Some of the little understood and well hidden water, health and other costs from electricity produced in the U.S. by coal and nuclear electricity production are detailed in an analysis recently released by Synapse Energy Economics Inc., for the nonprofit and nonpartisan Civil Society Institute (CSI) think tank. A few shockers include:
- 200 billion gallons of water are withdrawn from America’s supply each day due to power production
- Annual costs to society from premature deaths due to power-plant pollution are up to four times the price of all electricity produced in the U.S., and -Four metric tons of high-level radioactive wastes are produced for every terawatt of electricity generated by nuclear reactors, and there is no long-term storage solution in place. The Synapse report for CSI also outlines the considerable health impacts of the nation’s current reliance on coal and nuclear power.
“The ‘Business As Usual’ (BAU) approach to electricity production carries significant costs, chief among them are health impacts,” says Civil Society Institute President and founder Pam Solo. “As the White House and Congress propose moving from a Renewable Energy Standard to what they are calling a “Clean Energy Standard,” there should be a full and public debate about what constitutes ‘clean’ energy. Traditional energy developers and producers refer to the social and economic impacts of reliance on fossil fuels and nuclear power as ‘externalities’. The high risk and extensive cost in terms of human health, productivity, and long term economic competitiveness are essential components of defining and moving toward a sustainable and clean energy future. Water quality and water availability are perhaps the lens through which to look at whether energy sources are indeed clean and should have any part in a ‘Clean Energy Standard.”
“The existing coal fleet in the U.S. exacts an expensive toll on the U.S.,” says Synapse Energy Economics Inc. Scientist Dr. Jeremy Fisher. “The fleet is fairly inexpensive to operate, and for years has been a source of cheap electricity. However, we know now that emissions of acid gasses and toxic particulates are at the root of thousands of premature deaths each year. The fleet leaches waste into our groundwater and rivers, heats hundreds of waterways with thermal effluent, consumes millions of acre-feet of water, and releases the largest fraction of emissions. These costs, as significant as they may be, are almost completely hidden from the public view and are invisible to consumers.”
The recent report, “Benefits of Beyond Business as Usual,” says the existing coal-fired electric power fleet is responsible for:
- 8,000 to 34,000 premature deaths from inhaling fine particulate matter from coalcombustion, at a cost to society of $64 to $272 billion — up to four times the cost of electricity from coal.
- Generators along the Ohio River withdraw so much water that for every gallon that reaches the Mississippi River at Cairo, IL, one cup has passed through a generator on the banks of the Ohio, and one tablespoon has evaporated to the atmosphere. According to data collected by the U.S. Geographic Survey (USGS), water withdrawals from thermoelectric power sources account for 49% of total withdrawals in the United States in 2005. This is equivalent to more than 201 billion gallons of water per day that is used for power plant cooling alone.
- About 100 million tons of toxic coal wastes dumped into landfills, sludge ponds, and holding ponds.
- Impaired visibility at the great U.S. national monuments and parks.
The Synapse report for CSI goes on to say this about nuclear power:
- There is no long-term plan in place for the storage of nuclear waste.
- Nuclear reactors in the U.S. generate up to 4.1 metric tons of nuclear waste for each 1,000GW produced.
- Like all mining activity, mining for uranium can levy a heavy toll on the environment and produce significant quantities of waste. A typical uranium mine uses 200 to 300 gallons per minute and a mine requires permanently setting aside more than 220 acres of land for storing waste rock and radioactive tailings. Over time, radioactivity of the tailing material can grow to about 75% of that of the original ore.
- A typical 1,000-MW nuclear plant might produce about 30 tons of high-level waste a year.
- The US currently has 104 nuclear reactors (69 PWR and 35 BWR) with a total capacity of about 101,000 MW, so annual production of high-level waste is about 3,000 tons. Most of this waste is stored on site where it is produced. The rest is stored in nearby temporary storage sites. Out of 104 active nuclear power plants, 68 have run out of local storage space or will run out this year. The rest are expected to run out of space by 2026.
- Transportation becomes problematic because US nuclear facilities are spread out across the country, so maintaining a unified storage site requires transporting of high-level waste over long distances, which in turn exposes nuclear waste to the possibility of accidents, attack, or theft.
- Even with numerous redundant safety mechanisms in place, scrams (reactor trips due to safety or operational faults) occurred in one of every three nuclear units in 2009. Scrams require an immediate power-down of the unit. Two thirds of the units also reported a safety system failure to the NRC in 2009.. What is beyond “Business as Usual” when it comes to generating electricity in the U.S.?
A 2010 Synapse report for the Civil Society Institute developed a “Transition Scenario” for 2010 to 2050 that would provide:
- Aggressive investments in more efficient technologies in every sector could reduce electricity use by 15% from today’s requirements, or over 40% from a “business as usual” scenario. Utilities in several states are already achieving savings at this level.
- The U.S. could feasibly retire the entire fleet of coal-fired plants and build no new coal-fired generation, rather than burning more coal. Tens of billions could be saved in avoided pollution control costs at the coal-fired plants retired between 2010 and 2020. At the same time, we could retire 28% of the nation’s nuclear capacity.
- Electric sector emissions of carbon dioxide would fall by roughly 82% relative to predicted 2010 levels. Emissions of SO2, NOx, and mercury fall in the BAU Case, as new emission controls are installed at coal-fired plants, but they fall much more in the Transition Scenario. Emissions of NOx fall by 60% over the study period, and emissions of SO2 fall by 97%. Electric sector mercury emissions are almost eliminated.
- Renewable energy, including wind, solar, geothermal and biomass, would increase throughout the nation, eventually providing half of the nation’selectricity requirements.Natural gas use in the electric sector would grow more slowly than under business as usual, leaving more gas for clean cars and other uses.
- There would be modest near-term costs of the scenario, but over the long term it would cost less than a business as usual energy future. The scenario would cost an estimated $10 billion/yr more than the BAU in 2020, but it would save $5 billion annually by 2040 and $13 billion annually by 2050. These are direct costs only; they do not include savings resulting from reduced CO2 emissions or public health costs. (A recent National Academies study estimated the annual health impacts of power generation in the U.S. at $62 billion in 2005.) For a typical residential consumer, purchasing about 900 kWh per month, the 2020 cost increase would amount to about $2.20 per month. The same customer would be saving about $1.50/mo by 2040, and saving nearly $4.00/mo by 2050.
Synapse Energy Economics
Filed Under: Policy