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OF NUCLEAR INTEREST: Nuclear power in our changing climate via Wicked Local

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Nuclear power is often touted as the “carbon-free” or “clean-energy” solution to the climate change crisis, but is it really a viable option?

Nuclear reactors split atoms of uranium to produce intense heat. The heat is used to boil or pressurize water, creating steam that operates turbines, which generate electricity. Unlike coal and oil-burning plants, this process does not produce carbon emissions; however, there are substantial emissions associated with uranium mining and processing the uranium into fuel pellets. There are also emissions associated with constructing and decommissioning power plants, as well as with daily plant operations. In addition, emissions related to the unresolved method and ultimate fate of the highly radioactive nuclear waste is so far incalculable. Nuclear is certainly not carbon-free.

Aside from carbon emissions, there are a host of negative environmental impacts associated with nuclear power that should not be ignored.

Today in the United States a common way to mine uranium is through in-situ leaching – a process in which underground uranium ore is dissolved with chemicals and pumped to the surface. Naturally occurring uranium in the soil and rock is turned into “technologically-advanced” radioactive waste during the process. The history of uranium mining is brimming with stories of widespread drinking water, air and soil contamination. Health impacts to workers and nearby communities caused by exposure to uranium and chemicals used in the mining process are well-documented.

Unlike renewable forms of energy, nuclear plants require huge quantities of water for cooling and generating power. This is especially true for older generation nuclear plants that still rely on antiquated once-through cooling systems, which withdraw millions of gallons of water from natural sources daily. Pilgrim, for example, uses up to 510 million gallons from Cape Cod Bay daily. While some plants recycle water in a closed-loop system, those that use once-through systems negatively impact the environment through water consumption, wastewater discharge, thermal pollution of source waters, and direct impacts on aquatic organisms of all life stages.

Perhaps most importantly, nuclear plants generate large stockpiles of highly radioactive nuclear waste material as a byproduct that remains dangerous for thousands of years. So far, there is no national plan to safely store this waste long-term – a problem other nations grapple with as well.

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