One of the first questions on everyone’s lips, when the conversation turns to nuclear power, is what are the advantages and disadvantages and how safe is it. Various media and information channels provide conflicting, sensationalised information depending on their core values. Depending on your point of view, nuclear reactors could be seen as one of, if not the most environmentally friendly and safe, forms of electricity generation. Alternatively, it could be viewed as a dated, antique technology which has no place in modern society due to the risks it poses.
Nuclear reactors are fuelled by highly toxic radioactive materials, and produce waste products which are among the most dangerous substances known to man. Due to this, extremely strict standards are put into place by various institutions to protect the public and the environment. Reactor construction only commences once a complete design incorporating climatic and geological conditions has been drafted. While most reactors follow the same design principles, construction techniques will vary between regions. For example, a reactor in Japan – where earthquakes are common – will be designed differently to ones in certain areas of Europe, where floods pose the greatest threat.
Nuclear energy and the environment
Concerns about environmental safety arise primarily due to the toxic waste produced. If this waste escapes containment facilities, entire regions can be rendered inhabitable to both humans and wildlife. Species can be killed off, and those which remain can be seriously affected by elevated radiation levels interfering with reproductive and/or immune systems. Current nuclear waste storage facilities are temporary and do not meet the standards necessary for guaranteed environmental protection.
Another issue of concern is the ability of radioactive contaminants to pollute a large area. In the fallout from the Chernobyl disaster, trees within a ten-kilometre radius were killed – an indicator of the serious impacts felt by surrounding ecosystems. Around 100,000 square kilometres of land was seriously contaminated, and increased radiation levels were measured over most of Europe. In agricultural areas surrounding the disaster zone, huge numbers of newborn animals were reported to show gross birth defects such as missing or deformed limbs, missing eyes, ribs, or heads, and deformed skulls. Radioactive particles became airborne following the disaster and fell across Europe: workers in a nuclear facility in Sweden detected radioactive particles on their clothing which they were able to trace back to Chernobyl.
A major concern following the Fukushima accident is the contamination of the ocean. A large amount of contaminated water was released directly into the Pacific, and much more radiation has entered the ocean via rivers. While the effects of this pollution aren’t devastating, radiation levels have the potential to build up in the food-chain, with high order predators such as sharks and dolphins being affected the most. This is worrying due to the fact that these higher order species are usually the ones which are most threatened with extinction, and therefore which require the greatest conservation efforts.
However, despite the obvious consequences, if a radiation leak does occur, the likelihood of such an event is minute. Modern technology ensures that all risks and chances of radiation leakage are taken into account when designing a reactor – especially after the recent disaster in Japan.
Keeping this information in mind, just how safe is nuclear power for the environment? While reactors can usually be constructed and operated without issue, it is impossible to discount the disasters which have previously occurred, and which could occur again in the future – no matter how small the chances. When there are safer, less damaging technologies available – such as wind, solar, or geothermal power – they need to be used. The environmental risks associated with nuclear power production are too great to ignore, and therefore it needs to be phased out in favour of cleaner, more environmentally friendly power sources.
Author: Daniel Blechynden – Contributing writer at Greentumble.com
Center for Nuclear Science and Technology Information: http://www.nuclearconnect.org/know-nuclear/talking-nuclear/reactor-safety
Department of Environmental & Occupational Health Sciences: http://deohs.washington.edu/radiation
Wikipedia- effects of Chernobyl: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chernobyl_disaster#Effects
Published research “The impact of the Fukushima nuclear accident on marine biota: “Retrospective assessment of the first year and perspectives”