Canada, Colorado, through the Uravan mining district, produced about 850 tons of uranium ore for weapons testing. Prospecting and mining continued to expand after World War II as the largest uranium deposit to be found in Colorado was discovered in the late 1940s. Due to recession, the scaling down of the Cold War, and uranium being released from weapon stockpiles, uranium mining decreased dramatically in the 1980s due to a large decrease in price. During the boom of uranium mining in Colorado (1948-1978), it is estimated that Uravan belt had over 1,200 mines and mined 63 million pounds of uranium.

Currently, Colorado ranks third for the most known uranium reserves in the United States, just behind Wyoming and New Mexico. Since 2009, there has been no major uranium mining in the state of Colorado, and there are currently no active mines. However, there are 31 permitted projects in Colorado.

While uranium mining has the potential to be a very lucrative industry in the future, especially if nuclear energy becomes more popular, it does come with externalities to the environment and public health. When it comes to describing nuclear waste, it is generally described in two tiers: low-level waste and high level waste, which refer to their level of radioactivity. Uranium mining, which produce mill tailings, is the source of low-level waste, while high-level waste refers mostly to used reactor fuel after the uranium has been used to generate electricity. According to the Energy Information Administration, “by volume, most of the waste related to the nuclear power industry has a relatively low-level of radioactivity”, meaning most of the waste comes from the extraction of uranium.

Mill tailings from uranium mining, which has the presence of its indicator mineral radium, will break down into radon, which is a radioactive gas that can collect in the atmosphere if special precautions are not taken. Furthermore environmental contamination can occur from the tools used if special precautions also are not taken.

While it is important to keep in mind the externalities of uranium mining when discussing nuclear energy, we must remember that these kinds of trade-offs exist almost anywhere in energy production. Wind and solar energy, as well as hybrid and electric cars, fluorescent lightbulbs, and Ipods, have very similar externalities to nuclear power as they use rare earth elements like lanthanum, cerium, scandium, terbium, and several others. When comparing the externalities of uranium mining to the externalities of other rare earth element mining, the risks are almost identical.