Nuclear energy has always been controversial because of its long-term environmental impacts and community concerns about the safety of nuclear plants. In addition, its use and threat of use in war creates a powerful aura of fear around this energy source. Other controversial issues related to environmental regulation of industry, such as disclosure of chemicals and audit privileges, attract much more attention from the public when the industry is nuclear power. Many countries (e.g., France) increasingly rely on this form of energy.
II. Nuclear Energy in the United States Today
III. New Power Plants
IV. Thermal Pollution Controversy
V. Industry and Government Responsibility
VI. Nuclear Waste: Is There a Solution?
In the United States, no nuclear plants have been built since the late 1970s, although U.S. utilities have become much more commercially aggressive about nuclear energy. Some environmental groups have supported nuclear energy as less environmentally harmful than petrochemical energy. Owners of existing plants are seeking renewal of operating licenses and are getting ready to upgrade power output or restart closed reactors. Some observers predict that during the next few years there could be applications for 10 or more new U.S. reactors producing approximately 40,000 megawatts of energy.
Several events form the basis of this controversy. They have shaped the public’s image of risk and of the credibility of nuclear risk assessments and assessors.
- During the 1970s, Pennsylvania’s Three Mile Island experienced an overheated reactor core.
- During the 1980s, the Soviet Union’s Chernobyl plant experienced an uncontained meltdown, the worst such accident ever to have occurred anywhere in the world.
- The U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission has issued formal alerts or declared site emergencies at least 10 times between 1979 and the present.
- Since September 11, 2001, public fear has increased regarding security risks at nuclear sites.
The risk of a nuclear meltdown with a potentially devastating range of human and ecological impacts and the general issue of plant security underscore modern tensions around nuclear energy.
Nuclear Energy in the United States Today
Today, about 103 nuclear reactors are operating in 31 states. They generate about one fifth of the nation’s electricity. Major expansions are planned, and each will be an issue in this controversy. With this growth comes a much closer scrutiny of the environmental costs and benefits of nuclear energy by environmentalists, government agencies, and competing energy sources.
In general, today’s market forces support nuclear power. The electricity industry is being deregulated, allowing consumers and their cities to avoid the forced contracts of hydroelectric power companies. Existing nuclear plants appear to be a low-cost alternative energy source. Many power plants run on coal or petrochemicals, with high levels of emissions into the air. This has a powerful impact on global warming and climate change. A main cause of climate change, global warming, air pollution, and acid rain is carbon dioxide emissions. Nuclear reactors do not emit any carbon dioxide. Industry proponents tout the new and improved safety of modern plants to alleviate regulator and consumer fears. In the United States, electricity produced by nuclear power plants has been greater than that from oil, natural gas, and hydropower. Coal accounts for 55 percent of U.S. electricity generation. Nuclear plants generate more than half the electricity in at least six states. According to industry statistics, average operating costs of U.S. nuclear plants dropped substantially during the 1990s and 2000s. Expensive downtime for maintenance and inspections has been steadily reduced. Licensed commercial reactors generated electricity at a record-high average of more than 87 percent of their total capacity in the year 2000, which indicates increasing demand.
Although nuclear energy is gaining international and domestic appeal in the marketplace, environmentalists and those living near plant sites remain concerned. They are concerned about human and environmental impacts due to exposure from transit of nuclear waste, spills, and other environmental sources. Nuclear environmental impacts are among the most powerful ones humans can create, and such effects can destroy any resiliency in a given ecosystem. They last a very long time and can move through the soil and water to contaminate other parts of an ecosystem. Radiation may remain unstable and lethal for 100,000 years. Nuclear waste is currently stored in holding pools and casks alongside the power plants. Some people have expressed concern with leaking casks. Radiation is a potential problem in every phase, from mining the uranium to operating the plant and finally disposing of the waste. Low-level radioactive waste is also the source of a pressing environmental controversy.
Cleaning up severe environmental problems at U.S. nuclear weapons production facilities alone is expected to cost at least $150 billion over the next several decades. Cleaning up old nuclear energy plants is another large expense. Each of these projects is followed by community controversy about exposure and adequacy of cleanup.
New Power Plants
Because of the powerful environmental impacts of nuclear energy, this controversy will persist. There is as yet no solution to the waste problem. Old power plants generate public concern about safety. Building new plants will be expensive. If recent history is a reliable indicator, cost overruns can be expected that will affect the price of electricity. Also, the will probably be community resistance, which can effectively block the building of new nuclear power generators. Community resistance can take the form of refusing to finance any aspect of design, construction, or operation. When the Washington Public Supply System tried to build five nuclear power plants during the mid-1970s, environmental lawsuits for violations of the required environmental impact statements and community resistance to taking or paying contracts from the Bonneville Power Administration led to the plan’s collapse. More than $3 billion of default on taxpayer bonds then occurred, resulting in 43 lawsuits in five states. Many investors lost substantial sums of money. The courts were clogged with long, complicated lawsuits involving municipal finance as well as the environmental lawsuits that followed the project.
Thermal Pollution Controversy
Thermal pollution, the addition of heated water to the environment, has recently come to public attention. In England the largest single industrial use of water is for cooling purposes, while in the United States in 1964, some 49,000 billion gallons of water were used by industrial manufacturing plants and investor-owned thermal electric utilities. Ninety percent, or 44,000 billion gallons, of this amount was used for cooling or condensing purposes primarily by electric utilities. With the increased demand for greater volumes and less expensive electric power, the power companies are rapidly expanding the number of generating plants, especially nuclear-powered plants.
To the power companies, nuclear plants offer many advantages over conventional plants, but they have one major drawback that seriously affects the environment: losses of excess heat. These plants are only 40 percent as efficient as conventional plants in converting fuel to electricity; that and loss of efficiency manifest themselves as waste heat. As the number of nuclear power plants and other industrial plants increases, an estimated ninefold increase in the output of waste heat will result.
Liquids released by nuclear power plants may be either nonradioactive or slightly radioactive. Water that has been used to cool the condenser and various heat exchangers used in the turbine-generator support processes or that has passed through the cooling towers is considered nonradioactive. The cooling towers remove heat from the water discharged from the condenser, so that the water can be discharged to a river or recirculated and reused.
The water that goes through the cooling towers differs from plant to plant. Some nuclear power plants use cooling towers as a method of cooling the circulating water that has been heated in the condenser. Nuclear powers plants also differ in when they emit hot water into the environment. During colder months, the discharge from the condenser may be directed to a river. Recirculation of the water back to the condenser’s inlet occurs during certain fish-sensitive times of the year, when the plant is supposed to limit its thermal emissions. Many environmentalists contend that such plants do not do this, and even when they do, the environmental impacts of hot water on the aquatic ecosystem are too severe. The thermal emissions of a nuclear plant are powerful and can heat up large bodies of water. They can heat the circulating water as much as 40°F. Some nuclear power plants have placed limits on the thermal differential allowed in their coolant water emissions. For example, they may have limits of no more than 5°F difference between intake and outflow water temperatures. Cooling towers essentially moderate the temperature to decrease the thermal impact in the water, but they also decrease power plant efficiency because the cooling-tower pumps consume a lot of power.
Some or all of this water may be discharged to a river, sea, or lake. One way to reduce thermal pollution is to make use of the hot water and steam using cogeneration principles.
Usually water released from the steam generator is also nonradioactive. Less than 400 gallons per day is considered low leakage and may be allowed from the reactor cooling system to the secondary cooling system of the steam generator. This is an issue because of concerns that radioactivity might seep out. By law, where radioactive water may be released to the environment, it must be stored and radioactivity levels reduced below certain levels. These levels themselves can be controversial. Citizens frequently challenge experts over nuclear risk issues.
In terms of the environmental impacts of thermal pollution, much remains unstudied. Water that is too warm can damage endangered species, such as some types of salmon. This thermal pollution causes a variety of ecological effects in the aquatic ecosystem. More must be learned about these effects to ensure adequate regulation of thermal discharges.
Industry proponents claim that the small amounts of radioactivity released by nuclear plants during normal operation do not pose significant hazards to workers, the community, or the environment. What concerns many communities is the potential for long-term hazardous waste disposal. There could be deadly cumulative effects. There is scientific uncertainty about the level of risk posed by low levels of radiation exposure. Problems inherent in most risk assessments, such as failure to account for population vulnerability or dose–response variance, do little to assure communities they are safe. Human health effects can be clearly measured only at high exposure levels, such as nuclear war. Other human health effects are generalized from animal studies. In the case of radiation, the assumed risk of low-level exposure has been extrapolated from health effects among persons exposed to high levels of radiation. Industry proponents argue that it is impossible to have zero exposure to radiation because of low levels of background radiation. There is public and community concern about the cumulative impacts of radiation generally.
Industry and Government Responsibility
Because of the high level of public concern, there are strict protocols for safety. Responsibility for nuclear safety compliance lies with nuclear utilities that run the power plants and self-report most of the environmental information. By law, they are required to identify any problems with their plants and report them to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC). These reports, or the lack of them, have been points of contention. Nuclear power plants last about 40 years and t must then be closed in a process called decommissioning. The NRC requires all nuclear utilities to make payments to special trust funds to ensure that money is available to remove all radioactive material from reactors when they are decommissioned. Several plants have been retired before their licenses expired, whereas others could seek license renewals to operate longer. Some observers predict that more than half of today’s 103 licensed reactors could be decommissioned by the year 2016.
There may be an issue looming as to whether there is enough money in the trust funds to clean up the sites adequately. The decommissioning of these power plants will be an issue because of the controversies surrounding the disposal of low-level radioactive waste. It will also be very expensive and fraught with scientific uncertainty. By law, the federal government is responsible for permanent disposal of commercial spent fuel and federally generated radioactive waste. The choosing of sites for this waste is part of the larger controversy surrounding nuclear power. States have the authority to develop disposal facilities for commercial low-level waste. This is often an issue at the state level. The siting process for these types of waste sites then becomes an issue at the local level, often engaging strong community protests. Generally the federal government can preempt state authority, which can preempt local authorities. In this controversy, lawsuits are common.
Nuclear Waste: Is There a Solution?
One of the controversies surrounding nuclear power has to do with the disposal of radioactive waste. It must be sealed and put in a place that cannot be breached for thousands of years. It may not be possible to make warning signs that last long enough. Thousand- year time scales are well beyond the capability of current environmental models. A whole range of natural disasters could ensue and breach the waste site. Few sites can withstand an earthquake or volcanic eruption. Wastes are stored on-site, then moved to a waste transfer station, then to a terminal hazardous waste site. There are political battles at each step in the process. Each nuclear reactor produces an annual average of about 20 tons of highly radioactive spent nuclear fuel and 50 to 200 cubic meters of low-level radioactive waste. Over the usual 40-year permits granted to nuclear power plants by the NRC, this amounts to a total of about 800 tons of radioactive spent fuel and 1,000 to 8,000 cubic meters of low-level radioactive waste. There are additional hazardous materials used in the operation of the power plant. Upon decommissioning, contaminated reactor components are also disposed of as low-level waste. When combined with any hazardous waste that was stored on the site, the waste produced can be quite large.
The cradle-to-grave exposure to radiation, the increased regulation of hazardous vehicle routes in cities, and the likely expansion of nuclear energy to more community sites all portend a larger controversy.
As climate change becomes a more salient political issue, the push for nuclear energy becomes stronger. There is still no policy to deal with the dangerous waste this energy process produces, which is a source of growing controversy. Scientific controversies about dose–response levels with radiation exposure, cancer causation, and effects on vulnerable populations close to communities all continue. Environmentalists have traditionally opposed nuclear energy as a source of power, but some groups have recently begun to question this in light of global warming and greenhouse gas emissions from coal and oil sources.
Robert William Collin
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