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).
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 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).
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