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17.4: Consequences of Nuclear Energy

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    The use of nuclear energy presents an interesting dilemma. On the one hand, nuclear electricity produces no carbon emissions, a major sustainable advantage in a world facing climate change. On the other hand, there is environmental risk of storing spent fuel for thousands or hundreds of thousands of years, societal risk of nuclear proliferation, and the impact of accidental releases of radiation from operating reactors. Thoughtful scientists, policy makers, and citizens must weigh these advantages and disadvantages. 

    Advantages of Nuclear Energy

    In contrast to fossil fuels, generating electricity from nuclear energy does not pollute the air or significantly contribute to climate change (figure \(\PageIndex{a}\)). As we continue to deplete global reserves of fossil fuels, supplies of nuclear fuel are abundant. It is estimated that uranium supplies will last over 200 years, and there is potential to use other radioactive isotopes as well. Furthermore, nuclear power plants are more reliable than any other source, with a capacity factor of 93.5% (figure \(\PageIndex{b}\)). Capacity is the amount of electricity a generator can produce when it’s running at full blast, and the capacity factor is a measure of how often a plant is running at maximum power. (A power plant with a capacity factor of 100% means that it's producing power all of the time.)

    Bar graph comparing deaths and greenhouse gas emissions for coal, oil, natural gas, biomass, hydropower, nuclear, solar, and wind energy
    Figure \(\PageIndex{a}\): Nuclear energy causes fewer deaths and releases miniscule greenhouse gases compared to fossil fuels. These bar graphs explore the question, "What are the safest and cleanest sources of energy?". On the left is the death rate from accidents and air pollution measured as deaths per terawatt-hour (deaths/TWh) of energy production. 1 terawatt-hour is the annual energy consumption of 27,000 people in the European Union (EU). On the right are greenhouse gas emissions measured in tonnes of CO2-equivalents emitted per gigawatt-hour (tCO2-eq/gWh) of electricity over the lifecycle of the power plant. 1 gigawatt-hour is the annual electricity consumption of 160 people in the EU. Coal accounted for 24.6 deaths/TWh, 25% of global energy, and 820 tCO2-eq/gWh. Oil accounted for 18.4 deaths/TWh, 31% of global energy, and 720 tCO2-eq/gWh. Coal accounted for 2.8 deaths/TWh, 23% of global energy, and 490 tCO2-eq/gWh. Biomass accounted for 4.6 deaths/TWh, 7% of global energy, and 78-230 tCO2-eq/gWh. Hydropower accounted for 0.02 deaths/TWh, 6% of global energy, and 34 tCO2-eq/gWh. Nuclear energy accounted for 0.07 deaths/TWh, 4% of global energy, and 4 tCO2-eq/gWh. Wind accounted for 0.04 deaths/TWh, 2% of global energy, and 4 tCO2-eq/gWh. Coal accounted for 0.02 deaths/TWh, 1% of global energy, and 5 tCO2-eq/gWh. Coal caused 1230 times more deaths than solar, and oil caused 263 times more deaths than nuclear energy. Coal emissions were 273 times higher than nuclear energy, and oil emissions were 180 times higher than wind. Image by Hannah Ritchie and Max Roser/Our World in Data (CC-BY). 


    Bar graph of the capacity factors of six different energy sources. From highest to lowest: nuclear, natural gas, coal, hydropower, wind, and solar.
    Figure \(\PageIndex{b}\): The capacity factor of six energy sources in 2019. Nuclear has the highest capacity factor at 93.5% followed by natural gas (56.8%), coal (47.5%), hydropower (39.1%), wind (34.8%), and solar (24.5%). Image from Office of Nuclear Energy/ U.S. Department of Energy (public domain).

    Negative Impacts of Nuclear Energy

    Despite its benefits, nuclear power has downsides. It requires more water than any other energy source. Water used for cooling is released back into the environment, and while it does not contain radioactive materials or other harmful chemicals, it is warmer than before. This is called thermal pollution, and it can harm aquatic life, which are adapted to cooler temperatures. Surface mining for uranium ore degrades habitat and releases toxins from underground (similar to surface mining for coal). Nuclear power plants are expensive to build and maintain, and they require large amounts of metal and concrete. Enriched uranium for nuclear fuel if in the wrong hands can be used to make nuclear weapons (figure \(\PageIndex{c}\)). While nuclear accidents are rare, they can cause great harm, and their impacts are long-lasting. Furthermore, the problem of safely disposing spent nuclear fuel remains unresolved. The latter two concerns are discussed in more detail below.


    Three pie charts showing uranium enrichment proportions in nature (<0.72%), for fuel (<20%), and for weapons (20-85%).
    Figure \(\PageIndex{c}\): Pie charts showing the relative proportions of uranium-238 (blue) and uranium-235 (red) at different levels of enrichment. Nuclear weapons require more highly enriched uranium than is needed for nuclear fuel. Natural uranium (NU) consists of more than 99.2% U-238 and 0.72% or less of U-235. Low-enriched uranium (LEU) consists of less than 20% U-235, with reactor-grade uranium typically 2-5% U-235. High-enriched uranium (HEU) consists of 20-85% U-235 with weapons grade at least 85% U-235. Image and caption (modified) by Fastfission (public domain).

    Nuclear Waste

    The main environmental challenge for nuclear power is the wastes including high-level radioactive waste, low-level radioactive waste, and uranium mill tailings. These materials have long radioactive half-lives and thus remain a threat to human health for thousands of years.

    High-level radioactive waste (HLRW) consists of used nuclear reactor fuel (spent nuclear fuel rods). These contain the products of nuclear fission, which are radioactive themselves. This HLRW is temporarily stored in a pool at the nuclear power plant or a dry cask, steel cylinders within another container, made of steel or concrete (figure \(\PageIndex{d}\)). Dry casks contain inert (nonreactive) gas and may be located at the power plant, a decommissioned power plant, or a separate storage site. High-level radioactive waste may only be moved to a dry cask after one year of cooling in a pool. The U.S. has no long-term storage for HLRW, and spent fuel thus remains interim storage.

    Long fuel rods in a cylinder within another cylinder, which is about three times taller than a person
    Figure \(\PageIndex{d}\): Dry casks seal spent fuel rods in a canister, which is surrounded by a larger storage cask. Bundles of used fuel assemblies are inside. Image by NRC (public domain).

    Yucca Mountain in Nevada was proposed as a long-term geologic storage site, where HLRW could be buried for hundreds of thousands of years. The storage facility was constructed, but it has not been used due to opposition from local residents and concern about the safety of transporting HLNW (figure \(\PageIndex{e}\))

    A barren landscape with a long mountain
    Figure \(\PageIndex{e}\): Yucca Mountain is the proposed site for long-term storage of high-level radioactive waste in the U.S., but it is not in use due to political controversy. Image by (public domain).

    Some countries reprocess (recycle) spent nuclear fuel, but no recycling or reprocessing facility or a federal waste repository is currently licensed in the United States. Reprocessing separates the useable fraction of spent fuel and recycles it through the reactor, using a greater fraction of its energy content for electricity production, and sends the remaining high-level waste to permanent geologic storage.

    The primary motivation for reprocessing is greater use of fuel resources, extracting about 25 percent more energy than the once through cycle. A secondary motivation for recycling is a significant reduction of the permanent geologic storage space (to 20% or less of what would otherwise be needed) and time (from hundreds of thousands of years to thousands of years). While these advantages seem natural and appealing from a sustainability perspective, they are complicated by the risk of theft of nuclear material from the reprocessing cycle for use in illicit weapons production or other non-sustainable ends. At present, France, the United Kingdom, Russia, Japan, and China engage in some form of reprocessing; the United States, Sweden, and Finland do not reprocess.

    Low-level radioactive waste (LLRW) refers to items that were exposed to radiation includes clothing, filters, and gloves. These can be contained with concrete or lead (through which radiation cannot pass; figure \(\PageIndex{f}\)). Low-level waste is typically stored at the nuclear power plant, either until it has decayed away and can be disposed of as ordinary trash, or until amounts are large enough for shipment to one of the five LLRW disposal sites in the U.S. (figure \(\PageIndex{g}\)).

    Four particles in a vertical column paper, a person’s hand, a metal sheet, a glass of water, a thick block of concrete, and upright, thick lead.
    Figure \(\PageIndex{f}\): Water, thick concrete, lead, and steel (not shown) can stop several types of radiation released from radioactive wastes. Note that gamma rays can somewhat penetrate all of these substances, but lead, concrete, and steel provide a partial shield. The ability of different types of radiation to pass through material is shown. From least to most penetrating, they are alpha < beta < neutron < gamma. The top particle listed is made up of two white spheres and two green spheres that are labeled with positive signs and is labeled “Alpha.” A right-facing arrow leads from this to the paper. The second particle is a red sphere labeled “Beta” and is followed by a right-facing arrow that passes through the paper and stops at the hand. The third particle is a white sphere labeled “Neutron” and is followed by a right-facing arrow that passes through the paper, hand and metal but is stopped at the glass of water. The fourth particle is shown by a squiggly arrow and it passes through all of the substances but stops at the lead. Terms at the bottom read, from left to right, “Paper,” “Metal,” “Water,” “Concrete” and “Lead.” Image and caption (modified) from Flowers, Theopold, and Langley/OpenStax (CC-BY). Download for free at CNX.
    Section of a low-level radioactive waste disposal facility
    Figure \(\PageIndex{g}\): Diagram (top) and photo (bottom) of a low-level radioactive waste (LLRW or LLW) disposal site. In the diagram, low-level waste is contained in canisters within concrete vaults. This is surrounded by impermeable clay and backfill. The drainage system prevents the wastes from contaminating groundwater. The entire disposal facility is underground, and a layer of top soil is above it. The disposal site in the photo accepts waste from States participating in a regional disposal agreement.The waste is sealed in canisters and shallowly buried. Image by NRC (public domain).

    Enrichment of uranium produces depleted uranium hexafluoride (DUF6), or uranium mill tailings, as a byproduct, which does not have high enough concentrations of 235U to use as nuclear fuel but is still hazardous. Tailings represent the greatest percentage of nuclear waste by volume, and there are more than 200 million tons of radioactive mill-tailings in the United States. Tailings contain several radioactive elements including radium, which decays to produce radon, a radioactive gas. They are stored in impoundments, lined pits in the ground that are flooded with water, in remote areas. Deconversion involves chemically treating the tailings to reduce their hazards so that they can be stored as LLRW.

    Nuclear Disasters

    There are many other regulatory precautions governing permitting, construction, operation, and decommissioning of nuclear power plants due to risks from an uncontrolled nuclear reaction. The potential for contamination of air, water and food is high should an uncontrolled reaction occur. Even when planning for worst-case scenarios, there are always risks of unexpected events. The nuclear accidents at Three Mile Island, Chernobyl (see the Chapter Hook), and Fukushima raised concerns about the safety of nuclear power.

    The Three Mile Island accident occurred in Pennsylvania in 1979. It was a partial meltdown that resulted from an electrical failure and errors in operation. There were no direct deaths. Studies investigated the possibility of exposure to radiation from the accident indirectly causing deaths through increased rates of cancer or other disease, but there has not been evidence of this. In contrast, the 1986 meltdown at Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant in what is now the Ukraine was responsible for 50 direct deaths. This disaster occurred from a test of the emergency systems gone wrong. Estimates of indirect deaths from radiation exposure range from 4,000 to 60,000.

    The global discussion regarding nuclear energy has been strongly impacted by March 2011 earthquake and subsequent tsunami that hit Japan resulted in reactor meltdowns at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station causing massive damage to the surrounding area. The disaster disabled the cooling system for a nuclear energy complex, ultimately causing a partial meltdown of some of the reactor cores and release of significant radiation. The design of the reactors (boiling water reactors) made it more difficult to vent the system without releasing radiation. Cooling the radioactive fuel generated a large volume of contaminated water, and the disaster costed at least $300 billion dollars. While there were no immediate deaths, one person later died from cancer attributed to radiation exposure. Thousands died as a result of stress associated with the evacuation, and about 20% of the over 160,000 evacuees had not yet returned home as of 2019. 

    Four reactors in Fukushima disaster are diagrammedAerial view of nuclear reactors venting steam
    Figure \(\PageIndex{g}\): Left: Diagram (approximate) of the Fukushima I Nuclear Power plant accidents. (1) Unit 1: Explosion, roof blown off on 12 March. (2) Unit 2: Explosion on 15 March; contaminated water in underground trench, possible leak from suppression chamber. (3) Unit 3: Explosion, most of concrete building destroyed on 14 March, possible plutonium leak. (4) Fire on 15 March; water level in spent fuel pools partly restored. (5) Multiple trenches: probable source of contaminated water, partly underground, leaked stopped on 6 April. Right: The Fukushima I Nuclear Power Plant after the 2011 Tōhoku earthquake and tsunami. Reactor 1 to 4 from right to left. Left image and caption (modified) by Sodacan (CC-BY). Right image and caption by Digital Globe (CC-BY-SA).

    Interactive Element

    This three-minute segment, What Recovery Looks Like In Japan Almost A Decade After Fukushima Nuclear Disaster, provides on update on evacuees from the Fukushima nuclear disaster.


    Modified by Melissa Ha from the following sources:

    This page titled 17.4: Consequences of Nuclear Energy is shared under a CC BY-SA 4.0 license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by Melissa Ha and Rachel Schleiger (ASCCC Open Educational Resources Initiative) .

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