Negative Effects of Nuclear Energy
Nuclear power, not to be confused with atomic power is the use of the nuclear fission process to generate heat and electricity. While many positives can be reaped from nuclear energy, there is also a huge claw back clause concerning its use. These negatives can be differentiated under social and environmental factors. Given the massive dangers posed by such an undertaking is the risk to reward ratio of embarking on such a project in favor of humanity will it rear back and strike its creator.
Nuclear was recently considered for listing as a renewable energy source although this is still under debate as it is hard to classify nuclear energy as that which comes from “natural” resources. Recently in the US, governor Kitzhaber released a 10-year draft plan describing his plan to achieve renewable energy sources. This is in spite of the fact that the department of Energy does not recognize nuclear energy as a renewable source. The governor’s plan included recommendations by over a hundred experts in the field and appeared to be sound and very ambitious.
Trouble with nuclear plants begins as soon as ground is broken for the construction of a nuclear reactor. Construction of a reactor usually takes about 5 – 7 years. During this time, construction related inconveniences such as noise and dust pollution are imposed in the vicinity. The effect of this is that as the construction continues; the landscape is severely degraded leading to the affectation of the plants and wildlife indigenous to the region. Construction begins by cutting down of trees which results in the disturbance of the natural habitat of indigenous species of animals and gradually leads to the upset of the ecological balance of an area.
Mining is another dominant landscape changer. Uranium is required for the reaction; its extraction from the ground would cause lasting changes on the visual image of the area. In addition, a large portion of land is required for the construction of the plant, almost as much as would be required for coal extraction (El-Hinnawi, 1980). This is a large amount of land and in the grand scheme of things it may be necessary but in the short run it would be a nuisance to acquire such a huge piece of land that required very explicit specifications (such as proximity to a body of water) to be suitable for such an endeavor.
Further, depending on the area, there would possibly be a need to relocate homes, structures or premises deemed to close to the plant. Most plants require an exclusion zone of anything from 500 meters to 1500 meters. This would be a huge inconvenience to the inhabitants. In addition, due to the influx of construction related jobs and the increase in population, the area would see an increase in traffic that would delay any service to the area. In addition, the increase in population would put a strain on the utilities, housing, schools and law enforcement of a region (Andersen, 1973).
In addition to the physical effects, there are also psychological effects to setting up a nuclear power plant in a region. Residents in the region would be subjected to constant perceived danger of radiation. Whether or not the safety of a nuclear plant is in question is irrelevant as the psychological stress that comes with living close to a reactor is huge. These concerns automatically lead to a depression of house prices. Investors and tourism opportunities may also be deferred from the area due to this.
Environmental factors that are posed by nuclear power plants are huge and varied. Health risks and greenhouse gas emissions from nuclear power are lower than other sources of fuel such as coal mining for instance. Nuclear energy can harm the environment in a number of ways such as:
Spent Nuclear Fuel
This fuel can no longer sustain a nuclear reaction and thus needs to be disposed of. The protocol for taking care of this oil is to store it or process it. According to US courts, storing the fuel at the site “poses a dangerous, long-term health and environmental risk” and thus the logical choice would be to process it. This however is very expensive and there is the danger that some may go for the cheaper option putting the lives of millions at risk.
Nuclear Plants Produce Tailings At Uranium Mines
Tailings are a by-product of mining uranium. While mining it, the uranium is brought to the surface and crushed into fine sand. The needed minerals are then extracted and if what remains is left to dry, it can be carried huge distances by wind and pollute water or food sources a poison a large number of people.
These are perhaps the most notable of the risks of nuclear energy. Outstanding accidents include Chernobyl, which affected people who were at least 30 km from the plant and the site of which is still a no-go zone to date except for a few maintenance personnel. More recently, the earthquake in Japan caused damage to a reactor damage reaching people far from sight and requiring the government set up a 20km area of exclusion around the reactor. It is also estimated that it will take at least 100 years to extract melting rods from the site (Damian, 1992).
While these are clearly worst-case scenarios, the fact that they happen repeatedly is a reason to think critically and carry out intensive and qualitative studies to ensure the safety of nuclear power plants.
In addition to the waste streams listed above, there is also the need to consider radioactive waste from the reaction itself. It is estimated that a single reactor produces about 15 to 30 tones of radioactive waste per year. There are about four kinds of radioactive waste and they include:
low level waste which are items that have become contaminated with radiation due to exposure e.g. the clothes worn by personnel Waste incidental to reprocessing which is by products of the reactions, which is highly radioactive high level waste which is spent nuclear fuel and: uranium tailings
These include some of the most dangerous substances known to humankind and contain many known carcinogenic compounds.
Other environmental effects include heat rejection. Nuclear reactions emit a lot of heat and this heat is controlled by either the use of cooling towers or an artificial lake. The latter usually results in the annihilating of all aquatic life, which is a serious environmental concern.
Nuclear plants also produce radioactive gaseous emissions and effluence. Although the amount of emissions that a plant can safely emit is strictly regulated, it is understood that these emissions are hazardous to the environment as they vary in form and intensity (Kopytko, 2011).
In addition, for those living close to a nuclear power plant there is a risk diseases most likely of which is cancer. There have been several qualitative studies carried out and although they have received mass criticism over their accuracy, they have consistently shown an increase of children being diagnosed with leukemia, which is a cancer of the blood. These findings have been made in several countries which have nuclear programs most especially countries in the west and a few in the east in Asia (Von Hippel, 2005).
Nuclear plants are not only dangerous when they are active but can pose a threat even after their decommissioning. Countries with Nuclear programs have stringent rules on the decommissioning as these plants still contain residual radiation even after they are taken off line. In the US in the 1990s, several reactors were taken offline without a viable option for dealing with the radioactive material. The US government is still dealing with the fallout of that to date.
Overall, despite the huge potential risks and the huge catastrophes that have occurred, it would seem that the risk to reward ratio with regard to nuclear energy is in favor of humanity. Sure we cud all end up dead but then again the possibilities with such power are endless. Nuclear power emits very little greenhouse gases as compared to other sources of energy. In addition, the economic benefits are much larger than with other forms of energy as nuclear power is very predictable and will soon become essential to the existence of humankind.
Andersen, S. 0. (1973) Economics of Nuclear Power Plant Location with Emphasis on the Coastal Zone, Dept. of Agricultural Economics, University of California, Berkeley.
Damian M., (1992).Nuclear Power: The Ambiguous Lessons of History, Energy Policy 20, 596
El-Hinnawi, E. (ed) (1980). Nuclear Energy and the Environment. Oxford: Pergamon
Kopytko N. and Perkins J. (2011).Climate Change, Nuclear Power, and the Adaptation–Mitigation Dilemma, Energy Policy 39, 318
Von Hippel, Frank N. (2008). Nuclear Fuel Recycling: More Trouble Than It’s Worth. Scientific American.