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Unearthing the Risks of Nuclear Energy


The Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant in Okuma, Japan. The government has decided to release radioactive water from the plant into the Pacific Ocean.Credit...Kota Endo/Kyodo News, via Associated Press [2]

Imagine a power source that can generate electricity for millions of homes without producing any waste. If you think that this power source does not exist, you are correct. However, nuclear power comes close to achieving this… with a few major caveats.


Nuclear reactors are the core of a nuclear power plant. These reactors control chain reactions that produce heat through a process called nuclear fission—a process where atoms split and release energy. Reactors use uranium for nuclear fuel, which is processed into small pellets and stacked together into sealed metal tubes. A single pellet about the size of a fingertip contains the same amount of energy as 3 barrels of oil, as stated by the Nuclear Energy Institute. A significant advantage of nuclear power is that it produces virtually no carbon dioxide emissions compared to traditional natural gas or petroleum plants. This helps nuclear power to nearly achieve the goal of zero waste, albeit only with greenhouse gas emissions.

Fuel Equivalents of 1 Uranium Fuel Pellet. Credit: Our World of Energy [6]

A major caveat to nuclear energy is the production of high-level radioactive waste. According to the U.S. Energy Information Association, this type of waste is potentially much more harmful and deadly to the environment and humans than greenhouse gas emissions if not handled properly. Currently, the Japanese government is contributing to the mishandling of nuclear waste.


The Fukushima Daiichi was one of the largest nuclear power plants across the globe, with six total nuclear reactors. As detailed by BBC [1], on March 11, 2011, a 9.0 magnitude earthquake rocked the north-eastern coast of Japan, triggering a 15-meter tsunami. The backup systems designed to prevent a meltdown failed, and three out of six reactor cores melted and released significant radioactive material in the days that followed. Over the past several years, the cores have been cooled with 1.1 million tons of water at a rate of about 170 tons a day [2], which is currently stored in large tanks that are currently nearing their capacity. According to Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga, space is expected to run out next year [2].

Workers during the clean-up in the aftermath of the tsunami. Credit: AFP [1]

In April, Japan approved a plan to release the radioactive contaminated cooling water into the ocean starting in 2023. The water has been processed, with the removal of radioactive materials other than tritium, which is a radioactive form of hydrogen. Scientists argue that the elements remaining in the water are only harmful to humans in large doses, and the dilution of treated water poses no scientifically detectable risk [2].


Although the dangers may seem minuscule on the surface, a menacing truth lurks not far below. Frederique Eyrolle, a researcher at the Institut de Radioprotection et de Sûreté Nucléaire, found that tritium is a common bioaccumulant [3]. Essentially, this means that as marine animals ingest tritium, it accumulates in their body. Eventually, the tritium rises along the food chain and becomes increasingly concentrated. By the time it reaches human consumption, the concentration of tritium will be much higher than originally in the contaminated water. This causes the risk of releasing contaminated water into the ocean to be incredibly uncertain. This process of bioaccumulation is causing environmental groups like Greenpeace and fishing industry groups to oppose releasing the water into the ocean [2].


The US appears to support Japan’s decision, stating in a press statement that it “appears to have adopted an approach in accordance with globally accepted nuclear safety standard” [4]. However, “globally accepted” standards do not mean that it is safe to do so. In fact, they have caused significant leakage of nuclear waste in the past [5].


These underground tanks in Hanford, Washington, were built in the 1940s to store liquid radioactive waste. Credit: US Department of Energy [5]

It is important to keep in mind that Japan is not the only country responsible for the improper treatment of nuclear waste. The United States has been storing millions of gallons of high-level radioactive waste at Hanford Site in Washington. About one-third of the nearly 180 storage tanks are known to be leaking, threatening the nearby Columbia River [5] (See image to the right).




Across the world, nuclear energy is commonly regarded as the future of green energy. Even though it is not purely renewable, since it uses up uranium, it still brings significant advantages. However, you must understand the caveats of nuclear energy. The dangers always lie underneath the seemingly perfect façade. These dangers prove that our quest for the perfect energy source is not over.


References:

  1. Japan approves releasing wastewater into ocean: https://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-56728068

  2. Fukushima Wastewater Will Be Released Into the Ocean, Japan Says: https://www.nytimes.com/2021/04/13/world/asia/japan-fukushima-wastewater-ocean.html

  3. Evidence for tritium bioaccumulation: Eyrolle, F., Copard, Y., Lepage, H. et al. Evidence for tritium persistence as organically bound forms in river sediments since the past nuclear weapon tests. Sci Rep9, 11487 (2019). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41598-019-47821-1

  4. US Federal Government response to Japan's declaration: https://www.state.gov/government-of-japans-announcement-on-fukushima-treated-water-release-decision/

  5. Storage of nuclear waste: https://cen.acs.org/environment/pollution/nuclear-waste-pilesscientists-seek-best/98/i12

  6. Energy in Uranium Fuel Pellet: https://www.ourworldofenergy.com/vignettes.php?type=nuclear-power&id=3




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