The debate over which energy sources are going to be required for the world’s growing needs in the face of dwindling fossil resources is ongoing. While renewable energy sources are being rapidly adopted to meet this rising need, nuclear power is another option that is garnering a lot of support – especially for use in Australia.
The argument is made that it is clean with no emissions and totally safe, plus we have both the land availability and the uranium supplies to accommodate nuclear power plants away from major capital cities. But are these claims correct? Is nuclear power really as clean and reliable as claimed?
Nuclear power does not produce emissions
This claim is correct, because of the way that nuclear energy is produced. The electricity is created by the process of fission which involves the splitting of uranium atoms. This creates heat that generates steam, which in turn spins a turbine without any emissions or by-products.
But while the nuclear plants and their process do not produce harmful emissions, the mining of the uranium required to power them is a different story. These mining operations do release high volumes of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere and while the process of splitting uranium does not release emissions, there are many operations in the plant itself that do release emissions like carbon dioxide.
And finally, there is radioactive waste that needs to be safely transported and disposed of which results in more carbon emissions.
Radioactivity and the impact on the environment
Oh yes, radioactive waste. That is a key consideration when it comes to nuclear power because while there are no direct emissions from splitting uranium atoms there is radioactive waste that can remain dangerous and active for thousands of years. Storage at the plant will only extend so far and eventually this waste is going to need to be disposed of externally.
These radioactive waste materials can include uranium mill tailings and used reactor fuel which is highly carcinogenic and poses an enormous risk to the health and safety of people and the environment as well. Any incident involving the transport of these materials to a “safe” destination can lead to catastrophic outcomes and any leaks in the containing methods of housing them can also be highly detrimental to people and the environment.
As well as these radioactive waste materials, there is also the low-level radiation emitted by these nuclear power plants. There has not been adequate research conducted into the impacts of this low-level radiation but there have been studies that show that there is a higher rate of cancer in towns close to nuclear power plants while it has also been proven that prolonged exposure to this radiation can damage DNA.
And finally, there is the water that is used to cool nuclear power plants that is essential for their operation. When this water is returned to the river, lake or ocean source that it came from it is much hotter and does damage to the environment and marine life.
So just because splitting atoms does not produce emissions, does not mean that nuclear power is clean or the answer to the world’s energy consumption needs for the future.