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Nuclear power cooling towers near Sacramento, CA.  Photo by Warren Gretz.

Electricity from:
Nuclear Power

Nuclear power plants are fueled by uranium, a naturally-occurring element found in the Rocky Mountains and in countries such as Canada, Australia and South Africa. The nearly infinite energy that is stored in uranium atoms makes nuclear power possible.

The interaction between three "heavy" elements - two types of uranium and a form of plutonium -- creates a chain reaction that can be harnessed to generate electricity. The nuclear reaction generates heat that is used to boil water to create steam to drive a turbine to generate electricity. Like fossil fuels, uranium is a finite non-renewable resource.

At present, over a hundred commercial nuclear power reactors operate in 33 states. Still, no new nuclear power reactors have been ordered in over two decades.

What are the environmental impacts?

Some tout nuclear power plants as a "clean" electricity source since the nuclear plants themselves do not release any of the "traditional" power generation air pollutants, such as sulfur dioxide, carbon dioxide or nitrogen oxides. Nevertheless, the requirements for the operation of nuclear power plants result in environmental impacts, including air emissions, at all stages of the uranium fuel procurement process.

While plant operations do not result in air emissions similar to those of fossil plants, nuclear plants can release small amounts of airborne radioactive gasses, such as carbon-14 and iodine-131.

Uranium mining mimics techniques used for coal and similar issues of toxic contamination of local land and water resources arise -- as do unique radioactive contamination hazards to mine workers and nearby populations. Abandoned mines contaminated with high-level radioactive waste can continue to pose radioactive risks for as long as 250,000 years after closure.

In the nuclear fuel processing process, the uranium enrichment process depends on great amounts of electricity, most of which is provided by dirty fossil fuel plants releasing all of the traditional air pollution emissions not released by the nuclear reactor itself. Two of the nation's most polluting coal plants in Ohio and Indiana, for example, produce electricity primarily for uranium enrichment. In addition, the fuel processing produces radioactive wastes, which must be adequately stored and sequestered to minimize the risk of radioactive release.

Nuclear plants that rely upon water for once-through cooling systems require two-and-a-half times as much water as fossil fuel plants. The impact on water resources, aquatic habitats, and fish are therefore more significant with nuclear power plants than any other power generation technology (with the possible exception of hydroelectric facilities themselves). The San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station located in southern California consumes 500 metric tons of croaker and white fish annually, the equivalent catch of seven million recreational fishermen.

Some of the most serious impacts linked to the generation of electricity on land can also be attributed to nuclear plants. Whereas the amount of solid wastes generated at nuclear plants is relatively small, these radioactive wastes pose health risks that exceed that of any other source of electricity. It is quite possible that these radioactive wastes will be stored for a century or more at existing nuclear plant sites, a prospect that may preclude any future re-uses of these contaminated lands.

A major failure in a nuclear power plant's cooling systems can create a nuclear meltdown, where fuel rods melt within a matter of seconds. The heat from the uncontrolled reaction can melt everything it comes into contact with. Catastrophic accidents could injur or kill thousands of people.

The risk of this type of catastrophic accident, and the subsequent release of massive quantities of radioactive materials, carries severe consequences for all forms of life.

Additional Information:
Nuclear Energy Institute http://www.nei.org/

U.S. Dept. of Energy's Energy Information Administration (EIA): "Nuclear and Uranium Information at a Glance" http://www.eia.doe.gov/fuelnuclear.html

Union of Concerned Scientists: How Nuclear Power Works http://www.ucsusa.org/clean_energy/renewable_energy/page.cfm?pageID=85

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