How is nuclear energy created? How does it work?
Generation of electricity from nuclear power is fundamentally similar to other kinds of traditional power generation like coal, natural gas, and oil. All of these power sources are referred to as “thermal” power sources. Oil, coal, or natural gas is burned to boil water or to make hot gases. The high pressure of the boiled water (steam) or gases is used to turn an electric turbine that generates electricity.
Nuclear power makes electricity in exactly the same way as coal, natural gas, or oil except a nuclear chain reaction is used to create heat, instead of burning fossil fuel. The heat from that nuclear chain reaction, or fission (splitting of atoms), boils the water.
How is nuclear energy used?
Nuclear energy is used in about 30 states in the United States and in about as many countries around the world. It accounts for fewer than 20% of our electricity supply in the United States and about 8% of our total energy consumption in the entire country if you consider transportation, heating, etc. For instance in Maryland, there are two nuclear reactors, located at Calvert Cliffs Nuclear Power Plant, and there are about 99 reactors operating around the country.
What is NIRS’s position on nuclear power?
Our position is that nuclear power should be phased out as quickly as possible and that the federal government should create energy policies that enable the transition to an energy system that’s based on renewable energy –solar, wind, hydropower—and energy efficiency.
What are the most contentious issues surrounding nuclear energy?
The biggest issues right now are radioactive waste and pollution, nuclear safety, environmental justice, and the costs of nuclear energy. Nuclear power plants produce vast amounts of radioactivity in nuclear waste, some of which is in the form of used fuel, which isn’t consumed in the way that one imagines burning fossil fuels.
When you put nuclear fuel into a reactor, that fuel doesn’t get “used up” in the same way as burning fossil fuel. The nuclear waste has the same volume and mass when it comes out of the reactors as the nuclear fuel that went in several years earlier. But when it is removed to put in fresh fuel, the fuel rods are 6-8 million times more radioactive than when they went into the reactor. The splitting of atoms creates even more radioactive byproducts, but it is not consumed the way coal or natural gas do. The used fuel remains extremely hot for hundreds of years. Radioactive materials in the waste remain a threat to health, water, and the environment for hundreds of thousands of years.
Currently, there’s no solution for radioactive waste. There’s no way to dispose of it in an environmentally safe or responsible way. As nuclear reactors in the United States have been running since 1942, waste has been piling up at nuclear facilities awaiting the government to find an environmental solution for it.
We take issue with both the security and the safety of nuclear waste’s location on reactor sites. There are proposals by the nuclear industry and the federal government to create, essentially, parking lots for nuclear waste (“Central Interim Storage” sites) in Texas, New Mexico, and possibly other locations where it would sit outside, in the same type of storage currently in use at most reactor sites, for undetermined periods of time awaiting an environmentally responsible solution that doesn’t yet exist.
How does nuclear energy impact the environment?
Nuclear energy impacts the environment in a lot of ways. Nuclear waste, also known as irradiated fuel, as produced by power plants, is only one piece of a very large chain of radioactive waste that nuclear power relies upon.
The process begins with uranium mining. The mining of uranium is an extremely dirty process that isn’t immediately apparent when people think about nuclear power. Uranium mining requires a lot of fossil fuels in order to extract uranium and process it.
For every pound of “enriched” uranium that goes into a nuclear reactor, there are over 25,000 pounds of radioactive waste produced in the mining and processing of uranium. Most of this waste is in the form of rocks, dust, and uranium tailings that are primarily dumped on the ground or in ponds located at or near mines and mills. In the United States and in most other parts of the world, uranium mines, mills, and enrichment plants are disproportionately located in indigenous communities. Many of these communities suffer from birth defects, cancer, immune deficiencies, etc. as a result of contamination from uranium and its byproducts.
In the U.S., there aren’t strict environmental standards guiding the disposal or clean-up of uranium mines and milling sites. Thousands of uranium mines have simply been abandoned.
In addition to the radioactive waste produced by uranium mining, there’s also radioactive waste produced by the operation of nuclear reactors, i.e., contaminated components, contaminated water, etc., and some of it is routinely released into the environment when nuclear reactors are operating. There are also things like radioactive laundry facilities, which have routinely released radioactivity into the environment, where the uniforms that the workers wear are laundered.
Also of note is the enormous strain nuclear energy places on our water supply via consumption and pollution. Nuclear power plants consume more water than any other kind of power plants. For example, the state of New York is trying to close the last two reactors at the Indian Point Nuclear Power Plant. Indian point consumes twice the amount of water as the entire city of New York daily, and it kills about a billion fish and other organisms per year, placing a tremendous burden on the Hudson River and on the fish species there.
These are things that are never taken into account when people think about the environmental impact of nuclear power.
Are there any advantages to using nuclear energy for the US?
Considering the financial burden, the environmental and health impacts, and the environmental injustices, there aren’t. We can think about how quickly we should be transitioning away from nuclear power, just like fossil fuels, but there’s no advantage to continuing it, which is being sharply highlighted right now.
As nuclear power plants age they not only become more dangerous and prone to safety problems, they also become extraordinarily expensive to operate. In the last few years, there have been a number of nuclear power plants that have started closing because it is no longer profitable for the energy companies that own them to continue operating them.
To solve this problem, the nuclear industry is pushing states and the federal government for billions of dollars in subsidies to keep these old nuclear reactors functioning. One of their arguments is that we need these nuclear reactors and plants to continue running because it could affect the electricity in our homes, but that’s simply untrue. If the funds required to keep uneconomical reactors operating were spent on energy efficiency and renewable energy sources like solar and wind power, we could not only phase out nuclear power, but reduce our use of fossil fuels, as well.
The question becomes how do we transition more quickly to renewable energy sources and energy efficiency so that we don’t need to use dirty energy sources like nuclear and fossil fuels.
Is using nuclear power really the answer to clean, environmentally friendly energy?
No. There is nothing environmentally friendly about nuclear power. It only creates different environmental problems than fossil fuel energy sources. But neither fossil fuels nor nuclear power are safe, sustainable, or healthy for humans and the environment.
What kind of resources does nuclear energy require? With this in mind, is it worth the effort and the investment to acquire nuclear energy?
Nuclear power requires a lot of uranium to make the fuel and produces a lot of radioactive waste in the process. Building and constructing reactors requires a lot of steel, concrete, and rare earth metals; there is a large carbon emissions footprint associated with just the construction of nuclear power plants.
There is also the question of what to do with nuclear reactor sites once they close down. These reactor sites become highly contaminated with radioactive and chemical waste and byproducts. After they shut down, the equipment must be dismantled and the heavily contaminated and radioactive steel, concrete, machinery, clothing, etc., is removed to be “disposed of.”
Frequently, the government and energy companies are looking for places to dump radioactive waste. These dump sites often times end up in communities of color or indigenous communities specifically targeted due to their lack of political power.
How much of a difference would it make if we were to eliminate nuclear energy?
You wouldn’t notice a difference. That’s been proven repeatedly. There have been 29 nuclear power plants that have closed across the country over the last 30 years; not once have the lights flickered as a result.
What we’re seeing more increasingly is that nuclear plants are closing and being replaced with renewable energy sources and energy efficiencies, significantly reducing the environmental impact.
Should nuclear energy not be used at all? If it should not be, what are some other forms of energy that are better?
We believe that nuclear power should not be used at all and, in fact, should be replaced with renewable energy and energy efficiency.
There’s an enlightening report that was recently published called Prosperous, Renewable Maryland, which outlines how the state of Maryland can reach 100% renewable energy within the next 35 years, while continuing to meet all of its energy needs. This is part of a larger goal to research and assess the way the United States, and the entire world, can reach 100% renewable energy.
It is where we need to be going, and we should really examine the politics around energy to think about why that isn’t happening.
What kind of action has NIRS taken to combat nuclear energy use?
NIRS has taken, and continues to take, a myriad of actions to combat the use of nuclear energy.
One of the more visible actions we’ve taken recently was the mobilization of protesters against nuclear at the historic People’s Climate March in New York City in 2014, and at the March for a Clean Energy Revolution in Philadelphia in 2016.
We also mobilized protesters to oppose nuclear power and the nuclear power industry’s efforts to promote nuclear energy as a climate solution in 2015 at the United Nations Climate conference in Paris.
Additionally, we are working with groups at both the state and national level to oppose billions of dollars in government subsidies for nuclear power plants, and to ensure that we’re moving towards a 100% renewable energy system.
We’ve also worked for a very long time to help mobilize public opinion to influence federal legislation, such as the “Mobile Chernobyl” bill, as we named it, back in the 1990s. This legislation aimed to create a nuclear waste parking lot, as mentioned before, that would have required thousands of shipments of high-level radioactive waste across the country, through major cities and urban areas, as well as rural communities. We were successful in mobilizing other organizations and people from across the country to stop this bill in the 1990s.
Another thing we do regularly is to raise awareness by talking to people about these issues, both on the streets and at public events. In 2002 we, along with several other groups across the country, constructed a ‘Nuclear Waste Wagon Train’ consisting of mock nuclear waste canisters. We drove them around the country to show people what it would be like if nuclear waste was actually transported to these parking lot dumps or the proposed Yucca Mountain nuclear waste site. As a result, public opinion turned against the shipping of nuclear waste, and we’ve continued to fight against most of those proposals.
We still, however, haven’t been able to persuade the federal government to do something more scientifically sound and environmentally and ethically responsible with the waste; this is what we will devote the bulk of our efforts to during 2017.
Are the impacts of the Chernobyl (Ukraine) and Three Mile Island (Pennsylvania) nuclear accidents still relevant today? If so, how?
Not only are the impacts of Chernobyl and Three Mile Island still relevant today, but also the Fukushima disaster in Japan in 2011.
Chernobyl still has an 18-mile uninhabitable zone where no one is allowed to live. There are still countries across Europe (i.e. Germany, Scotland, etc.) that experience environmental contamination as a result of the Chernobyl accident, which forces them to implement food restrictions; for example in Germany, they can’t eat wild boar (previously a local delicacy) for fear of radioactive contamination.
There are significant levels of illness, especially in areas like Ukraine, Belarus, and other areas surrounding Chernobyl, and the same thing is starting to happen around Fukushima. In just a few years, there has been a significant increase in thyroid tumors among children near Fukushima, likely caused by radioactive iodine released by the reactor explosions and leaks.
One of the problems with radiation and nuclear disaster is that governments and nuclear power companies do not prepare for disasters to happen. When the accident does happen, government officials fail to take emergency measures until too late, like moving people out of the area as a way to minimize the initial intense exposure to radiation immediately following the accident. And because they do not want to admit their failures and liability later on, they don’t take adequate measures to protect people after the accident.
Without long-term protection measures, radiation, invisible to the eye, remains present in the environment. Air, soil, water, food, and therefore people’s bodies become contaminated with radioactivity. Children and women are disproportionately harmed by radiation; many health effects like cancer, take years to become apparent.
There is no safe level of radiation exposure. Every dosage of radiation exposure increases your chances of cancer and other health effects, but it takes cancer a long time to develop. It can take 10, 15, 20 years or more for an exposure to a carcinogen to actually result in disease, making it easy for people to disqualify exposure to radiation as the culprit. In the case of childhood cancers, which are on the rise, the exposure was likely to the mother, or to the fetus, in utero. Since children are growing and their cells dividing quickly, radiation exposure is more potent than in adults.
This is a problem communities poisoned by nuclear facilities consistently endure—officials telling them that their exposure to radiation isn’t the cause of their disease.
This is happening in Japan right now, where people are being denied access to health care and health services, and even forced to return to or continue living in communities where their families’ health is at risk. There are mothers constantly worried about the effects the radiation has on their children, but the government is telling them that the radiation levels are perfectly safe, even though the radioactivity is much higher than before the disaster. Because their illnesses are not acknowledged, people are not receiving the health care and services they need, or support for leaving their homes. Many areas have been partially cleaned up, but the mountains are still highly radioactive and rain causes this radioactivity to return to areas that were declared “clean.”
How likely is it that accidents like those in Chernobyl, Three Mile Island, and Fukushima will happen again?
The scientific evidence suggests that there’s a 50% chance of another nuclear accident like Chernobyl happening within the next 25-30 years. However, those odds may be an under-estimate. We’ve had five reactor meltdowns globally in just the last 40 years, and reactors in the U.S. and elsewhere are only getting older.
In the US and other countries, we’re finding that nuclear reactors become more expensive to operate as they get older. Utility owners struggle with the rising operation costs and, as a result, begin cutting back on costs like maintenance, staffing, and other important things that are necessary to reduce safety problems.
We never say that a nuclear disaster is certain, but the risks are increasing and that’s one of the reasons we support phasing out nuclear power as quickly as possible. For instance, the governor of New York have been supporting billions of dollars in subsidies to prevent nuclear power plants from shutting down, even after their reactors have become unprofitable. Two of these reactors are among the oldest still operating in the world, and three of them have the same flawed design as the failed Fukushima reactors in Japan made by General Electric.
What legislation should we expect to see surrounding nuclear power and nuclear waste in the coming presidential administration?
There are currently proposals to provide billions of dollars in subsidies to nuclear power plants in several states: Connecticut, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania. It’s also possible that proposals to subsidize the reactors in Maryland, Ohio and other states could come up soon, or other national reactor subsidies created by the federal government.
There are several proposals coming up about the parking lot nuclear waste dumps (“Central Interim Storage” sites) in Texas and New Mexico. There would need to be federal legislation to make them legal. We’re expecting in 2017 and 2018 that congress will push for nuclear waste legislation.
Additionally there’s a proposed site for a long-term nuclear waste dump in Nevada called Yucca Mountain. This site has never been suitable for nuclear waste. It’s actually a mountain that the Western Shoshone Indian Nation, whose territory Yucca Mountain is on, refer to as “the snake that moves.” The Western Shoshone have known for thousands of years that the mountain is moving, and this was confirmed by GPS satellite data showing the earth’s crust is expanding, moving the mountain and strong evidence of a magma pocket below the site. The area is riddled with earthquake fault lines, ongoing quakes and a row of lava cones pointing towards the proposed nuclear waste dump site confirm that volcanism is a feature of Yucca Mountain
This location was chosen by congress in the 1980s because Nevada was a state that had no political power at that time. President Obama wisely canceled the project effectively in 2011, but Congress and the Trump administration are expected to try to revive it.
We’re likely to see legislation in Congress to get Yucca Mountain restarted again, and that’s something we’ll be opposing as well.
Exactly how important is nuclear power and nuclear waste?
It’s extremely important, not only because of the important questions involved in how we receive our energy, and how we address the climate crisis, but also, the important related questions surrounding nuclear weapons and nuclear war.
The technology necessary for nuclear power is the same technology necessary for nuclear weapons and that connection has always been an impetus for the United States government’s support of nuclear power. It is also what results in the government’s inconsistent policies with other countries. For instance, the U.S. has negotiated to limit Iran from accessing nuclear power in order to ensure it does not obtain nuclear weapons, while supporting nearby countries like Pakistan and India having nuclear power despite their development of nuclear weapons. President-elect Trump’s enthusiasm about nuclear weapons is very concerning to us both because of the increased risk of nuclear weapons proliferation and/or warfare, and the possible promotion of nuclear power.