Environmental Impact of Nuclear Energy- Katie Neyland



Japan Nuclear Energy Capacity

Japan Nuclear Energy Capacity

On August 11, Japan reopened its first nuclear reactor since the Fukushima Nuclear power plant disaster in 2011. This comes after nearly two years without producing nuclear energy since plants temporarily stopped production during inspections in 2013. In 2013, the Nuclear Regulation Authority imposed stringent regulations in response to seismic and tsunamic events. Before the Fukushima Disaster, Japan had 54 operating reactors that accounted for 30% of the countries energy production. After the disaster, 11 reactors are permanently shut down, 5 have been approved to reopen, 19 have filed to reopen, while 19 have yet to apply.  The 38 reactors yet to reopen are subject to NRA inspection and approval in protocols regarding seismic and tsunamic activity (Energy Information Administration).

Fukushima Radiation Fallout

Fukushima Radiation Fallout

On Friday, March 11, 2011, a 9.0 magnitude earthquake struck Japan causing considerable damage.  A tsunami then followed and, along with the earthquake, caused tremendous damage and a human death toll of 19,000. The tsunami disabled several generators and backup generators destroying the plants ability to cool nuclear waste. The result was 3 separate hydrogen explosions on March 12th, March 13th, and March 15th. This caused radioactive waste to be dispersed into the air and the displacement of over 100,000 people from their homes. No deaths or injuries were reported from radioactivity due to the early evacuation of citizens in the area. 80,000 citizens are still displaced from their homes despite the consensus that the minimal nuclear contamination of the disaster poses little to no threat to people living in the area. This incident, along with others like Chernobyl, Three Mile Island, and Tokaimura, highlight the potential danger and environmental impacts of nuclear energy (World Nuclear Association).

Nuclear Reactor

Nuclear Reactor

Nuclear power plants operate in a similar fashion to plants that burn coal, oil, or natural gas; they boil water that turns into steam, which turns turbines, to create energy. With nuclear power however, the process of fission is used to break apart atoms which produce large amounts of heat.  Radioactive materials like uranium are used in a chain reaction that creates immense amounts of heat without having to burn materials like in traditional energy plants (Nuclear Energy Institute).  One of the most attractive parts about nuclear energy is that it does not contribute to the emission of green house gases, like carbon dioxide, into the atmosphere. Despite this, nuclear energy also has its environmental risks.  Water is used in a variety of different processes including cooling condensers, running through turbines, and passing through cooling towers.  This water can contain low levels of radioactivity but is still allowed to be released into the surrounding lakes, rivers, and oceans.

The main environmental impact of nuclear power plants is the solid nuclear waste that is condensed into drums and stored underground or in secure facilities.  These underground locations must be stable with little risk of ground intrusion (The Nuclear Tourist).  These storage containers can take millions of years to become nonradioactive or safe for human contact, because while these materials are stored underground, they are randomly emitting radio active particles.  Waste must also be transported to the burial location via aircraft, ship/barge, or roadway; this poses considerable damage to those around the area if something were to go wrong during transportation.  The actual storage of the radioactive material requires drilling into rock formations underground, or building man made structures to hold the radio active material.  Other options like depositing radioactive material on an isolated island or depositing it into space are also being explored.  Currently in the United states, Yucca Mountain is being studied as a central depository of all radioactive nuclear waste produced in the United States.  Any radioactive waste holds the potential to contaminate the ground or water around it, causing it to be potentially fatal to humans (Pollution Issues).

Nuclear Waste Contamination

Water Table Contamination

Historically, nuclear energy research stemmed from the production of the atomic bomb. Scientists on the Manhattan Project developed and detonated the first successful nuclear bomb on July 16, 1945 in New Mexico.  Two new bombs were soon conceived and dropped on Nagasaki and Hiroshima, Japan, on August 9th and 10th. The creation of the atom bombs itself, let alone the detonation and testing, had its own set of environmental impacts.  Hundreds of acres were clear cut to support the scientists that created the bomb, testing, and enriching the material needed to make the bomb. The radioactive material was minded from places like the Belgian Congo. Over half the workers at these sites died of radiation poisoning or, later, cancer. The harmful affects of radiation were not known at the time, but can be seen clearly in the victims of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.  Thousands of people were killed or disfigured, and two cities and their infrastructures were completely destroyed (Fiege Chapter 7). After World War II, however, nuclear research turned to energy production; despite this, many issues still remained like mining material and nuclear contamination. The nuclear waste removal process during this time was a trial and error process.  To dispose of nuclear waste, many plants tried to force the waste as deep into the ground as they could drill. This often hit the water table and contaminated drinking water. They then tried shallow trenches which simply contaminated the ground soil. Storage ponds and drains also contaminated the soil and water table.  Many sites became ‘superfund’ clean up sites in which the government was responsible for environmental clean up (Salerno 9/30/15).

Nuclear power has developed greatly since the trial and error period of waste disposal. Nuclear energy has an extremely promising future in powering the earth without contributing to the current global warming dilemma which is why it is often seen as a clean energy source.  However, countries must take caution in moving forward with implementing more nuclear power plants due to the hazardous and long lasting waste that comes as a result.


Fiege, Mark. The Republic of Nature: An Environmental History of the United States. Seattle: University of Washington, 2013. Print.

Salerno, Beth. “Environmental Impacts of World War II.” Environmental History Lecture. Saint Anselm College, Manchester, NH. 09/30/15.

Reopening of Japanese Nuclear Reactors: US Energy Information Administration http://www.eia.gov/todayinenergy/detail.cfm?id=22472

Fukushima Incident Analysis: World Nuclear Association http://www.world-nuclear.org/info/Safety-and-Security/Safety-of-Plants/Fukushima-Accident/

How Nuclear Energy Works: Nuclear Energy Institute http://www.nei.org/Knowledge-Center/How-Nuclear-Reactors-Work

Environmental Impact of Nuclear Energy: The Nuclear Tourist


Environmental Pollution of Nuclear Waste: Pollution Issue http://www.pollutionissues.com/Pl-Re/Radioactive-Waste.html



6 thoughts on “Environmental Impact of Nuclear Energy- Katie Neyland

  1. Joe Bobek

    Wonderful article, very thought-provoking and thoroughly researched! I was a little disappointed that you tended to accentuate the tradeoffs of Nuclear Energy. Great idea linking the Fukushima disaster with what we learned in class! However, I would have loved to read more of your thoughts on the aftermath of Fukushima; more than just the fallout, what are the environmental impacts when a nation like Japan loses billions of dollars in energy production because of politics? And what are the implications of a sudden and gratuitous switch to more pollutant-prone energy sources?

    I’d like to mention, the radioactivity of discharged coolant is normally at levels similar to background radiation e.g., it’s no more dangerous then the radon and uranium atoms inevitably decaying underneath you right now ;).

    I liked the historical connection. But how does that affect the environment today? Do you believe we have learned from our past mistakes or are we still repeating them? I’m interested in your perspective because we were presented with the same information in the lectures.

    Your article was beautifully presented and a very enjoyable read!

  2. earthhist Post author

    Very insightful about the issue! The entire article had me interested the whole time. I learned about this in high school and it was great to be refreshed on the details.

    For anyone who who didn’t know Uranium has half-life of 710,000 years and even then it is considered hazardous. After a small amount of research I noticed that Nuclear fission can but accomplished from other elements. The two most popular are Plutonium and Uranium. I know they have different half-lives.

    Do they have different amounts of energy produced? Different production issues or costs?

    Just something to think about, only question I had.

    Again great article Katie!

  3. earthhist Post author

    This was a really great post! This topic is very relevant to today, and you did a great job of highlighting the positive and negative effects of nuclear energy. I liked how you wrote about the historical background of nuclear energy through the Manhattan Project.

    One thing I was wondering was specifically how nuclear waste would effect people if it did get in to the groundwater?

    Overall, this was a very informative post!

  4. Sarah McVann Post author

    You did a good job integrating the material from the articles and material from class. This was interesting to read because its relevant. It surprised me that water that is contaminated with nuclear waste, even if its only slight, that its released back into lakes, rivers, and oceans. This makes me curious about the long term effects.

  5. aciaramitaro

    Phenomenal blog! Very informational, and very relevant to the current time. I really like the way that you tied our class and the issues of using nuclear power together. The only thing I would suggest is mentioning more of your thoughts on Fukushima, and more about the current effect of nuclear power on the environment. Overall, I think that you did a amazing job and really made a rather boring topic rather enjoyable to read. 😅👏

  6. Matt Sargent

    This was extremely interesting to read, especially because I hadn’t heard anything about the nuclear power plants in Japan after the initial destruction. Knowing that nuclear power has such an upside not emitting any green house gases and having such a high capability for power, and yet such a downside with the dangers of the materials involved, do you think we should continue to try and use it with strict oversight or ditch it and look for a different, more safe, source of power?


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