Nuclear energy is often claimed to be environmentally harmful technology, especially when contrasted with renewables such as wind power.
However, these claims are rarely accompanied by proper sources. This may be because comparisons using actual science do not really support such blanket statements. To take just few examples, a range of studies, including IPCC’s assessments, have consistently found nuclear energy to be among the least carbon intensive methods of energy generation, surpassing even solar photovoltaics. Similarly, most life cycle assessments have found that nuclear energy uses far less materials – such as steel and concrete – per produced energy unit than even renewables (see e.g. Weißbach et al. 2013).
This graphic compares another component of ecosystem damage potential: land use footprint. It is well known that ecosystem degradation and destruction due increased land use is, alongside climate change, one of the greatest threats to Earth’s environmental well-being. Therefore, solutions that reduce our environmental footprint are desirable.
The graphic most likely underestimates the footprint of wind power while overestimating nuclear energy’s footprint. This is because I deliberately ignored material requirements (except uranium), used the most environmentally destructive uranium mining method (open cast mining), overestimated uranium requirements by a factor of four at least, used the most optimistic assumptions regarding wind energy production, and ignored the effects of variability. The latter would, after a certain level of wind energy production is reached (with current technology, perhaps 20-30% of the electricity grid) require perhaps two or three times the number of plants presented here to produce same level of service, or the building of significant backup plants and/or energy storage facilities. If material requirements are accounted for, wind power has 3-10 times larger materials and mining footprint than nuclear (see e.g. supplementary material for aforementioned Weißbach et al. 2013).
I also selected a relatively dense wind farm with short electricity interconnector (the thickest line connecting three wind farms in each segment of the graphic). In addition, I did not draw those parts of access roads that were evidently used for other purposes as well, e.g. public highways.
As wind power generation increases and locations close to existing power lines and already disturbed by human presence are used up, developers must turn their attention to ever more remote sites. These entail longer connectors and more access roads, sometimes encroaching to existing wildlife sanctuaries. Connectors and roads also dissect biomes, and may therefore contribute more to ecosystem damages than one might assume from simply counting the area they occupy.
The alternative, offshore wind, does not need access roads, but it will still disturb marine ecosystems if not sited properly.
However, please note that none of the above is to be construed as an argument against wind farms or renewable energy in general. Compared to fossil fuels, they are still much less destructive to health and environment – by far – and proper siting can alleviate many of the potential hazards. My only aim is to show that the claim “nuclear harmful – renewables benign” is far more complicated than it appears.
As always, you are free to spread this graphic as you see fit.