Nuclear Power and Nuclear Waste

Nuclear power is dirty, dangerous and expensive.

A. Nuclear Power

Most nuclear reactors are based on the concept of nuclear fission. Nuclear fission occurs when uranium nuclei are bombarded with neutrons. This bombardment breaks the uranium nuclei apart, releasing heat, radiation and more neutrons. The neutrons that are released cause a chain reaction as more uranium nuclei get bombarded, releasing massive amounts of energy. This explains how nuclear power plants can create so much electricity from only a small amount of uranium. However, it also helps explain some of the concerns governments, scientists and citizens have about the ramifications of an accident within a nuclear power plant.

Now, it’s important to note that in a nuclear power plant, the uranium chain reaction is controlled. Therefore, a nuclear reactor cannot explode like an atomic bomb. This is because a nuclear bomb requires an uncontrolled chain reaction with highly-enriched uranium fuel. Uranium is a very heavy naturally-occurring element. Being an element, it can exist in different forms known as isotopes. Isotopes are different forms of the same element that contain different numbers of neutrons in their nucleus. The isotope U-235 is important because it can be used in the nuclear fission chain reaction to create a lot of energy.

Unlike the uranium used in a nuclear bomb, which is about 90% enriched with the isotope U-235, the uranium used in a nuclear reactor is only slightly enriched, to about four or five percent. This limits the amount of neutrons available for the fission chain reaction. Also, the chain reaction within the core of a nuclear reactor is controlled by control rods that absorb neutrons to control the rate of reaction. A nuclear bomb does not utilize control rods and, therefore, is an uncontrolled chain reaction.

B. Meltdown

A meltdown is an accident in which severe overheating of the nuclear reactor results in the melting of the reactor’s core. A meltdown could occur if there was a defect in the cooling system of the reactor that allowed one or more of the nuclear fuel elements to exceed its melting point. If a meltdown occurred, a nuclear power plant could release radiation into the environment.

C. Health Concerns

The biggest concern associated with a nuclear power accident is the negative effects that exposure to radiation can have on the human body.

If a person were exposed to significant amounts of radiation over a period of time, this exposure could damage body cells and lead to cancer. If a person were to be exposed to an acute dose of high-levels of radiation, the result would be radiation sickness. Radiation sickness is defined as illness caused by exposure to a large dose of radiation over a short period of time. Symptoms may include skin burns, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, hair loss, general weakness and possibly death.

In addition to personal health concerns, there are also environmental health concerns associated with nuclear power generation. Nuclear power plants use water from local lakes and rivers for cooling. Local water sources are used to dissipate this heat, and the excess water used to cool the reactor is often released back into the waterway at very hot temperatures. This water can also be polluted with salts and heavy metals, and these high temperatures, along with water pollutants, can disrupt the life of fish and plants within the waterway.

D. Safety Concerns

Since the World Trade Center attacks in New York City on September 11th, 2001, concerns have circulated that terrorists could target nuclear reactors with the purpose of releasing radioactive materials.

F. Nuclear Waste

1. The nuclear industry still has no solution to the ‘waste problem’.
2. The transport of this waste poses an unacceptable risk to people and the environment.
3. Plutonium is the most dangerous material in the world.
4. Nuclear waste is hazardous for tens of thousands of years. This clearly is unprecedented and poses a huge threat to our future generations.
5. Even if put into a geological repository, the waste might emerge and threaten future generations.
6. Nobody knows the true costs of waste management. The costs are so high that nuclear power can never be economic.
7. The waste should be disposed of into space.
8. Nuclear waste should be transmuted into harmless materials.
9. There is a potential terrorist threat to the large volumes of radioactive waste currently being stored and the risk that this waste could leak or be dispersed as a result of terrorist action.
10. Man-made radiation differs from natural radiation.

F. The Dangers of Nuclear Energy

Meltdowns like the ones in Fukushima or Chernobyl released enormous amounts of radiation into the surrounding communities, forcing hundreds of thousands of people to evacuate. Many of them may never come back. If the industry’s current track record is any indication, we can expect a major meltdown about once per decade.

The possibility of a catastrophic accident at any nuclear plant can not be dismissed.

There is still no safe, reliable solution for dealing with the radioactive waste produced by nuclear plants. Every waste dump in the U.S. leaks radiation into the environment, and nuclear plants themselves are running out of ways to store highly radioactive waste on site. The site selected to store the U.S.’s radioactive waste — Yucca Mountain in Nevada — is both volcanically and seismically active.

Beyond the risks associated with nuclear power and radioactive waste, the threat of nuclear weapons looms large. The spread of nuclear technology and nuclear weapons is a threat for national security and the safety of the entire planet.

High profile disasters in Chernobyl, Ukraine in 1986 and Fukushima, Japan in 2011 have raised public awareness of the dangers of nuclear power. Consequently, zeal for nuclear energy has fizzled. The catastrophic risks of nuclear energy — like the meltdowns of nuclear reactors in Japan or Ukraine — far outweigh the potential benefits.

Like fossil fuels, nuclear fuels are non-renewable energy resources. And if there is an accident, large amounts of radioactive material could be released into the environment.

In addition, nuclear waste remains radioactive and is hazardous to health for thousands of years (it has a half life of ten thousand years).

Nuclear energy has no place in a safe, clean, sustainable future. Nuclear energy is both expensive and dangerous, and just because nuclear pollution is invisible doesn’t mean it’s clean and then there’s the risk of a meltdown.

View Bulletin of Atomic Scientists – Doomsday Clock