Environmental impact of nuclear power

Environmental impact of nuclear power
Nuclear power activities involving the environment; mining, enrichment, generation and geological disposal.

The environmental impact of nuclear power results from the nuclear fuel cycle, operation, and the effects of nuclear accidents.

The routine health risks and greenhouse gas emissions from nuclear fission power are small relative to those associated with coal, but there are "catastrophic risks":[1] the possibility of over-heated fuel releasing massive quantities of fission products to the environment, and nuclear weapons proliferation. The public is sensitive to these risks and there has been considerable public opposition to nuclear power. The 1979 Three Mile Island accident and 1986 Chernobyl disaster, along with high construction costs, ended the rapid growth of global nuclear power capacity.[1]

In March 2011 an earthquake and tsunami caused damage that led to explosions and partial meltdowns at the Fukushima I Nuclear Power Plant in Japan. Concerns about the possibility of a large scale radiation leak resulted in 20 km exclusion zone being set up around the power plant and people within the 20-30km zone being advised to stay indoors. John Price, a former member of the Safety Policy Unit at the UK's National Nuclear Corporation, has said that it "might be 100 years before melting fuel rods can be safely removed from Japan's Fukushima nuclear plant".[2]


Waste streams

Nuclear power has at least four waste streams that may harm the environment:[3]

  • (1) they create spent nuclear fuel at the reactor site (including plutonium waste)
  • (2) they produce tailings at uranium mines and mills
  • (3) during operation they routinely release small amounts of radioactive isotopes
  • (4) during accidents they can release large quantities of dangerous radioactive materials

The nuclear fuel cycle involves some of the most dangerous elements and isotopes known to humankind, including more than 100 dangerous radionuclides and carcinogens such as strontium-90, iodine 131 and cesium -137, which are the same toxins found in the fall out of nuclear weapons".[4]

Radioactive waste

High-level waste

Around 20–30 tons of high-level waste are produced per month per nuclear reactor.[5] The world's nuclear fleet creates about 10,000 metric tons of high-level spent nuclear fuel each year.[6] Several methods have been suggested for final disposal of high-level waste, including deep burial in stable geological structures, transmutation, and removal to space. So far, none of these methods have been implemented.[7] There is an "international consensus on the advisability of storing nuclear waste in deep underground repositories",[8] but no country in the world has yet opened such a site.[8][9][10][11][12] There are some 65,000 tons of nuclear waste now in temporary storage throughout the U.S., but in 2009, President Obama "halted work on a permanent repository at Yucca Mountain in Nevada, following years of controversy and legal wrangling".[13]

Nuclear reprocessing may reduce the volume of high-level waste, but by itself does not reduce radioactivity or heat generation and therefore does not eliminate the need for a geological waste repository. Reprocessing has been politically controversial because of the potential to contribute to nuclear proliferation, the potential vulnerability to nuclear terrorism, the political challenges of repository siting (a problem that applies equally to direct disposal of spent fuel), and because of its high cost compared to the once-through fuel cycle.[14] The Obama administration has disallowed reprocessing of nuclear waste, citing nuclear proliferation concerns.[15]

Nine U.S. states have "explicit moratoria on new nuclear power" until a long-term storage solution emerges.[16]

Other waste

Moderate amounts of low-level waste are produced through chemical and volume control system (CVCS). This includes gas, liquid, and solid waste produced through the process of purifying the water through evaporation. Liquid waste is reprocessed continuously, and gas waste is filtered, compressed, stored to allow decay, diluted, and then discharged. The rate at which this is allowed is regulated and studies must prove that such discharge does not violate dose limits to a member of the public (see radioactive effluent emissions).

Solid waste can be disposed of simply by placing it where it will not be disturbed for a few years. There are three low-level waste disposal sites in the United States in South Carolina, Utah, and Washington.[17] Solid waste from the CVCS is combined with solid radwaste that comes from handling materials before it is buried off-site.[18]

Power plant emissions

Radioactive gases and effluents

The Grafenrheinfeld Nuclear Power Plant. The tallest structure is the chimney that releases effluent gases.

Most commercial nuclear power plants release gaseous and liquid radiological effluents into the environment as a byproduct of the Chemical Volume Control System, which are monitored in the US by the EPA and the NRC. Civilians living within 50 miles (80 km) of a nuclear power plant typically receive about 0.1 μSv per year.[19] For comparison, the average person living at or above sea level receives at least 260 μSv from cosmic radiation.[19]

The total amount of radioactivity released through this method depends on the power plant, the regulatory requirements, and the plant's performance. Atmospheric dispersion models combined with pathway models are employed to accurately approximate the dose to a member of the public from the effluents emitted. Effluent monitoring is conducted continuously at the plant.

Limits for the Canadian plants are shown below:

Regulatory limits on Radioactive Gaseous Effluents from Canadian Nuclear Power Plants [20]
Effluent Tritium Iodine-131 Noble Gases Particulates Carbon-14
Units (TBqb × 104) (TBq) (TBq-MeVc × 104) (TBq) (TBq × 103)
Point Lepreau Nuclear Generating Station 43.0 9.9   7.3 5.2 3.3
Bruce Nuclear Generating Station A 38.0 1.2 25.0 2.7 2.8
Bruce B 47.0 1.3 61.0 4.8 3.0
Darlington 21.0 0.6 21.0 4.4 1.4
Pickering Nuclear Generating Station A 34.0 2.4   8.3 5.0 8.8
Pickering B 34.0 2.4   8.3 5.0 8.8
Gentilly-2 44.0 1.3 17.0 1.9   0.91

Effluent emissions for Nuclear power in the United States are regulated by 10 CFR 50.36(a)(2). For detailed information, consult the Nuclear Regulatory Commission's database.

Tritium Effluent Limits
Country Limit (Bq/L)
Australia 76,103
Finland 30,000
WHO 10,000
Switzerland 10,000
Russia   7,700
Ontario, Canada   7,000
United States      740
European Union    1001
California Public Health Goal          14.8


A leak of radioactive water at Vermont Yankee in 2010, along with similar incidents at more than 20 other US nuclear plants in recent years, has kindled doubts about the reliability, durability, and maintenance of aging nuclear installations in the United States.[21]

Tritium is a radioactive isotope of hydrogen that emits a low-energy beta particle and is usually measured in becquerels (i.e. atoms decaying per second) per liter (Bq/L). Tritium becomes dissolved in ordinary water when released from a nuclear plant. The primary concern for tritium release is the presence in drinking water, in addition to biological magnification leading to tritium in crops and animals consumed for food.[22]

Legal concentration limits have differed greatly to place to place (see table right). For example, in June 2009 the Ontario Drinking Water Advisory Council recommended lowering the limit from 7,000 Bq/L to 20 Bq/L.[23] According to the NRC, tritium is the least dangerous radionuclide because it emits very weak radiation and leaves the body relatively quickly. The typical human body contains roughly 3,700 Bq of potassium-40. The amount released by any given plant also varies greatly; the total release for plants in the United States in 2003 was at least counted to be 0 and at most 2,080 curies (77 TBq).

Uranium mining

Uranium mining can use large amounts of water — for example, the Roxby Downs mine in South Australia uses 35,000 m³ of water each day and plans to increase this to 150,000 m³ per day.[24]

Risk of cancer

There have been several epidemiological studies that claim to demonstrate increased risk of various diseases, especially cancers, among people who live near nuclear facilities. A widely cited 2007 meta-analysis by Baker et al. of 17 research papers was published in the European Journal of Cancer Care.[25] It offered evidence of elevated leukemia rates among children living near 136 nuclear facilities in the United Kingdom, Canada, France, United States, Germany, Japan, and Spain.[26] However this study has been criticized on several grounds - such as combining heterogeneous data (different age groups, sites that were not nuclear power plants, different zone definitions), arbitrary selection of 17 out of 37 individual studies, exclusion of sites with zero observed cases or deaths, etc.[27][28] Elevated leukemia rates among children were also found in a 2008 German study by Kaatsch et al. that examined residents living near 16 major nuclear power plants in Germany.[29] This study has also been criticised on several grounds.[30][28] These 2007 and 2008 results are not consistent with many other studies that have tended not to show such associations.[31][32][33][34][26] The British Committee on Medical Aspects of Radiation in the Environment issued a study in 2011 of children under five living near 13 nuclear power plants in the UK during the period 1969-2004. The committee found that children living near power plants in Britain are no more likely to develop leukemia than those living elsewhere[28]

Comparison to coal-fired generation

In terms of net radioactive release, the National Council on Radiation Protection and Measurements (NCRP) estimated the average radioactivity per short ton of coal is 17,100 millicuries/4,000,000 tons. With 154 coal plants in the United States, this amounts to emissions of 0.6319 TBq per year for a single plant.

In terms of dose to a human living nearby, it is sometimes cited that coal plants release 100 times the radioactivity of nuclear plants. This comes from NCRP Reports No. 92 and No. 95 which estimated the dose to the population from 1000 MWe coal and nuclear plants at 4.9 man-Sv/year and 0.048 man-Sv/year respectively (a typical Chest x-ray gives a dose of about 0.06 mSv for comparison).[35] The Environmental Protection Agency estimates an added dose of 0.3 µSv per year for living within 50 miles (80 km) of a coal plant and 0.009 milli-rem for a nuclear plant for yearly radiation dose estimation.[36] Nuclear power plants in normal operation emit less radioactivity than coal power plants.[35][36]

Unlike coal-fired or oil-fired generation, nuclear power generation does not directly produce any sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxides, or mercury (pollution from fossil fuels is blamed for 24,000 early deaths each year in the U.S. alone[37]). However, as with all energy sources, there is some pollution associated with support activities such as manufacturing and transportation.

Contrast of radioactive accident emissions with industrial emissions

Proponents argue that the problems of nuclear waste "do not come anywhere close" to approaching the problems of fossil fuel waste.[38][39] A 2004 article from the BBC states: "The World Health Organization (WHO) says 3 million people are killed worldwide by outdoor air pollution annually from vehicles and industrial emissions, and 1.6 million indoors through using solid fuel."[40] In the U.S. alone, fossil fuel waste kills 20,000 people each year.[41] A coal power plant releases 100 times as much radiation as a nuclear power plant of the same wattage.[42] It is estimated that during 1982, US coal burning released 155 times as much radioactivity into the atmosphere as the Three Mile Island accident.[43] The World Nuclear Association provides a comparison of deaths due to accidents among different forms of energy production. In their comparison, deaths per TW-yr of electricity produced from 1970 to 1992 are quoted as 885 for hydropower, 342 for coal, 85 for natural gas, and 8 for nuclear.[44]

Waste heat

The North Anna plant uses direct exchange cooling into an artificial lake.

As with some thermal power stations, nuclear plants exchange 60 to 70% of their thermal energy by cycling with a body of water or by evaporating water through a cooling tower. This thermal efficiency is somewhat lower than that of coal fired power plants,[45][46][47] thus creating more waste heat.

The cooling options are typically once-through cooling with river or sea water, pond cooling, or cooling towers. Many plants have an artificial lake like the Shearon Harris Nuclear Power Plant or the South Texas Nuclear Generating Station. Shearon Harris uses a cooling tower but South Texas does not and discharges back into the lake. The North Anna Nuclear Generating Station uses a cooling pond or artificial lake, which at the plant discharge canal is often about 30°F warmer than in the other parts of the lake or in normal lakes (this is cited as an attraction of the area by some residents).[48] The environmental effects on the artificial lakes are often weighted in arguments against construction of new plants, and during droughts have drawn media attention.[49]

The Turkey Point Nuclear Generating Station is credited with helping the conservation status of the American Crocodile, largely an effect of the waste heat produced.[50]

The Indian Point nuclear power plant in New York is in a hearing process to determine if a cooling system other than river water will be necessary (conditional upon the plants extending their operating licenses).[51]

It is possible to use waste heat in cogeneration applications such as district heating. The principles of cogeneration and district heating with nuclear power are the same as any other form of thermal power production. One use of nuclear heat generation was with the Ågesta Nuclear Power Plant in Sweden. In Switzerland, the Beznau Nuclear Power Plant provides heat to about 20,000 people.[52] However, district heating with nuclear power plants is less common than with other modes of waste heat generation: because of either siting regulations and/or the NIMBY effect, nuclear stations are generally not built in densely populated areas. Waste heat is more commonly used in industrial applications.[53]

During Europe's 2003 and 2006 heat waves, French, Spanish and German utilities had to secure exemptions from regulations in order to discharge overheated water into the environment. Some nuclear reactors shut down.[54][55]

Environmental effects of accidents

The worst accidents at nuclear power plants have resulted in severe environmental contamination. However, the extent of the actual damage is still highly debated.

Fukushima disaster

Three of the reactors at Fukushima I overheated, causing meltdowns that eventually led to explosions, which released large amounts of radioactive material into the air.[56]
Japan towns, villages, and cities around the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant. The 20km and 30km areas had evacuation and sheltering orders, and additional administrative districts that had an evacuation order are highlighted.

In March 2011 an earthquake and tsunami caused damage that led to explosions and partial meltdowns at the Fukushima I Nuclear Power Plant in Japan.

Radiation levels at the stricken Fukushima I power plant have varied spiking up to 1,000 mSv/h (millisievert per hour),[57] which is a level that can cause radiation sickness to occur at a later time following a one hour exposure.[58] Significant release in emissions of radioactive particles took place following hydrogen explosions at three reactors, as technicians tried to pump in seawater to keep the uranium fuel rods cool, and bled radioactive gas from the reactors in order to make room for the seawater.[59]

Concerns about the possibility of a large scale radiation leak resulted in 20 km exclusion zone being set up around the power plant and people within the 20-30km zone being advised to stay indoors. Later, the UK, France and some other countries told their nationals to consider leaving Tokyo, in response to fears of spreading nuclear contamination.[60] New Scientist has reported that emissions of radioactive iodine and cesium from the crippled Fukushima I nuclear plant have approached levels evident after the Chernobyl disaster in 1986.[61] On March 24, 2011, Japanese officials announced that "radioactive iodine-131 exceeding safety limits for infants had been detected at 18 water-purification plants in Tokyo and five other prefectures". Officials said also that the fallout from the Dai-ichi plant is "hindering search efforts for victims from the March 11 earthquake and tsunami".[62]

According to the Federation of Electric Power Companies of Japan, "by April 27 approximately 55 percent of the fuel in reactor unit 1 had melted, along with 35 percent of the fuel in unit 2, and 30 percent of the fuel in unit 3; and overheated spent fuels in the storage pools of units 3 and 4 probably were also damaged".[14] As of April 2011, water is still being poured into the damaged reactors to cool melting fuel rods.[63] The accident has surpassed the 1979 Three Mile Island accident in seriousness, and is comparable to the 1986 Chernobyl disaster.[14] The Economist reports that the Fukushima disaster is "a bit like three Three Mile Islands in a row, with added damage in the spent-fuel stores",[64] and that there will be ongoing impacts:

Years of clean-up will drag into decades. A permanent exclusion zone could end up stretching beyond the plant’s perimeter. Seriously exposed workers may be at increased risk of cancers for the rest of their lives...[64]

John Price, a former member of the Safety Policy Unit at the UK's National Nuclear Corporation, has said that it "might be 100 years before melting fuel rods can be safely removed from Japan's Fukushima nuclear plant".[65] The Economist says that nuclear power "looks dangerous, unpopular, expensive and risky", and that "it is replaceable with relative ease and could be forgone with no huge structural shifts in the way the world works".[64]

In the second half of August 2011, Japanese lawmakers announced that Prime Minister Naoto Kan would likely visit the Fukushima Prefecture to announce that the large contaminated area around the destroyed reactors would be declared uninhabitable, perhaps for decades. Some of the areas in the temporary 12 miles (19 km) radius evacuation zone around Fukushima were found to be heavily contaminated with radionuclides according to a new survey released by the Japanese Ministry of Science and Education. The town of Okuma was reported as being over 25 times above the safe limit of 20 millesievers per year.[66]

Chernobyl disaster

Map showing Caesium-137 contamination in Belarus, Russia, and Ukraine as of 1996.

The 1986 Chernobyl disaster in the Ukraine was the world's worst nuclear power plant accident. Estimates of its death toll are controversial and range from 4,056 to 985,000. Large amounts of radioactive contamination were spread across Europe, and cesium and strontium contaminated many agricultural products, livestock and soil. The accident necessitated the evacuation of 300,000 people from Kiev, rendering an area of land unusable to humans for an indeterminate period.[67]

As radioactive materials decay, they release particles that can damage the body and lead to cancer, particularly cesium-137 and iodine-131. In the Chernobyl disaster, releases of cesium-137 contaminated land. Some communities were abandoned permanently. Thousands of people who drank milk contaminated with radioactive iodine developed thyroid cancer. [68] In Britain and Norway, as of 2011, "slaughter restrictions remain for sheep raised on pasture contaminated by radiation fallout". Germany has "banned wild game meat because of contamination linked to radioactive mushrooms".[69]

Greenhouse gas emissions

Nuclear power plant operation emits no or negligible amounts of carbon dioxide. However, all other stages of the nuclear fuel chain – mining, milling, transport, fuel fabrication, enrichment, reactor construction, decommissioning and waste management – use fossil fuels and hence emit carbon dioxide.[70][71][72] There has been a debate on the quantity of greenhouse gas emissions from the complete nuclear fuel chain.[26]

Many commentators have argued that an expansion of nuclear power would help combat climate change. Others have pointed out that it is one way to reduce emissions, but it comes with its own problems, such as risks related to severe nuclear accidents the challenges of more radioactive waste disposal. Other commentators have argued that there are better ways of dealing with climate change than investing in nuclear power, including the improved energy efficiency and greater reliance on decentralized and renewable energy sources.[26]

According to an analysis by Mark Z. Jacobson, nuclear power results in 9-25 times more carbon emissions than wind power, "in part due to emissions from uranium refining and transport and reactor construction, in part due to the longer time required to site, permit, and construct a nuclear plant compared with a wind farm (resulting in greater emissions from the fossil-fuel electricity sector during this period), and in part due to the greater loss of soil carbon due to the greater loss in vegetation resulting from covering the ground with nuclear facilities relative to wind turbine towers, which cover little ground".[73]

Various life cycle analysis (LCA) studies have led to a large range of estimates. Some comparisons of carbon dioxide emissions show nuclear power as comparable to renewable energy sources.[74][75] On another hand, a 2008 meta analysis of 103 studies, published by Benjamin K. Sovacool, determined that renewable electricity technologies are "two to seven times more effective than nuclear power plants on a per kWh basis at fighting climate change".[76]


Both nuclear reactors and uranium enrichment facilities must be carefully decommissioned using processes that are occupationally dangerous, and hazardous to the natural environment, expensive, and time-intensive.[77]

See also


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