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Cost of Electric Power Report: Enormous Health and Water Impacts of Coal and Nuclear Power 'Hidden' From Consumers

Feb 16, 2011 -

WASHINGTON: An astounding 200 billion gallons of water withdrawn from America's water supply each day … annual costs to society from premature deaths due to power plant pollution so high that they are up to four times the price of all electricity produced in the U.S. … and four metric tons of high-level radioactive wastes for every terawatt of electricity produced by nuclear reactors, even though there is no long-term storage solution in place. These are just some of the little understood and largely "hidden" water, health and other costs from U.S. coal and nuclear electricity production detailed in a new analysis released today by Synapse Energy Economics, Inc., for the nonprofit and nonpartisan Civil Society Institute (CSI) think tank. The Synapse report for CSI also outlines the considerable health impacts of the nation's current reliance on coal and nuclear power.

Pam Solo, president and founder, Civil Society Institute, said: "What we refer to as the 'Business As Usual' (BAU) approach to electricity production carries significant costs, chief among them the health impacts. As the White House and the Congress propose moving from a Renewable Energy Standard to what they are calling a 'Clean Energy Standard,' there should be a full and public debate about what constitutes 'clean' energy. Traditional energy developers and producers refer to the social and economic impacts of reliance on fossil fuels and nuclear power as 'externalities.' The high risk and extensive cost in terms of human health, productivity and long-term economic competitiveness are essential components of defining and moving toward a sustainable and truly clean energy future. Water quality and water availability are perhaps the key lens through which to look at whether energy sources are indeed clean and should have any part in a 'Clean Energy Standard.'"

Dr. Jeremy Fisher, scientist, Synapse Energy Economics Inc., said: "The existing coal fleet in the United States exacts an expensive toll on the U.S. The fleet itself is fairly inexpensive to operate, and for years has been a source of cheap electricity. However, we know now that each year, emissions of acid gasses and toxic particulates are at the root of thousands of premature deaths each year. The fleet leaches waste into our groundwater and rivers, heats hundreds of waterways with thermal effluent, consumes millions of acre-feet of water, and releases the largest fraction of emissions which are leading us quickly towards a very different climate. These costs, as dramatic as they may be, are almost completely hidden from the public view and are invisible to consumers."

The new report, "Benefits of Beyond Business as Usual," explains that the existing coal-fired electric power fleet is responsible for:

* Between 8,000 and 34,000 premature deaths from inhaling fine particulate matter from coal combustion, at a cost to society of $64 to $272 billion -- up to four times as expensive as the cost of electricity from coal.
* Generators along the Ohio River withdraw so much water that for every gallon which spills into the Mississippi River at Cairo, IL, one cup has passed through a generator on the banks of the Ohio River, and one tablespoon has evaporated to the atmosphere …According to data collected by the United States Geographic Survey (USGS), water withdrawals from thermoelectric power sources account for 49 percent of total withdrawals in the United States in 2005. This is equivalent to more than 201 billion gallons of water per day that is used for power plant cooling alone.
* About 100 million tons of toxic coal wastes dumped into landfills, sludge ponds, and holding ponds.
* Impaired visibility at the great U.S. national monuments and parks.
* Two billion tons of carbon dioxide, the primary cause of global climate change, drowning coastal regions, reducing water availability in water-short regions, and causing the extinction of an estimated 20-30 percent of plant and animal species.

The Synapse report for CSI notes the following about nuclear power:

* With no long-term plan in place for the storage of nuclear waste, nuclear reactors in the United States generate up to 4.1 metric tons of nuclear waste for each terawatt of power produced.
* Like all mining activity, mining for uranium can wreak a heavy toll on the environment and produces significant quantities of waste. Water use in a typical uranium mine is approximately 200 to 300 gallons per minute, and a mine requires more than 220 acres of land to be set aside permanently for waste rock and radioactive tailing storage. Over time the radioactivity of the tailing material can grow to be about 75 percent of that of the original ore.
* A typical 1,000 MW nuclear plant might produce around 30 tons of high-level waste a year. The U.S. currently has 104 nuclear reactors (69 PWR and 35 BWR) with a total capacity of around 101,000 MW, so annual production of high-level waste is around 3,000 tons. Currently the majority of this waste is stored on site – that is, at the location where it is produced – while the rest is stored in nearby temporary storage sites. Out of 104 active nuclear power plants, 68 have run out of local storage space or will run out this year. Of the rest, all are expected to run out of space by 2026.
* The cost to society of a nuclear accident can theoretically be quantified by multiplying the social cost of an accident (measured in terms of lives lost, increased rates of cancer and other diseases, and the value of irradiated land). Quantifying the risk of a severe accident is open to significant interpretation. There has only be one significant nuclear meltdown (Chernobyl, in Ukraine), which leads some to argue that the risk of an accident is relatively low. Others point to the near meltdown of Three Mile Island and the recent radioactive leak at Vermont Yankee as evidence that even countries with strong regulatory oversight of their nuclear facilities are not immune from potential disaster.
* Transportation becomes problematic because U.S. nuclear facilities are spread out across the country, so maintaining a unified storage site requires the transport of high-level waste over long distances, which in turn exposes nuclear waste to the possibility of accidents, attack, or theft.
* Even today, with numerous redundant safety mechanisms in place in the U.S., scrams, or reactor trips due to safety or operational faults, occurred in one of every three nuclear units in 2009. These scrams require the unit to be powered down immediately. Two thirds of units reported a safety system failure to the NRC in 2009 as well.


What is beyond "Business as Usual" when it comes to generating electricity in the U.S.?

A major 2010 Synapse report for the Civil Society Institute developed a "Transition Scenario" for 2010 - 2050 that would provide the following benefits:

* Aggressive investments in more efficient technologies in every sector could reduce electricity use by 15 percent from today's requirements, or over 40 percent from a "business as usual" scenario. Utilities in several states are already achieving savings at this level.
* The U.S. could feasibly retire the entire fleet of coal-fired plants and build no new coal-fired generation, rather than burning more coal. Tens of billions could be saved in avoided pollution control costs at the coal-fired plants retired between 2010 and 2020. At the same time, we could retire 28 percent of the nation's nuclear capacity.
* Electric sector emissions of carbon dioxide would fall by roughly 82 percent relative to predicted 2010 levels. Emissions of SO2, NOx, and mercury fall in the BAU Case, as new emission controls are installed at coal-fired plants, but they fall much more in the Transition Scenario. Emissions of NOx fall by 60 percent over the study period, and emissions of SO2 fall by 97 percent. Electric sector mercury emissions are virtually eliminated.
* Renewable energy, including wind, solar, geothermal and biomass, would increase throughout the nation, eventually providing half of the nation's electricity requirements. Natural gas use in the electric sector would grow more slowly than under business as usual, leaving more gas for clean cars and other uses.
* There would be modest near-term costs of the scenario, but over the long-term it would cost less than a business as usual energy future. The scenario would cost an estimated $10 billion per year more than the BAU in 2020, but it would save $5 billion annually by 2040 and $13 billion annually by 2050. These are direct costs only; they do not include savings resulting from reduced CO2 emissions or public health costs. (A recent National Academies study estimated the annual health impacts of power generation in the U.S. at $62 billion in 2005.) For a typical residential consumer, purchasing about 900 kWh per month, the 2020 cost increase would amount to about $2.20 per month. By 2040, the same customer would be saving about $1.50 per month and by 2050, saving nearly $4.00 per month.

The full text of the Civil Society Institute reports prepared by Synapse Energy Economics are available online at


Based in Newton, MA, the nonprofit and nonpartisan Civil Society Institute ( is a think tank that serves as a catalyst for change by creating problem-solving interactions among people, and between communities, government and business that can help to improve society. Since 2003, CSI has conducted more than 25 major national and state-level surveys and reports on energy and auto issues, including vehicle fuel-efficiency standards, consumer demand for hybrids/other highly-fuel efficient vehicles, global warming and renewable energy. In addition to being a co-convener of (, the Civil Society Institute also is the parent organization of ( and the Hybrid Owners of America (

Synapse Energy Economics, Inc. ( provides research, testimony, reports and regulatory support on energy, economic, and environmental topics. Synapse has a professional staff of 22 with more than 300 years of combined experience in the electricity and natural gas industries. Synapse assesses the implications of electricity and natural gas industry planning, regulation and restructuring. Their work covers various interrelated issues such as transmission planning, service reliability, siting, fuel diversity, resource planning, financial and economic risks, renewable energy potential and renewable portfolio standards, energy efficiency, electricity modeling, portfolio management, customer service and more. Synapse works for a wide range of clients throughout the United States, including attorneys general, offices of consumer advocates, public utility commissions, a variety of environmental groups, foundations, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Department of Energy, Department of Justice, the National Association of Regulatory Utility Commissioners, and others.

SOURCE Civil Society Institute, Newton, MA and Synapse Energy Economics, Inc., Cambridge, MA


Updated: 2003/07/28