Nuclear power and the environment (2024)

Nuclear reactors and power plants have complex safety and security features

An uncontrolled nuclear reaction in a nuclear reactor could result in widespread contamination of air and water. The risk of this happening at nuclear power plants in the United States is small because of the diverse and redundant barriers and safety systems in place at nuclear power plants, the training and skills of the reactor operators, testing and maintenance activities, and the regulatory requirements and oversight of the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission. A large area surrounding a nuclear power plant is restricted and guarded by armed security teams. U.S. reactors also have containment vessels that are designed to withstand extreme weather events and earthquakes.

Nuclear power and the environment (1)

A containment dome on a nuclear reactor

Source: Stock photography (copyrighted)

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Nuclear reactors in the United States may have large concrete domes covering the reactor. A containment structure is required to contain accidental releases of radiation. Not all nuclear power plants have cooling towers. Some nuclear power plants use water from lakes, rivers, or the ocean for cooling.

Nuclear power reactors do not produce direct carbon dioxide emissions

Unlike fossil fuel-fired power plants, nuclear reactors do not produce air pollution or carbon dioxide while operating. However, the processes for mining and refining uranium ore and making reactor fuel all require large amounts of energy. Nuclear power plants also have large amounts of metal and concrete, which require large amounts of energy to manufacture. If fossil fuels are used for mining and refining uranium ore, or if fossil fuels are used when constructing the nuclear power plant, then the emissions from burning those fuels could be associated with the electricity that nuclear power plants generate.

Nuclear energy produces radioactive waste

A major environmental concern related to nuclear power is the creation of radioactive wastes such as uranium mill tailings, spent (used) reactor fuel, and other radioactive wastes. These materials can remain radioactive and dangerous to human health for thousands of years. Radioactive wastes are subject to special regulations that govern their handling, transportation, storage, and disposal to protect human health and the environment. The U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) regulates the operation of nuclear power plants.

Radioactive wastes are classified as low-level waste or high-level waste. The radioactivity of these wastes can range from a little higher than natural background levels, such as for uranium mill tailings, to the much higher radioactivity of used (spent) reactor fuel and parts of nuclear reactors. The radioactivity of nuclear waste decreases over time through a process called radioactive decay. The amount of time it takes for the radioactivity of radioactive material to decrease to half its original level is called the radioactive half-life. Radioactive waste with a short half-life is often stored temporarily before disposal to reduce potential radiation doses to workers who handle and transport the waste. This storage system also reduces the radiation levels at disposal sites.

By volume, most of the waste related to the nuclear power industry has a relatively low level of radioactivity. Uranium mill tailings contain the radioactive element radium, which decays to produce the radioactive gas radon. Most uranium mill tailings are placed near the processing facility, or mill, where they come from. Uranium mill tailings are covered with a sealing barrier of material such as clay to prevent radon from escaping into the atmosphere. The sealing barrier is covered by a layer of soil, rocks, or other materials to prevent erosion of the sealing barrier.

The other types of low-level radioactive waste are the tools, protective clothing, wiping cloths, and other disposable items that become contaminated with small amounts of radioactive dust or particles at nuclear fuel processing facilities and nuclear power plants. These materials are subject to special regulations for their handling, storage, and disposal so they will not come in contact with the outside environment.

High-level radioactive waste consists of irradiated, or spent, nuclear reactor fuel (fuel that is no longer useful for producing electricity). The spent reactor fuel is in a solid form, consisting of small fuel pellets in long metal tubes called rods.

Spent reactor fuel storage and reactor decommissioning

Spent reactor fuel assemblies are highly radioactive and, initially, must be stored in specially designed pools of water. The water cools the fuel and acts as a radiation shield. Spent reactor fuel assemblies can also be stored in specially designed dry storage containers. An increasing number of reactor operators now store their older spent fuel in dry storage facilities using special outdoor concrete or steel containers with air cooling. The United States does not currently have a permanent disposal facility for high-level nuclear waste.

When a nuclear reactor stops operating, it must be decommissioned. Decommissioning involves safely removing from service the reactor and all equipment that has become radioactive and reducing radioactivity to a level that permits other uses of the property. The U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission has strict rules governing nuclear power plant decommissioning that involve cleanup of radioactively contaminated power plant systems and structures and removing the radioactive fuel.

Nuclear power and the environment (2)

A dry storage cask for spent nuclear reactor fuel

Some spent fuel storage canisters are designed to be placed vertically in robust above-ground concrete or steel structures.

Source: U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (Public Domain)

Last updated: November 7, 2022

Nuclear power and the environment (2024)


How does nuclear power affect the environment? ›

Nuclear energy produces radioactive waste

A major environmental concern related to nuclear power is the creation of radioactive wastes such as uranium mill tailings, spent (used) reactor fuel, and other radioactive wastes. These materials can remain radioactive and dangerous to human health for thousands of years.

Is nuclear power environment friendly? ›

Nuclear energy protects air quality

Nuclear is a zero-emission clean energy source. It generates power through fission, which is the process of splitting uranium atoms to produce energy.

Why are environmentalists against nuclear power? ›

For decades, nuclear power has been shunned by mainstream environmentalism. Concerns over safety, radioactive waste, and the specter of catastrophic accidents like Chernobyl and f*ckushima have fueled a deep-seated aversion to nuclear energy among most environmentalists.

Are nuclear power plants bad for climate change? ›

Nuclear power plants produce no greenhouse gas emissions during operation, and over the course of its life-cycle, nuclear produces about the same amount of carbon dioxide-equivalent emissions per unit of electricity as wind, and one-third of the emissions per unit of electricity when compared with solar.

What are the disadvantages of living near a nuclear power plant? ›

At high doses, ionizing radiation can cause immediate damage to a person's body, including, at very high doses, radiation sickness and death. At lower doses, ionizing radiation can cause health effects such as cardiovascular disease and cataracts, as well as cancer.

Why nuclear weapons are bad for the environment? ›

In the case of animals and plants, nuclear weapons can destroy marine and land life by causing contamination through nuclear radiation. Parties to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (“NPT”) have expressed their concerns about the “catastrophic humanitarian consequences” of nuclear weapons.

Is nuclear power more environmentally friendly than solar? ›

Also, total carbon emissions stack up well against wind and solar. This makes nuclear a consistent carbon-free source, complementing intermittent renewables.

Does nuclear power pollute land? ›

Nuclear energy has one of the lowest environmental impacts of all energy sources, comparable with the total impacts of wind and solar. It doesn't emit air pollution, it safely keeps its waste out of the environment and it requires a very small amount of land.

Can nuclear power save the planet? ›

Nuclear Energy and Global Warming

Every year, nuclear-generated electricity saves our atmosphere from more than 470 million metric tons of carbon dioxide emissions that would otherwise come from fossil fuels. That's the same as taking nearly 100 million passenger vehicles off the road.

Why should nuclear power be banned? ›

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. Renewable energy is better for the environment, the economy, and doesn't come with the risk of a nuclear meltdown.

Why doesn't California use nuclear energy? ›

While it's seen as a climate-friendly alternative, opponents cite safety threats and problems storing radioactive waste. Now, nearly six years after the decision to close California's last nuclear power plant — the 2,240-megawatt Diablo Canyon facility — Gov.

Why doesn't the US use nuclear power? ›

However, while uranium itself is cheap, building nuclear power plants is not. Building nuclear power plants is complicated and expensive, which oftentimes leads to natural gas facilities being built instead. Nuclear power also has a bad reputation when it comes to safety.

Why we shouldn't have nuclear power plants? ›

Barriers to and risks associated with an increasing use of nuclear energy include operational risks and the associated safety concerns, uranium mining risks, financial and regulatory risks, unresolved waste management issues, nuclear weapons proliferation concerns, and adverse public opinion.

Are nuclear power plants safer than fossil fuels? ›

The key insight is that they are all much safer than fossil fuels. Nuclear energy, for example, results in 99.9% fewer deaths than brown coal, 99.8% fewer than coal, 99.7% fewer than oil, and 97.6% fewer than gas. Wind and solar are just as safe.

Why don't we switch to nuclear energy? ›

Nuclear power plants present unique hazards in terms of the potential consequences resulting from a severe accident. Nuclear reactors and their associated high level spent fuel stores are vulnerable to natural disasters, as f*ckushima Daiichi showed, but they are also vulnerable in times of military conflict.

How can nuclear radiation affect the environment? ›

Radioactive substances released from the air during a radiological emergency can be deposited on and in plants for a relatively short time. Some of these substances are absorbed by the plant and distributed throughout. This is the main uptake pathway for gaseous iodine into the plant.

What are the pros and cons of nuclear energy? ›

Pros and cons of nuclear power
Pros Of Nuclear EnergyCons Of Nuclear Energy
Carbon-free electricityUranium is technically non-renewable
Small land footprintVery high upfront costs
High power outputNuclear waste
Reliable energy sourceMalfunctions can be catastrophic
Nov 10, 2021

How would a nuclear war affect the environment? ›

Climate modelling shows the reduced sunlight would plunge global temperatures by up to 10˚C for nearly a decade. These freezing conditions, combined with less sunlight for plants to photosynthesise, would have catastrophic consequences for global food production and lead to mass starvation worldwide.

What environmental hazard is produced by nuclear power plants? ›

The potential danger from an incident at a nuclear power plant is contact with radiation. This contact could come from the release of radioactive material from the plant into the environment, usually described as a plume (cloud-like formation) of radioactive gases and particles.

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