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Tuesday, June 05, 2012
Wind Energy's Inconvenient Radioactivity
Al Gore opened his 2006 movie, “An Inconvenient Truth”, with an apology for not having already saved the world from global warming: “I have advocated policies to promote renewable energy and accelerate reductions in global warming pollution for decades, including all of the time I was in public service.” In support of his continuing political agenda, Al Gore recently joined Van Jones last week to argue for wind power’s “clean energy” as a replacement for fossil fuels’ “dirty energy.” Inconveniently for Mr. Gore, the truth is that mining and processing key materials to make the magnets in wind power turbines is releasing massive amounts of air, water and ground pollution, including enormous quantities of radioactive waste into the global ecosphere.
Huge wind turning propellers spin large magnetic coils to produce electricity. Rare Earth Elements (REEs) are an essential ingredient needed to manufacture these magnets. REEs, such as Neodymium, Samarium, Gadolinium and Dysprosium are in very limited supply, — which brings into question both of Mr. Gore’s “renewability” and “sustainability” marketing claims. The United States was the world’s largest producer of REEs until 2002, when the huge Mountain Pass open pit mine in California was closed after the United States Environmental Protection Agency determined that 600,000 gallons of highly radioactive mining wastewater had been spilled onto the surrounding dessert between 1984 and 1998. The water contained highly concentrated amounts of radium, which has a half-life of radium is 1600 years, and thorium, which has a half-life of 14 billion years.
Today, 95% of all REEs are mined and processed in remote Western China. Once shrouded in secrecy by China’s autocratic leadership, the environmental dangers of unregulated REE mining has caused so much damage it is now an acknowledged national concern. According to Wang Caifeng, China’s Deputy Director-General of the Materials Department of the Ministry of Industry and Information Technology, producing one ton of REEs creates 2,000 tons of mine tailings. It is also estimated that within Baotou, where China’s primary rare earth production occurs, REE enterprises produce approximately 2.5 billion gallons of highly polluted wastewater per year and most of that waste water is:
“discharged without being effectively treated, which not only contaminates potable water for daily living, but also contaminates the surrounding water environment and irrigated farmlands.”
According to an article published by the Chinese Society of Rare Earths:
“Every ton [2000 lbs.] of rare earth produced generates approximately 8.5 kilograms (18.7 lbs.) of fluorine and 13 kilograms (28.7 lbs.) of dust; and using concentrated sulfuric acid high temperature calcination techniques to produce approximately one ton of calcined rare earth ore generates 9,600 to 12,000 cubic meters (339,021 to 423,776 cubic feet) of waste gas containing dust concentrate, hydrofluoric acid, sulfur dioxide, and sulfuric acid, approximately 75 cubic meters (2,649 cubic feet) of acidic wastewater plus about one ton of radioactive waste residue (containing water).”
This inconvenient environmental holocaust seems to have been exempted from Mr. Gore’s evaluation of wind power as source of “clean energy.” Recently physicist John Droz Jr. consulted with nuclear experts to compare the radioactive waste generated from a 3 gigawatt (GW) wind farm with that of a nuclear reactor to generate the same amount of electricity. Their conclusions are:
Fact 1: Wind turbines require about 2000 lbs. of REEs per megawatt of rated capacity;
Fact 2: U.S. Army reports that mining 2000 lbs. of REE creates about 2000 lbs. of radioactive waste;
Assumption 1: The available Capacity Factor of these turbines will be about 33% (very optimistic);
Assumption 2: Water is about 50% of the weight of the REE mining radioactive waste.
Therefore, the radioactive waste for a 3 GW wind facility:
—> Twenty year expected usable life of wind turbine (optimistic);
—> 50% of waste is water that will evaporate away;
Total of wind power radioactive waste (3000 MW x 2000 REE/MW x 1 x .5) = 3,000,000± pounds
Fact 1: Nuclear reactor is Pressurized Water Reactor ;
Fact 2: Radioactive waste is spent fuel rods that are permanently stored in deep earth repository;
Assumption 1: GW Nuclear facility generates about 60,000 pounds per year of “spent” uranium;
Assumption 2: Twenty years is used as that is the generous expected life of a wind turbine.
Therefore, the radioactive waste for a 1 GW single-pass nuclear power plant:
—> Average 60,000 pounds per year.
è Twenty years of operations
Total of nuclear generator radioactive waste (60,000 lbs. x 20 yrs.) = 1,200,000± pounds
So compared to the radioactive waste from wind energy to the radioactive waste in an “equivalent” nuclear power facility to produce the same amount of electricity, wind energy is dirtier — with 250% the amount of radioactive waste! The next time you hear someone promote wind energy as a renewable, sustainable, clean, green source of energy that will give us energy independence, ask if it will also help the earth glow in the dark.
The writer is indebted to John Droz Jr. for the technical research and analysis provided for this report. Mr. Droz has been a physicist and an environmental activist for over 25 years. He received undergraduate degrees in physics and math from Boston College, and a graduate degree in physics from Syracuse University. John has been a participating member of the Sierra Club and the Adirondack Council.