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Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Nuclear energy kills more birds than wind ...really?

In a rebuttal, and in the comment fields that followed, the author of the study that kicked off the internet urban legend claiming that nuclear energy kills more birds than wind said that his study does not advance the conclusion that nuclear power causes more bird kills than wind. He also said:

"...the numbers in my study are preliminary, first-order guesses ...A final secondary conclusion is that if there is a real “bird killer,” it is neither wind energy nor nuclear power but coal and fossil fuels, especially if you factor in climate change ...I have just started engaging people on Wikipedia to try and correct distortions of my research."

Read the following articles and be sure to read the comments below them as well:
  1. Nukes kill more birds than wind? This is a critique of the study that purportedly claimed that nuclear energy kills more birds per kWh than wind.
  2.  Benjamin Sovacool takes issue with Lorenzini’s criticism of his work. This is a rebuttal of the above critique by the author of the paper being critiqued.
  3. Lorenzini rebuts Sovacool’s defense of nuclear bird kill paper as weak. This is a rebuttal of the rebuttal.
 And finally, read this peer review of the study in question: Bats are not birds and other problems with Sovacool's (2009) analysis of animalfatalities due to electricity generation and its rebuttal.

The study in question was done by an Associate Professor at Vermont Law School, who doesn't care much for nuclear energy, acknowledging that he sometimes blurs ..."the line more than most; some of it is considered “research,” some is considered “advocacy and service.” From the abstract of his study:
"It estimates that wind farms are responsible for roughly 0.27 avian fatalities per gigawatt-hour (GWh) of electricity while nuclear power plants involve 0.6 fatalities per GWh and fossil-fueled power stations are responsible for about 9.4 fatalities per GWh. Within the uncertainties of the data used, the estimate means that wind farm-related avian fatalities equated to approximately 46,000 birds in the United States in 2009, but nuclear power plants killed about 460,000 and fossil-fueled power plants 24 million."

Although the study concluded that nuclear would kill 50 times fewer birds than fossil fueled power plants, it was the claim that nuclear power plants kill more birds per kWh than wind that is being used as a weapon in articles and comment fields to attack nuclear energy. Even if the conclusions were valid (and they aren't), the study still suggested that nuclear is 50 times better than fossil fuels when it comes to bird deaths.

Attacking nuclear energy does not promote wind and solar for the following reasons:

  1. Nuclear, being baseload, does not compete with wind and solar photovoltaic, which, because of their intermittent nature, can only be used to reduce the fuel bills of natural gas or diesel peaking and load following power plants which can vary power output to match the fluctuations from wind and solar.
  2. The latest National Renewable Energy Lab study found that renewables can only provide maybe a third of our total energy needs, making nuclear the only low carbon technology available to help replace the reaming 2/3 of our energy needs. If we are going to replace fossil fuels, we will need both renewables and nuclear.

This same paper also summarized:

"... the wildlife benefits from a 580-MW wind farm at Altamont Pass in California, a facility that some have criticized for its impact on wildlife."

Some have criticized? Considering that an estimated 1300 raptors (among them 70 golden eagles) are killed annually at the Altamont Pass wind farm, one can certainly hypothesize that the population of common ground squirrels that they prey upon are doing very well (sarcasm alert).

Some findings of the above reviews (here and here) follow:

A claim that the abandoned Berkeley uranium pit mine kills 300 snow geese per year turns out not to be true, and to make matters worse, it was a copper mine, not a uranium mine. Note that because wind farms tend to be located further from the cities that use their power, they consume far more copper in the form of power lines than nuclear power, which could also be used in many instances to replace coal power plants in existing coal power plant locations, requiring no new power lines.

A grossly exaggerated estimate of birds killed when colliding with smokestacks during nightly migrations at a nuclear power plant turned out to be smokestacks used by a coal fired power plant which was co-located with a low-profile nuclear power plant that does not use the smokestacks or nearby cooling tower. And to make matters worse, lights were installed on those coal plant towers which ended the bird strikes.

The rest of his data linking bird strikes with nuclear power plant cooling towers shows that they kill ten times fewer birds than his wind estimates.

Also, his wind bird kill numbers were about five times too low, making wind 15 times worse than nuclear, and if you include bats, wind kills 20 times more flying vertebrates than nuclear.

Had the author included all of the mining that supports wind power and bird kills from all of the extra power lines needed by wind, nuclear would have looked even better in comparison.

Photo by Xavier de Jaur├ęguiberry via Flickr Creative Commons.

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