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The footprint of any energy source ought to include more than its carbon emissions or land use, but also the footprint of its building materials, the energy density of its fuel, and its overall emissions intensity. When evaluating the footprint of nuclear, writers and analysts tend to focus on its near-zero carbon emissions.
Advocates of a particular generating technology will often use land use as an argument against competing technologies. To avoid apple and orange mix-ups, the table below identifies land use per GWh per year to ensure a like comparison between the technologies. From a land perspective, biomass is an extensive challenge except for countries with plenty of spare arable land. The table below shows the concrete and steel used in some plant constructions expressed as tonnes per GWh per year. Fuels with a high energy density are able to store large quantities of energy in a smaller volume.
Wind and solar advocates often suggest using gas or biomass to balance the variability of the wind or solar plants rather than using uranium or coal.
On average, about 500 kilograms (kg) of carbon dioxide equivalent are produced per MWh of electricity generated in the world. In the end, nuclear power has one of the smallest footprints of any energy source: it uses less land, significantly less concrete and steel, and generates less expensive electricity than solar and wind alternatives. The real threat of exposure with solar panels comes from the toxic waste left behind from the mining process.
It is possible to make panels without the rare metals that have been used, however you cannot build a nuclear plant without them. The mining requirements for renewables per deliverable unit of energy are far higher than the needs of nuclear. True, no deaths from the solar panels per se but as the smh referenced article explains they die mostly through roof falls and electrocution. The article also talks about the effect on animals, convieniently ignoring the thousands of cows, horses and pets slaughtered and abandoned around Fukushima, and the effect on wildlife from the packs of wild dogs running wild. Bob Hargraves, A large residental size property is certainly large enough for a power plant embedded in a residential or urban load center.
Meanwhile you don’t use rooftop solar which uses no concrete pad, there are also pole mounted ground solar without concrete. For the record, I’m fairly pro-nuclear power, but I think the renewables boom has made it a lot less important. So all in all, it looks like in sunny regions, the range of utility scale solar PV costs overlap fairly well with the range of costs for fossil fuels and nuclear, and will likely be cheaper on average very soon.
Using these metrics, a more nuanced and compelling case for nuclear emerges: it uses less land, significantly less concrete and steel, has a low emissions intensity, and generates less expensive electricity than solar and wind alternatives. Yet, there are many other areas where nuclear power consumes fewer resources than other electricity-generating technologies.
With some technologies, like wind, there is the risk of apples-and-oranges comparisons in terms of land use.


Solar thermal is often criticized for requiring vast tracks of land, but it’s still more land efficient than surface strip coal mining, according to MIT. This is true if you just look at the materials used to build a power station without considering the amount of energy the power station generates over its life. UNSCEAR demonstrated that steel production exposes the general population to more radiation than nuclear power plants. The smaller the volume of fuel to be mined, the smaller the footprint on the Earth and the lower the fuel cost. Both gas and dry wood have very low energy densities compared to uranium or coal and need larger volumes of fuel.
This data shows life cycle emissions, which means that they cover emissions during power plant construction, fuel mining and transport, operation, decommissioning, and waste disposal. If we want to protect our environment and reduce our impact on Earth, we must consider nuclear as part of the energy mix.
I hadn’t thought of mortality as a footprint on the Earth but you are quite right about the issue of lower mortality and morbidity - particularly compared to coal.
There is absolutely no question that nuclear power has the lowest environmental footprint of any power source.
The table omits open-cycle gas turbines, which will NOT comply, and such are necessary for backup for wind turbines because of their rapid ramp-up capabilities needed when the wind lulls.
Also, the CT does indeed start quickly, but a more efficient CCGT (combined cycle gas turbine) takes about an hour; new ones are faster ramping.
If we apply the Fraunhofer estimates to a region like Colorado, which the Brattle group estimates are based on, I think they’re more or less on the same page.
In fact, when compared to coal, natural gas, and renewables, nuclear is the most land efficient, energy-dense source of power, with the lowest use of building materials per unit of energy generated per year, and one of the least expensive in terms of levelized costs.
Do you count the whole area of the wind farm in the calculation or just the footprint of the wind turbine plus access roads?
As such, building materials are often quoted in tonnes per MW (power plant size) rather than tonnes per MWh (the power plant’s energy generation). Of these plants, nuclear power uses the least amount of concrete and steel per unit of energy generated in one year.
Installing solar thermal and wind in preference to nuclear power, and so using significantly more steel, may well be increasing the radiation risk, not reducing it. The reason that natural resources like coal and uranium have been so successful at generating electricity is largely because of their relatively high energy densities – particularly uranium. Only the really low emitters, nuclear and renewable energy options, can deliver the 2050 emissions intensity target. The nuclear doubters probably find this more difficult to accept given all the fear, uncertainty and doubt coming out of Fukushima.
However, if you look at other estimates, it’s hard to square those numbers, especially for solar PV. Still I find it funny that the EIA doesn’t even differentiate between rooftop and utility scale solar PV in its main table.


However, if you look closely, while the paper itself is from 2014, the data for LCOE is based on 2008-2012 information. Evaluating these different aspects of its footprint demonstrates that nuclear is one of our most viable solutions to readily decarbonize the economy. This is less than half the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) estimate shown below. This can mislead us into thinking that nuclear power uses more resources than solar panels, when the opposite is true. If the full lifetime of the plants had been considered, then the nuclear plant’s use of concrete and steel would be even less because nuclear plants have some of the longest lifespans.
When it is used in light-water reactors (LWR), the electrical energy density of uranium is over 30,000 times the energy density of black coal.
Using uranium in fast reactors rather than LWRs would lower the fuel footprint even further by more than 100 times.
This makes me think that there is a huge data lag when it comes to cost estimates for solar PV.
The only problems are intermittency, transmission, high demand for materials,storage- things like that. Compared to a nuclear plant’s lifespan of 40 years, for instance, a solar panel may last less than 20 years. So a 1 MW coal plant might use 3 million tonnes of coal per year, but a similar sized nuclear LWR plant might use only 170 tonnes of natural uranium (with some energy density loss in the enrichment process).
If natural gas is used, they can fit on a large residental property and produce upwards of 100 Mw. Normally a lag of a few years doesn’t make that much difference for calculations, but when the price of something is dropping at this speed, it can lead to some major errors. Yet those aren’t likely to be serious issues until we reach much higher penetration levels. Hence, the fuel cost for a nuclear plant is a fraction of the fuel cost of a coal or gas plant. Actually, land acerage efficiency, natural gas use, energy production, and pollution should all be considered. A TP&M Twin Pac with C4 engines would be slightly larger than my house but still be within the confines of my property and produce about 60 Mw. Combined Cycle Gas Turbines do take longer to start and are used for different purposes because of their higher efficiency.
A mix of all types of energy conversion is wise, but the apportionment should be weight averaged according to the efficiency of the important parameters considered. I chose to compare their size to a residential property to emphasize in a familiar way the space required for this older technology.



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