Environmental Impact

The effect that nuclear power has on the environment is one of the main issues within the controversy of whether nuclear power should be used. There are multiple aspects regarding nuclear power’s environmental impact but three of the main components are radioactive waste, greenhouse gas emissions, and the potential for nuclear accidents.

Radioactive waste is a by-product from operating nuclear reactors and during the nuclear cycle. It can also result from the decommissioning of nuclear reactors and other nuclear facilities. The US Nuclear Regulatory Commission separates wastes into two broad categories: high-level waste and low-level waste. “High-level radioactive waste results primarily from the fuel used by reactors to produce electricity. Low-level radioactive waste results from reactor operations and from medical, academic, industrial, and other commercial uses.”[1]. The debate surrounding this issue is whether or not the impact radioactive waste is significant enough to be a reason to stop the use of nuclear power. While the anti-nuclear groups argue that radioactive waste is harmful and harbors many negative externalities, pro-nuclear groups claim that radioactive waste generated by nuclear power is neither significant nor dangerous (see Radioactive Waste for more). There are also concerns regarding high-level nuclear waste and proliferation (see Proliferation).

Greenhouse gas emissions refers to any gases released into the atmosphere that trap heat within the earth. Examples of greenhouse gases are carbon dioxide and methane. This is also a topic of discussion with respect to nuclear power because proponents often argue that nuclear power should be used because it does not emit any greenhouse gases into the environment, which would help the current problem of global warming. Opponents, however, tend to argue that the effect that nuclear power will have on greenhouse gas emissions is minimal and should not be used as a reason to use more nuclear power. (See Greenhouse Gas Emissions for more)

The potential for nuclear accidents is another component of this debate. With nuclear power, there is always some sort of chance of an accident occurring which could cause large amounts of radiation to be released into the environment and also the deaths of many people. Anti-nuclear groups often focus on this particular aspect and look to past incidences such as Chernobyl in 1986 and the recent incident in Fukushima in 2011 to demonstrate the potential catastrophes that could result with the increased use of nuclear power. Pro-nuclear groups, however, often discount these accidents as a significant worry and emphasize the safety measures put into place to prevent such as disaster from occurring again. (See Nuclear Accidents for more). The occurrences of accidents also has an effect on the public opinion of nuclear power, which is another aspect of this controversy that is often discussed. (See Public Opinion for more)

Both nuclear advocates and opponents incorporate these three main topics into their arguments; however they try to contradict one another by using arguments from different levels of predictability and scale instead of arguing over shared points. Proponents generally tend to emphasize the positive impact of using nuclear power, arguing that increasing the use of nuclear power will reduce greenhouse gas emissions. They also tend to minimize the problems of radioactive waste and the potential for catastrophic nuclear accidents. Those who oppose nuclear power, on the other hand, often accentuate the problems of waste and accidents and argue that nuclear power does not actually reduce greenhouse gas emissions substantially enough to warrant its use.


[1] “Backgrounder on Radioactive Waste.” US Nuclear Regulatory Commission. US Nuclear Regulatory Commission. 4 Feb 2011. <http://www.nrc.gov/reading-rm/doc-collections/fact-sheets/radwaste.html>.

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