Environmental impact of nuclear power
The routine health risks and greenhouse gas emissions from nuclear fission power are small relative to those associated with coal, oil and gas. However, there is a "catastrophic risk" potential if containment fails, which in nuclear reactors can be brought about by over-heated fuels melting and releasing large quantities of fission products into the environment. 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. A further disastrous release of radioactive materials followed the 2011 Japanese tsunami which damaged the Fukushima I Nuclear Power Plant, resulting in hydrogen gas explosions and partial meltdowns classified as a Level 7 event. The large-scale release of radioactivity resulted in people being evacuated from a 20 km exclusion zone set up around the power plant, similar to the 30 km radius Chernobyl Exclusion Zone still in effect.
- 1 Waste streams
- 2 Radioactive waste
- 3 Power plant emissions
- 4 Environmental effects of accidents
- 5 Greenhouse gas emissions
- 6 Decommissioning
- 7 See also
- 8 References
Nuclear power has at least four waste streams that may harm the environment:
- spent nuclear fuel at the reactor site (including fission products and plutonium waste)
- tailings and waste rock at uranium mines and mills
- releases of small amounts of radioactive isotopes during reactor operation
- releases of large quantities of dangerous radioactive materials during accidents
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".
The most long-lived radioactive wastes, including spent nuclear fuel, must be contained and isolated from humans and the environment for a very long time. Disposal of these wastes in engineered facilities, or repositories, located deep underground in suitable geologic formations is seen as the reference solution. The International Panel on Fissile Materials has said:
It is widely accepted that spent nuclear fuel and high-level reprocessing and plutonium wastes require well-designed storage for periods ranging from tens of thousands to a million years, to minimize releases of the contained radioactivity into the environment. Safeguards are also required to ensure that neither plutonium nor highly enriched uranium is diverted to weapon use. There is general agreement that placing spent nuclear fuel in repositories hundreds of meters below the surface would be safer than indefinite storage of spent fuel on the surface.
Common elements of repositories include the radioactive waste, the containers enclosing the waste, other engineered barriers or seals around the containers, the tunnels housing the containers, and the geologic makeup of the surrounding area.
The ability of natural geologic barriers to isolate radioactive waste is demonstrated by the natural nuclear fission reactors at Oklo, Africa. During their long reaction period about 5.4 tonnes of fission products as well as 1.5 tonnes of plutonium together with other transuranic elements were generated in the uranium ore body. This plutonium and the other transuranics remained immobile until the present day, a span of almost 2 billion years. This is quite remarkable in view of the fact that ground water had ready access to the deposits and they were not in a chemically inert form, such as glass.
Despite a long-standing agreement among many experts that geological disposal can be safe, technologically feasible and environmentally sound, a large part of the general public in many countries remains skeptical. One of the challenges facing the supporters of these efforts is to demonstrate confidently that a repository will contain wastes for so long that any releases that might take place in the future will pose no significant health or environmental risk.
Nuclear reprocessing does not eliminate the need for a repository, but reduces the volume, reduces the long term radiation hazard, and long term heat dissipation capacity needed. Reprocessing does not eliminate the political and community challenges to repository siting.
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. Solid waste from the CVCS is combined with solid radwaste that comes from handling materials before it is buried off-site.
In the United States environmental groups have alleged that uranium mining companies are attempting to avoid cleanup costs at disused uranium mine sites. Environmental remediation is required by many states after a mine becomes inactive. Environmental groups have filed legal objections to prevent mining companies from avoiding compulsory cleanups. Uranium mining companies have skirted the cleanup laws by reactivating their mine sites briefly from time-to-time. Letting the mines sites stay contaminated over decades increases the potential risk of radioactive contamination leeching into the ground according to one environmental group, the Information Network for Responsible Mining, which started legal proceedings about March 2013. Among the corporations holding mining companies with such rarely used mines is General Atomics.
Power plant emissions
Radioactive gases and effluents
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. For comparison, the average person living at or above sea level receives at least 260 μSv from cosmic radiation.
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.
|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.
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 can be contained in water 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.
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. 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 nuclear plant also varies greatly; the total release for nuclear plants in the United States in 2003 was from nondetected up to 2,080 curies (77 TBq).
Uranium mining is the process of extraction of uranium ore from the ground. The worldwide production of uranium in 2009 amounted to 50,572 tonnes. Kazakhstan, Canada, and Australia are the top three producers and together account for 63% of world uranium production. A prominent use of uranium from mining is as fuel for nuclear power plants. The mining and milling of uranium and the operation of nuclear reactors present significant dangers to the environment.
After mining uranium ores, they are normally processed by grinding the ore materials to a uniform particle size and then treating the ore to extract the uranium by chemical leaching. The milling process commonly yields dry powder-form material consisting of natural uranium, "yellowcake," which is sold on the uranium market as U3O8. 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.
The Church Rock uranium mill spill occurred in New Mexico on July 16, 1979 when United Nuclear Corporation's Church Rock uranium mill tailings disposal pond breached its dam. Over 1,000 tons of solid radioactive mill waste and 93 millions of gallons of acidic, radioactive tailings solution flowed into the Puerco River, and contaminants traveled 80 miles (130 km) downstream to Navajo County, Arizona and onto the Navajo Nation. The accident released more radiation than the Three Mile Island accident that occurred four months earlier and was the largest release of radioactive material in U.S. history. Groundwater near the spill was contaminated and the Puerco rendered unusable by local residents, who were not immediately aware of the toxic danger.
Abandoned mines can pose radioactive risks for as long as 250,000 years after closure. Despite efforts made in cleaning up uranium sites, significant problems stemming from the legacy of uranium development still exist today on the Navajo Nation and in the states of Utah, Colorado, New Mexico, and Arizona. Hundreds of abandoned mines have not been cleaned up and present environmental and health risks in many communities. The Environmental Protection Agency estimates that there are 4000 mines with documented uranium production, and another 15,000 locations with uranium occurrences in 14 western states, most found in the Four Corners area and Wyoming. The Uranium Mill Tailings Radiation Control Act is a United States environmental law that amended the Atomic Energy Act of 1954 and gave the Environmental Protection Agency the authority to establish health and environmental standards for the stabilization, restoration, and disposal of uranium mill waste.
Risk of cancer
Nuclear plants release toxic pollutants and gases, such as carbon-14, iodine-131, krypton, and xenon. They also produce large amounts of radioactive waste which remains radioactive for more than 100,000 years. There have been several epidemiological studies that say there is an 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. 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. 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. 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. This study has also been criticised on several grounds. These 2007 and 2008 results are not consistent with many other studies that have tended not to show such associations. 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
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). 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. Nuclear power plants in normal operation emit less radioactivity than coal power plants.
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). However, as with all energy sources, there is some pollution associated with support activities such as mining, manufacturing and transportation.
A major European Union funded research study known as ExternE, or Externalities of Energy, undertaken over the period of 1995 to 2005 found that the environmental and health costs of nuclear power, per unit of energy delivered, was €0.0019/kWh. This is lower than that of many renewable sources including the environmental impact caused by biomass use and the manufacture of photovoltaic solar panels, and was over thirty times lower than coals impact of €0.06/kWh, or 6 cents/kWh. However the energy source of the lowest external costs associated with it was found to be wind power at €0.0009/kWh, which is an environmental and health impact just under half the price of Nuclear power.
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. 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." In the U.S. alone, fossil fuel waste kills 20,000 people each year. A coal power plant releases 100 times as much radiation as a nuclear power plant of the same wattage. It is estimated that during 1982, US coal burning released 155 times as much radioactivity into the atmosphere as the Three Mile Island accident. The World Nuclear Association provides a comparison of deaths due to accidents among different forms of energy production. In their life-cycle 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. The figures include uranium mining, which can be a hazardous industry, with many accidents and fatalities.
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, 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). The environmental effects on the artificial lakes are often weighted in arguments against construction of new plants, and during droughts have drawn media attention.
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).
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. 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.
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.
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 being debated.
Radiation levels at the stricken Fukushima I power plant have varied spiking up to 1,000 mSv/h (millisievert per hour), which is a level that can cause radiation sickness to occur at a later time following a one-hour exposure. 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.
Concerns about the possibility of a large-scale release of radioactivity resulted in 20 km exclusion zone being set up around the power plant and people within the 20–30 km 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. 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. 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".
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". As of April 2011, water is still being poured into the damaged reactors to cool melting fuel rods. The accident has surpassed the 1979 Three Mile Island accident in seriousness, and is comparable to the 1986 Chernobyl disaster. 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", 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...
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".
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.
As of 2013 the 1986 Chernobyl disaster in the Ukraine was and remains the world's worst nuclear power plant disaster. Estimates of its death toll are controversial and range from 62 to 25,000, with the high projections including deaths that have yet to happen. Peer reviewed publications have generally supported a projected total figure in the low tens of thousands; for example an estimate of 16,000 excess cancer deaths are predicted to occur due to the Chernobyl accident out to the year 2065 made by the International Agency for Research on Cancer and published in the International Journal of Cancer in 2006. The IARC also released a press release stating "To put it in perspective, tobacco smoking will cause several thousand times more cancers in the same population", but also, referring to the numbers of different types of cancers, "The exception is thyroid cancer, which, over ten years ago, was already shown to be increased in the most contaminated regions around the site of the accident". The full version of the World Health Organization health effects report adopted by the United Nations, also published in 2006, included the prediction of, in total, 4,000–9,000 deaths from cancer among the 6.9 million most-exposed former-Soviet citizens. A paper which the Union of concerned scientists took issue with the report, and they have instead estimated, for the broader population, that the legacy of Chernobyl would be a total of 25,000 excess cancer deaths worldwide. That places the total Chernobyl death toll below that of the worst dam failure accident in history, the Banqiao Dam disaster of 1975 in China.
Large amounts of radioactive contamination were spread across Europe due to the Chernobyl disaster, and cesium and strontium contaminated many agricultural products, livestock and soil. The accident necessitated the evacuation of the entire city of Pripyat and of 300,000 people from Kiev, rendering an area of land unusable to humans for an indeterminate period.
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, including the entire city of Pripyat, were abandoned permanently. Thousands of people who drank milk contaminated with radioactive iodine developed thyroid cancer. The exclusion zone (approx. 30 km radius around Chernobyl) will have significantly elevated levels of radiation, which is now predominately due to the decay of cesium-137, for around 10 half-lives of that isotope, which is approximately for 300 years.
Due to the bioaccumulation of cesium-137, some mushrooms as well as wild animals which eat them, e.g. wild boars hunted in Germany and deer in Austria, may have levels which are not considered safe for human consumption. Mandatory radiation testing of sheep in parts of the UK that graze on lands with contaminated peat was lifted in 2012.
In 2007 The Ukrainian government declared much of the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone, almost 50,000 hectares, a zoological animal reserve. With many species of animals experiencing a population increase since human influence has largely left the region, including an increase in moose, bison and wolf numbers. However other species such as barn swallows and many invertebrates, e.g. spider numbers are below what is suspected. With much controversy amongst biologists over the question of, if in fact Chernobyl is now a wildlife reserve.
The SL-1, or Stationary Low-Power Reactor Number One, was a United States Army experimental nuclear power reactor which underwent a steam explosion and meltdown on January 3, 1961, killing its three operators. The direct cause was the improper withdrawal of the central control rod, responsible for absorbing neutrons in the reactor core. The event is the only known fatal reactor accident in the United States. The accident released about 80 curies (3.0 TBq) of iodine-131, which was not considered significant due to its location in a remote desert of Idaho. About 1,100 curies (41 TBq) of fission products were released into the atmosphere.
Radiation exposure limits prior to the accident were 100 röntgens to save a life and 25 to save valuable property. During the response to the accident, 22 people received doses of 3 to 27 Röntgens full-body exposure. Removal of radioactive waste and disposal of the three bodies eventually exposed 790 people to harmful levels of radiation.
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. There was a debate on the quantity of greenhouse gas emissions from the complete nuclear fuel chain.
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.
According to an analysis by Stanford University professor Mark Z. Jacobson, nuclear power results in 9 to 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."
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. On another hand, a 2008 meta analysis of 103 studies, published by Benjamin 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".
A 2012 Yale University review published in the Journal of Industrial Ecology analyzing CO2 life cycle assessment emissions from nuclear power determined that "the collective LCA literature indicates that life cycle GHG emissions from nuclear power are only a fraction of traditional fossil sources and comparable to renewable technologies". It also said that for the most common category of reactors, the Light water reactor: "Harmonization decreased the median estimate for all LWR technology categories so that the medians of BWRs, PWRs, and all LWRs are similar, at approximately 12 g CO2-eq/kWh".
Contesting the Future of Nuclear Power also "reviews the little-known research which shows that the life-cycle CO2 emissions of nuclear power may become comparable with those of fossil power as high-grade uranium ore is used up over the next several decades and low-grade uranium is mined and milled using fossil fuels".
Nuclear decommissioning is the process by which a nuclear power plant site is dismantled so that it will no longer require measures for radiation protection. The presence of radioactive material necessitates processes that are occupationally dangerous, and hazardous to the natural environment, expensive, and time-intensive.
Most nuclear plants currently operating in the US were originally designed for a life of about 30–40 years and are licensed to operate for 40 years by the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission. The average age of these reactors is 32 years. Therefore, many reactors are coming to the end of their licensing period. If their licenses are not renewed, the plants must go through a decontamination and decommissioning process. Many experts and engineers have noted there is no danger in these aged facilities, and current plans are to allow nuclear reactors to run for much longer lifespans.
Decommissioning is an administrative and technical process. It includes clean-up of radioactivity and progressive demolition of the plant. Once a facility is fully decommissioned, no danger of a radiologic nature should persist. The costs of decommissioning are to be spread over the lifetime of a facility and saved in a decommissioning fund. After a facility has been completely decommissioned, it is released from regulatory control, and the licensee of the plant will no longer be responsible for its nuclear safety. With some plants the intent is to eventually return to "greenfield" status.
- Church Rock uranium mill spill
- Ecological footprint
- Environmental concerns with electricity generation
- International Nuclear Event Scale
- Waste Isolation Pilot Plant
- Anti-nuclear movement
- Contesting the Future of Nuclear Power
- Greenhouse Solutions with Sustainable Energy
- List of books about nuclear issues
- Non-Nuclear Futures
- Nuclear or Not?
- Nuclear Power and the Environment
- Renewable energy commercialization
- The Clean Tech Revolution
- Plutonium in the environment
- Lists of nuclear disasters and radioactive incidents
- List of pro-nuclear environmentalists
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