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Land use for nuclear power questioned

Posted by Sarah_Fields on 16 Aug 2010 at 21:39 GMT

The authors of this paper Energy Sprawl or Energy Efficiency: Climate Policy Impacts on Natural Habitat for the United States of America (Energy Policy Report) came to the conclusion that the land required for the generation of electricity from nuclear power stations was far less than other energy sources.

The Energy Sprawl or Energy Efficiency authors relied on data and information on a single page in a 2005 report for their data on the land use requirement for nuclear power: Life Cycle Environmental Economic Assessment of Willow Biomass Electricity: A Comparison with Other Renewable and Non-Renewable Sources, by David V. Spitzley and Gregory A. Keoleian, a report of the University of Michigan Center for Sustainable Systems. Report No. CSS04-05R, March 25, 2004 (revised February 10, 2005) ( The Spitzley and Keoleian report is not a complete and through evaluation of the nuclear fuel cycle and the land use requirements for all aspects of that fuel cycle—historical, current, and future.

The Spitzley and Keoleian report, with respect their evaluation of the land use requirements for nuclear energy development, is incomplete and contains misleading data and information.

Page 29 of the Spitzley and Keoleian purports to assess the land use for the total life cycle of nuclear energy development. The methodology and data used leave much to be desired. Spitzley and Keoleian did not identify and provide data on all types of industrial operations and facilities that are necessary for the production of nuclear energy. They limit the nuclear fuel cycle to uranium mining, nuclear reactor siting, and the disposition of highly radioactive spent fuel. Land requirements for other fuel cycle operations, such as uranium milling (including in situ leach uranium recovery), disposal of uranium mill tailings in perpetuity, UF6 conversion, uranium enrichment, fuel fabrication, disposal of waste from those processes and the disposal of all waste streams from nuclear reactors were not evaluated.

With respect land requirements for uranium mining, the Spitzley and Keoleian report (page 29, para. 1) states, "uranium mining operations in the U.S. require an average of 0.3 ha-yr/metric ton of U3O8 mined based on an analysis of 18 decommissioned mines published by EIA [61]." The accompanying Table 24, entitled Decommissioned Uranium Mines in the U.S., shows the mine name, uranium production (million lbs U3O8), mine area (in acres), years of operation, and years for remediation.

Anyone with the least bit of familiarity with the uranium industry would immediately recognize the Table 24 list of "Decommissioned Uranium Mines in the U.S." as a list of decommissioned uranium MILLS. These uranium mills were designated for reclamation by the U.S. Department of Energy under Title I of the Uranium Mill Tailings Radiation Control Act of 1978 (42 U.S.C. § 7912, Processing site designations). Hundreds of uranium mines provided ore to these mills. Also, the U3O8 from these Title I mills went primarily, if not entirely, to the production of nuclear weapons, not commercial nuclear power.

Citation 61 for Table 24 states: "Energy Information Administration (EIA), 'U.S. Uranium Production Facilities: Operating History and Remediation Cost Under Uranium
Mill Tailings Remedial Action Project as of 2000,' U.S. Department of Energy, Washington, D.C."

Looking at that EIA website, it clearly states that the EIA report "provides information for 26 former uranium-ore processing sites." (
The EIA website has tables with information on the uranium production and mill area and tailings impoundment areas. Information regarding the years of operation and
remediation time must have come from the EIA text describing the Background and UMTRA Surface Remediation for each facility, since there does not appear to be any
such data in the tables for each site. It is very difficult to understandHow anyone could read these EIA web pages and the site-specific information and not realize that the sites listed were uranium mills and not uranium mines.

Therefore, there is no data in the Spitzley and Keoleian report or the Energy Sprawl or Energy Efficiency report regarding the amount of land used for uranium mining to produce U3O8 for commercial production of nuclear energy. There were thousands of uranium mines in just the four corners area (Arizona, Colorado, New Mexico, and Utah). Uranium mines require land for the mine, permanent disposal of mine waste, evaporation ponds, and for roads for uranium exploration, mine development, and radon vents. Uranium mining activity from the past 60 years scars the land today and contributes to adverse environmental and human health impacts.

Spitzley and Keoleian used information for a single reactor to determine the amount of land needed for a reactor site. They did not include the amount of electricity that was produced by the reactor over time. An assumption was made that the reactor would operate for 42 years and take a combined 10 years to construct and decommission. These numbers lack a factual basis. They do not accurately reflect the actual times for operation, construction, and decommissioning of the commercial reactors in the U.S. (past, current, and projected). Construction of a number of sites has taken more than 10 years; sites that closed decades ago have not been fully decommissioned.

With respect waste disposal from nuclear reactors, the Spitzley and Keoleian report only looks at the disposition of spent fuel at Yucca Mt. Even if the Yucca Mt. repository became a reality (and it is almost certain that it will not), it would not be able to contain all the spent fuel that would be produced by existing nuclear reactors, let alone any future ones.

Further, nuclear reactors produce other types of radioactive and hazardous waste besides spent fuel. The Spitzley and Keoleian report does consider the amount and nature of those other nuclear reactor waste streams and their disposal and long-term institutional care requirements.

All the flaws in the Spitzley and Keoleian report are carried over to the Energy Sprawl or Energy Efficiency report, with one addition. The Spitzley and Keoleian report does not claim to have taken into consideration the land needed for the processing of uranium ore (uranium milling, or uranium recovery). The Energy Sprawl or Energy Efficiency report claims to include consideration of land used for uranium processing; however, there does not appear to be any data to support this claim.

In sum, based on the information contained in and cited by the Energy Sprawl or Energy Efficiency report, there appears to be no basis for the conclusions with respect the land required for the production of nuclear power—in the past, currently, or in the future. Thus, the conclusion that the land required for nuclear energy production is far less than that of other energy sources lacks a firm factual basis.

No competing interests declared.

RE: Land use for nuclear power questioned

rimcdonald replied to Sarah_Fields on 17 Aug 2010 at 21:42 GMT

Ms. Fields and I have discussed by email her concerns. I haven't yet talked with Drs. Spitzley or Keoleian about whether Ms. Fields interpretation of their report is correct. Other useful citations that have calculated land-use intensity of nuclear power production are Jacobson 2008, Lovins 2009, and Fthenakis and Kim 2009. All are of the same order of magnitude as the estimate by Spitzley and Keoleian.

No competing interests declared.

Response to Ms. Fields comments

rimcdonald replied to Sarah_Fields on 27 Sep 2010 at 17:43 GMT

Ms. Fields comments raised several issues about our calculation of the land-use impacts of uranium mining and milling. To put this concern in context, our estimate of the land-use intensity of nuclear power production includes three components: the area impacted by mining and milling uranium, the area impacted by nuclear power plant operation, and the area impacted by long-term storage of high-level hazardous waste. Spitzley and Keoleian (2004) was our source for the area impacted by mining and milling. Their paper listed an impact of 0.261 ha-yr/tonne. This figure was derived from an Energy Information Administration (2002) report.

As Ms. Fields rightly points out, this report contains information on uranium production facilities listed under Title 1 of Uranium Mill Tailings Remediation Control Act (UMTRCA). These were mills plus their associated tailings piles. At the time, a great deal of U.S. production of uranium was from underground or open pit mining, and tailing disposal was a major environmental challenge. The EIA report contains information on the mill production, as well as the area of the mill property. An investigation of publicly-available information on the mills, as well as conversations with staff at the agency, confirms Ms. Fields suspicion: while in some cases the mining site is located on the same property as the mill and is included in the EIA figures, in other cases mines were located offsite. Hence, the true impact of mining and milling uranium that passed through Title 1 mills is larger than the Spitzley and Keoleian figure.

More importantly, these mills are very different than current uranium production facilities. They were developed when the primary buyer of uranium was the U.S. government, and when the uranium mining industry was in its infancy. For the purposes of our report, it is better to have a figure that represents the uranium currently used in U.S. nuclear power plants. Currently, only 14% of uranium was of U.S.-origin, while the remaining 86% was of foreign-origin, principally Australia (22%), Canada (18%), Russia (16%), Namibia (12%), and Kazakhstan (10%) (EIA 2009). Moreover, a significant fraction of the uranium that the U.S. receives from Russia, more than 11000 tonnes from 1994-2010 (USEC 2010), is from the “Megatons to Megawatts Program”, which converts Russian bomb-grade uranium to a lower grade and sells it in the U.S. For the purposes of the calculation in this comment, we consider this uranium to still have had a mining and milling impact, prior to incorporation into a Russian bomb.

There are three major types of uranium mines: underground, open pit, and in-situ leaching (ISL). ISL has historically been rare but has recently been increasing significantly. Currently, around 37% of production globally is from underground (including mines such as Olympic Dam where uranium is a by-product ), 27% from open pit, and 36% ISL (WNA 2010).

I have been unable to find a published paper that summarizes land-use impacts of current mines and mills globally. However, information is available for the major mines, which often have mills located within the overall project footprint. For underground mines, the biggest by far is McArthur River Mine in Canada, which supplies 15% of world production (WNA 2010). All surface activities must take place in a 651 ha surface lease from the Canadian government. Total production over the last 10 years is 171.2 million lbs, or 7800 tonnes per year (Cameco 2009). This implies an impact of 0.084 ha-yr/tonne. Another example would be the Olympic Dam in Australia, which supplies about 6% of world uranium production, as well as copper and gold (WNA 2010). Around 1350 ha on the surface is disturbed, and in 2008 there were 3,943 tonnes of uranium produced. This implies an impact of 0.342 ha-yr/tonne. In our analysis in this comment, we will use an average (weighted by production) of these two figures, which is 0.16 ha-yr/tonne.

One good example of an open pit mine is the Ranger mine in Australia, which supplies 9% of World Production. There is approximately 500 ha on the surface disturbed, both for the pit and the milling operating, and the complex produced 5339 tonnes/yr in 2008. This implies an impact of 0.9365 ha-yr/tonne. Another good example is the Rossing mine in Namibia (7% of world production), where about 2000 ha of surface mining activities produced 4067 tonnes in 2008. This implies an impact of 0.49 ha-yr/tonne. Another example is McLean Lake (3% of World Production) in Canada, where surface impacts of mining and milling are in a 980 ha lease. The complex produced 1476 tonnes/yr in 2008. (WNA 2010). This implies an impact of 0.66 ha-yr/tonne. In our analysis in this comment we will use an average (weighted by production) of these three figures, which is 0.73 ha-yr/tonne.

ISL mining has a different spatial pattern than other uranium mining, in that there are little mine tailings and excavation. Rather, there are a series of injection wells in an array. Consistent with our estimates of land-use intensity for wind turbines, oil/gas wells, and geothermal wells, we consider all land in the array used, even though in principle open space among the array might be used as habitat for some species. One good example of an ISL mine is the Beverly mine in Australia (1.2% of global production), which produced 659 tonnes/yr in 2008 over a 1350 ha array (WNA 2010). This implies an impact of 2.05 ha-yr/tonne.

Weighting by the global contribution of these three techniques, a good estimate of the average mining and milling impact is 0.99 ha-yr/tonne. Our original analysis had a lower and upper estimate for area impacted, assuming either 0.2 ha-yr/tonne or 0.3 ha-yr/tonne respectively. To be conservative, we have redone our statistics so the lower bound assumes supply is all from underground mines (0.16 ha-yr/tonne), and the upper bound assumes supply is all from an ISL facility (2.05 ha-yr/tonne). Note that because of the large amount of energy liberated in a nuclear reaction, this still translates (using the figure in Spitzley and Keoleian of 6.95E-5 lb/kWhr) into only 5.1-64.6 ha per billion KWhr.
This mining and milling impact then needs to be combined with the impact for plant area and long-term waste storage. Our original paper had total land use intensity for nuclear from 1.9-2.8 km2/TWh. Using these new numbers on mining and milling impacts would imply a range of 1.6-16.1 km2/TWh, with a midpoint estimate of 8.8 km2/TWh. This does not change the rank ordering of technologies by land-use intensity of production, except that nuclear now appears to take up slightly more space per unit energy than geothermal. It still takes up less space than coal, natural gas, or other energy production technologies.

Ms. Fields also asked about low-level radioactive waste generated from nuclear power. We did not include this in our analysis because it is a relatively minor areal impact, but at her request we quantified the size of this impact. A typical 1000 MW light reactor will generate 200-300 m3 of low-level radioactive waste per year (WNA 2010). Assuming a capacity factor of 0.911 (see our paper for details of the capacity factors we used, which are supposed to represent likely technology in 2030), this implies 200-300 m3/7985 GWh. There are only three low-level waste storage sites in the United States. The facility in Barnwell, SC, occupies 235 acres, but only 115 acres have been developed for disposal. Of this total, 105 acres have been used, with 10 acres remaining as of June 2000. This amounts to 2.5 million cubic feet of capacity (SC DHED 2007). This implies that it takes 4.047 ha/70792 m3 of storage space. Using the formula in Spitzley and Keolian, and assuming the storage facility needs to be operational for 500 years, this implies 0.716 to 1.25 ha-yr/TWh, a relatively small areal impact.

We thank Ms. Fields for her comments. More broadly, we wish to stress a point we made in the paper: land-use intensity of energy production is only one metric by which to measure the environmental impact of an energy production technique, and should not be used in isolation in making policy without consideration of a host of other factors.

Works Cited
Cameco (2009). McArthur River Operation: Technical Report (National Instrument 43-101). Northern Saskatchewan, Canada, Cameco.
EIA (2002). U.S. Uranium Production Facilities: Operating History and Remediation Cost Under Uranium Mill Tailings Remedial Action Project as of 2000. Washington, D.C., U.S. Department of Energy, Energy Information Administration. Online at:
EIA (2009). Uranium Marketing Annual Report. Washington, D.C., U.S. Department of Energy, Energy Administration Administration.
SC DHED (2007). Commercial low-level radioactive waste disposal in South Carolina. Columbia, SC, South Carolina Department of Health and Environmental Control.
Spitzley, D. V. and G. A. Keoleian (2004). Life cycle environmental and economic assessment of willow biomass electricity: A comparison with other renewable and non-renewable sources. Ann Arbor, MI, Center for Sustainable Systems, University of Michigan.
USEC (2010). Megatons to Megawatts, United States Enrichment Corporation. Online at
WNA (2010). Radioactive Waste Management, Working Paper 4. London, World Nuclear Association. Online at:
WNA (2010). World Uranium Mining, Working Paper 23. London, World Nuclear Association. Online at:

No competing interests declared.

RE: Land use for nuclear power questioned

PLOS_ONE_Group replied to Sarah_Fields on 04 Nov 2010 at 14:38 GMT

The declaration of competing interests for Ms Sarah Fields on the comment posted on August 16 reads “No competing interests declared”, however, this declaration should read as outlined in her posting dated October 7, the relevant information is also provided below as clarification:

Competing interests declared: I have an interest in the availability of complete and accurate information regarding the land use impacts related to nuclear energy development, as the Program Director of Uranium Watch, an organization involved in activities for protection from the impact of uranium mining, uranium milling, and nuclear waste disposal.

No competing interests declared.