Solar and wind produce less waste than coal; but they can reduce waste even further
Just to put some extra numbers on the toxicity of coal: It's estimated that 21% of global mercury emissions currently come from coal burning (https://www.epa.gov/international-cooperation/mercury-emissions-global-context). And, as opposed to some other toxicants, mercury can travel long distances. It can start as vapours at the power plant, then get into rivers, and end up in the marine food chain. Coal waste is not "just ash" as many people believe.
First of all: I would like to express my deep gratitude for the consistent quality of this newsletter and the posts. It is taking on difficult questions and aims to provide qualified answers. If society would work in the same the world would be a better place.
Secondly: This is such a strong example of why 3D charts are (a) hard to read and (b) usually misleading that it should be in a text book.
Thank You Hannah for the work you do.
This is rapidly turning into one of my favorite substacks! This one was particularly enlightening.
Thanks for another great post Hannah. Entirely understand that nuclear waste was a bigger topic than realistically can be addressed in the post. The cost of decommissioning nuclear plants is eye watering. Government published estimates for the UK are already pretty astounding, but some suggest they are an understatement.
Still it’s interesting to put scale on these issues. I’m sure you’ve already read many of the papers I have on this. While decommissioning nuclear will be hideously expensive- Coal’s waste production of course absolutely dwarfs nuclear and its harmful health impacts and deaths are on a different scale. Burning coal for power even releases more radioactive material than nuclear power simply because of the amount of material involved in coal.
Great post Hannah! Learned so much especially on the calculation of waste per energy generated. In footnote 3, should it say "a standard 400W solar panel" instead of MW?
I absolutely love this newsletter!! Appreciate the work you do so much.
Hannah, Here's some information about radioactive waste from fission power, in a presentation I gave earlier this year. It also covers misunderstandings of the toxicity of spent fuel, and ends with a pitch for more nuclear power. Bob Hargraves
An excellent post, as ever. I've seen fly ash from power generation referred to as toxic on a number of occasions. But the classification as such seems to be primarily in the US. Across much of the rest of the world, fly ash is used to decarbonise concrete production (replacing 20% of Portland cement in concrete will reduce the carbon footprint by about 15%).
Thank you for an informative post.
But, "at least ten times less than other e-waste streams; about 300 times less than coal ash; and about 500 times less than municipal waste."
10% less, is 90% of prior level; 75% less is 25% of prior level, 90% less is 10% of prior level. Anything more than 100% less (such as ten times, 300 times, 500 times) implies a negative quantity and is meaningless.
If you are trying to say 'less than 1 tenth' or 'one three hundredth' or 'one five hundredth' (probably better to say 99.7% less, or 99.5% less) please do so.
Hannah - really enjoying your work :)
However, I was disappointed you didn't discuss nuclear waste toxicity & risk above. I've often wondered how it compares to coal ash. I would also like to know how long it takes for nuclear waste to degrade to less powerful radioactive waste - How long will it be for the spent fuel to be a major risk if/when containment leaks. 100 years? 100,000? I don't have good sense of relative risks... have you ever covered that?
quibble on footnote 3 (Solar).. "average 400 MW solar panel". Does this mean "average 400 W" solar panel? At 22kg, seems likely. Which I suppose _might_ get you close to 0.5 MWh/year.. at least in a sunnier part of the world than where I live (where working #s are 1W solar capacity =~ 1kwh/year). But, ok, ballpark.
One megawatt-hour of coal electricity produces 89 kg of ashes and 1000 kg of CO2. The big problem is the CO2.
Also the number for nuclear seems wrong to me, a MWh of nuclear electricity produces 0.031 kilograms of fuel waste but also 0.760 kg of concrete waste and 0.160 kg of steel.
The nuclear fuel waste is a tiny fraction of the nuclear fuel: https://thoughtscapism.files.wordpress.com/2017/11/materials-throughput-energy.jpeg
Excellent write up!
I have the same curiosity about the waste profile of gas as it is also the leading competitor for electric generation in the US as well. The use of "natural" gas actually has quite a bit of solid and liquid waste associated with exploration and extraction, some of it quite hazardous. When natural gas is extracted, it is often accompanied by various contaminants, including heavy metals, radioactive materials, and volatile organic compounds (VOCs). These contaminants, along with the water used in the extraction process, result in waste known as produced water. Fracking, particularly, may utilize tens of thousands of gallons of toxic additives for each well resulting in even larger volumes of toxic drilling muds and fluids. I am guessing that a full analysis of the gas life cycle would result in a significant waste profile far beyond the renewables EOL material residues. https://www.nrdc.org/stories/fracking-101#why-is https://www.epa.gov/hw/management-oil-and-gas-exploration-and-production-waste https://www.ucsusa.org/resources/environmental-impacts-natural-gas
Very interesting. The metric of kg waste per kWh for nuclear is very low, but I wonder if his is a fair metric. With wind generation, and solar, is it not the case that you have taken into account the vast majority of material required to generate the power. But there is also the mass of the overall plant (concrete buildings, turbines etc) to consider. I suspect that even taking it into account, nuclear would be a winner by your metric, but maybe this material should be included. My own initial estimate of the mass of concrete used to build just the core of a 500MW nuclear reactor is approx 105 x 10^6 kg (A cylinder 60m high, perimeter 200m, 4m thick => 60m *4m *200m*2.2*10E3 tonnes per cubic meter). Amortized over an estimated 25 year life, this would be a cost of 4,200 tonnes per year. This amount is an order of magnitude higher than the nuclear fuel itself.
Dear Anna, thank you very much for your articles which has been quite heplful to gain insight on waste arising out of renewables and other sources.
I have reviewed your article and i have difficulty in finding 1.67 kg/Mwh for solar PVs under the circumstances of 22 kg , 400 Mw and %15 capacity factor.Can you please revisit your calculation.