Nuclear energy is America’s largest source of clean-air, carbon free electricity that produces no greenhouse gases or air pollutants. While nuclear power plants do not produce greenhouse gases, the process of producing nuclear energy does have some environmental impacts.
One environmental issue associated with nuclear power plants needs to be considered before any of the other issues in generating electricity from nuclear plants. The process of mining uranium creates environmental impacts, such as run-off, equipment rehabilitation and carbon emissions.
Run-off from uranium mining contains traces of radium and other metals which could be harmful to biological systems within both the local environment and downstream of the mine. The process of securing these metals is done by collecting them in retention ponds until the water is evaporated and the metals can be securely stored. Equipment used in the process of mining uranium that becomes too radioactive to be sold has to be buried and covered in clay and soil so that no harmful radiation is emitted.
While nuclear power plants do not emit greenhouse gases the mining of uranium does create greenhouse gas emissions. The process of mining and milling uranium to keep a 1000 MWe nuclear reactor running in a year, will emit 2000-5000 tonnes of CO2, depending on the grade of the uranium ore.
Nuclear power plants do not emit carbon dioxide, sulfur dioxide or nitrogen dioxide as part of their power generation process, however they do create other environmental issues. These include the pollution of water from its use in the nuclear energy process and the generation of radioactive waste.
According to the U.S. Geological Service, the generation of electricity from nuclear plants account for 3.3% of freshwater consumption in regards to all economic sectors. While consumption is only 3.3% of total consumption in relation to all sectors, nuclear plants withdraw the second most amount of freshwater by economic sector. It is noted that while they withdrew the second most amount of water, 98% of that water was returned back to its original source. This is why the consumption of water by nuclear plants is low as compared to other sectors. Water produced from the condensed steam is reused in the generation process and the water used for cooling is discharged back into the lake, river or ocean, but the water can have an increased temperature of up to 30 degrees. An increase in water temperature greatly effects the aquatic life of the water sources. Warmer water holds less oxygen, which makes it harder for aquatic life to live and to reproduce. Also the suction systems can pull plankton, fish eggs, and other lifeforms into the systems and screens. Heavy metals and salts also build up in the water used by nuclear plants, which when released back into their original source could potentially harm the aquatic ecosystem.
When a nuclear fuel rod comes to the end of its operation the spent fuel rod needs to be stored because it is still radioactive. There was a time when all the spent nuclear fuel was stored at specified facilities, but transporting the radioactive material is a very sensitive issue for environmental concerns. Currently, the spent fuel is stored either in cooling pools, in steel-lined, concrete vaults filled with water or in above-ground steel or steel-reinforced concrete containers with steel inner canisters.
The least probable, but most concerning environmental issue with nuclear plants is the release of radioactive material into the atmosphere or environment from a nuclear accident. Such accidents are few, but the two most destructive and serious accidents were from the Chernobyl and Fukushima nuclear reactors. While the damage from radiation from the Fukushima plant is still being researched and recorded, the Chernobyl accident gives us good insight into what a nuclear accident can unleash. The physical consequences of the Chernobyl accident were:
- The death of 42 emergency workers from radiation illness weeks after the incident.
- Exposure of 600,000 people to high levels of nuclear radiation.
- Radioactive contamination area of about 3,000 kilometers square.
- A higher epidemic of thyroid cancer among people in the region.
- Other radiogenic cancers.
Scientists conclude that living in an area contaminated with 1 to 5 Ci/kilometers square absorb an average of less then 1.0 millisieverts (mSv) per year. When soil contamination is over 5 Ci/kilometers square, people are more likely to absorb between 1 to 5 mSv per year. In the European Union, 1 mSv per year is considered the upper limit of exposure for people who live in an area close to a nuclear power station.
Primary Author: Ari P. Langman
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