WASHINGTON – As cryptocurrencies struggle with soaring electricity prices that squeeze profits, one major bitcoin mining operation will soon be the first in the U.S. to use nuclear power, falsely claiming it’s good for the environment.
And other bitcoin miners could soon follow the lead of Cumulus Data, which has completed construction of the sprawling 300,000 square foot Nautilus Cryptomine, in Northeast Pennsylvania. The 48-megawatt mine plugs directly into the company’s Susquehanna nuclear power station. Cumulus Data is a subsidiary of Baltimore-based Talen Energy.
Even one nuclear-powered bitcoin mine is too many, because it’s a problematic source of electricity. Technically, nuclear produces zero carbon emissions. But it uses massive amounts of water to operate and creates dangerous radioactive waste.
Once the nuclear cryptomine is online, in the first quarter of 2023, Terawulf – one of the biggest bitcoin miners in the U.S. – will be among the earliest to use the data center. The electricity generated from the facility will power the mine's “proof of work” mechanism to crack the codes needed to validate transactions and produce more coins. This process requires enormous amounts of electricity, which is why it requires more power sources.
Bitcoin’s greenwashing claims about going nuclear
Nazar Khan, Terawulf’s co-founder and chief operating officer, told crypto industry publication Blockworks, “We would love for it [nuclear power] to be the majority. . . . It’s a zero-carbon base-load resource, so in terms of how it fits into what we’re doing, it’s a wonderful resource to have.”
Cumulus Data CEO Alex Hernandez echoed Kahn’s clean energy claims, telling Blockworks, “We look forward to advancing our goal of solving the energy ‘trilemma’ which we define as the rapidly increasing consumer demand for zero-carbon, low-cost, and reliable electricity demand.”
These claims are greenwashing – a positive environmental spin on nuclear. And it’s not just that it creates massive amounts of radioactive waste – since nuclear plants take up vast amounts of fresh water to operate, there’s also the harm they do by catching fish and other aquatic life that are then killed in the power plant’s water-cooling intake pipes.
“Using electricity from a nuclear plant is hardly a benefit to the environment, and bitcoin and its Wall Street apologists like Fidelity and Goldman Sachs know it,” said Alex Formuzis, a spokesperson for Environmental Working Group. “This attempt at greenwashing can’t cover up bitcoin’s long history of relying on dirty sources of electricity for profit.”
A 2007 environmental impact analysis by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission estimated daily water intake of the nuclear plant from the Susquehanna River was more than 58 million gallons per day. As the NRC notes, though nuclear plants do not produce carbon dioxide emissions directly, “the processes for mining and refining uranium ore and making reactor fuel all require large amounts of energy.”
These aging and uneconomical plants are also costly to run and pose potential public health, safety and environmental threats to nearby communities in the event of an accident or terrorist attack.
Nuclear power is not the right answer to the growing carbon-and-climate footprint of bitcoin and its ballooning mining operations that use electricity-intensive proof of work.
Crypto mining alternatives don’t use dirty power
Last year, ethereum – the second largest cryptocurrency – completed its “merge” to the proof of stake consensus mechanism, which uses 99.95 percent less energy. It leaves bitcoin the largest cryptocurrency using the outmoded, high-energy proof of work.
Cryptocurrencies that use proof of stake, or other energy-efficient methods, to validate transactions do so without using computing power to solve complex puzzles. This avoids the big problem with bitcoin – some miners resurrecting coal-fired power plants and other dirty power sources just to cope with proof of work.
“The decision to connect this mining operation to a nuclear plant is short-sighted at best when other options, like proof of stake, are available,” said Formuzis. “Bitcoin can follow ethereum’s lead and make a code switch that will dramatically lower its electricity use and the high financial burden that comes with it.”
What could this mean for other nuclear plants and bitcoin?
There are 53 nuclear power plants in 28 states that produce roughly 19 percent of the electricity in the U.S. But as more of the nation’s electricity comes from clean, safer and renewable sources like solar and wind, the share of energy coming from fossil fuels like coal and methane gas, as well as nuclear, is declining.
Energy experts expect the share of nuclear power to remain flat and even dip as renewables expand, potentially leaving power companies that operate these reactors in search of a new customer base to keep these facilities running.
The boom-and-bust situation facing crypto in recent months has seen major players go bankrupt and unable to pay their debts. This would normally cause the conservative, highly regulated nuclear industry to steer clear of bitcoin miners as customers. But the new operation powered by the plant in Pennsylvania could also signal a period of deal-making between bitcoin and power companies.
How will the bitcoin mining operation continue running when the Susquehanna nuclear plant is shut down for refueling?
All nuclear power plants must be refueled every 18 to 24 months, during which time they must be offline for a month. Both reactor units at the Susquehanna plant will shut down simultaneously in March for refueling, so the bitcoin mining facility that normally runs 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, will either switch off or need another source of power.
It is unclear how or whether the bitcoin mining center will operate when both reactors are offline.
The Environmental Working Group (EWG) is a nonprofit, non-partisan organization that empowers people to live healthier lives in a healthier environment. Through research, advocacy and unique education tools, EWG drives consumer choice and civic action.