Environmental Effects

Economics of Nuclear Power

Case Study

Final Thoughts

Links of Interest

Environmental Effects

A significant concern of nuclear power facilities is the ability to safely contain the radiation inherent in the system. The goal is not solely to provide energy to the public, but to prevent radioactive energy from escaping into the environment outside of the plant. Even a small leak of radioactive materials from a nuclear power plant could have far reaching environmental and human health implications. Greatly more feared is the potential “nuclear melt down”, when a loss of coolant, or coolant flow to the nuclear core results in extreme heating of the core, and it literally melting. Though engineers have been diligent in their precautions against losing control of their energy-harnessing mechanisms, a handful of meltdowns have happened since the dawn of the nuclear age. Perhaps most famous, and under the most scrutiny was the disaster at Chernobyl in 1986.

Plant Meltdown: Chernobyl

The nuclear facilities at the Chernobyl plant consisted of RBMK type reactors. “RBMK is an acronym for the Russian reaktor bolshoi moshchnosty kanalny , which means ‘reactor (of) large power (with) channels’.”1 The RBMK uses water as its primary means of power generation. The nuclear fission process occurs, and the energy released is in heat form. Water is heated to steam, which flows through a steam turbine generator. Water is condensed in a condenser, and then it repeats its cycle, as it is then on to the reactor core. The RBMK also was graphite-moderated. Graphite is used in nuclear reactors to slow the energy of a colliding neutron significantly- to less than one electron volt.2 The reduced speed of the neutron increases the probability that it will collide with a fissile uranium isotope by orders of magnitude (ibid.)

The nuclear core of Chernobyl ’s Reactor 4 melted down during a plant-output test that was conducted with certain safety features offline: “…the operators blocked the emergency signals and automatic shutdown controls…”3 The debacle occurred as a result of the way the reactor allows fission-in a manner that increases fission with the heat of the reactor. “This positive feedback effect produced a surge of power in Chernobyl ’s Reactor 4, from 7 percent to hundreds of times its rated thermal output…”4 This great energy surge caused an explosion in the reactor core. The explosion resulted in fires in the plant, and matter with high radioactive capacity to be released from the confines of the plant into the environment surrounding the plant.

The breadth and severity of the radiation release at Chernobyl will undoubtedly be under scrutiny for some time. Some of the consequences of the reactor meltdown include people being relocated from their homes in the area. The city of Chernobyl is uninhabitable, and is a ghost-city today. Two hundred plant workers experienced health problems as a result of the disaster. “By 1992 the number of excess-radiation death cases attributable to Chernobyl were reported to have exceeded 6000 within the Ukraine alone…”5 Also countless metric tons of meat, dairy, and other food products have been contaminated by the Chernobyl incident. Much of this poisoned food is rejected by buyers on a large scale, but it is highly likely that contaminated food has been shipped and consumed all over the world.

Other nuclear power plants have had meltdowns and similar radiation-releasing accidents in recent years, including an incident as late as 1999. “ Sept. 30, Tokaimura, Japan: uncontrolled chain reaction in a uranium-processing nuclear fuel plant spewed high levels of radioactive gas into the air, killing two workers and seriously injuring one other.”6

One could presume that the incidences at Chernobyl and other nuclear plants were results of human error, and, if workers were more diligent, the plant would have remained safe and stable. It may be the case that the problems that have occurred at Chernobyl , Three Mile Island , and Tokaimura, occurred as a result of workers carelessness. Human error is not a trivial problem, and is not easily overcome. There are hundreds of nuclear power plants in the world, and relatively few incidences of this nature have occurred since the realization of nuclear power. The problem lies with the extreme magnitude of the results should a meltdown occur.

The human race is playing with fire with nuclear power plants. They seem to be controllable, but in the event that something goes wrong and control of them is compromised, the planet is going to get burned. Quality safeguards have been developed to prevent meltdowns, and alert nuclear technicians of equipment trouble. Chernobyl stands as a supreme example of what happens when vigilance over such a powerful technology is not maintained. It is a reasonable conclusion that if nuclear power plants can be safely run with very low chances of radiation poisoning to workers or the surrounding environment that their continued operation is a fine thing. It is also feasible that something unexpected could occur in a plant and disaster could strike, causing pain, death and illness to mankind and his environment. Perhaps nuclear technology is meant to be a temporary solution to the world’s energy needs.

Waste Disposal

Nuclear facilities have one large drawback in that their operation results in large amounts of low and high level waste. High level waste consists of spent uranium fuel rods that can no longer be used for energy or reprocessed into another element that can yield power. Low level waste consists largely of water and used equipment from the nuclear facility in which power is being generated. Both types of waste occur in relatively low levels, but they are both highly toxic.

There are different ways of harnessing energy from uranium. One way is to use a fission process, and bombard uranium isotopes with neutrons causing the uranium to split into other elements and release energy in the process. Another way is to use a fission “breeder reactor.” Breeder reactors use a similar process as the previous example, yet the uranium fuel is used in a manner that produced plutonium as a byproduct. When the uranium fuel is spent, it is reprocessed into new fuel rods so as much useable material as possible can be used for fuel, and the plutonium that was created as a result is bombarded with neutrons again, resulting in power and uranium as a byproduct of the reaction.

The United States uses the former method for nuclear plants. The reactors are known as light water reactors. Light water reactors only use 1% of the natural energy in the mined uranium for power while breeder reactors are able to use 75% of this energy.7 This suggests that breeder reactors make a better use of their fuel than light water reactors. The goal of a breeder reactor is to create less high level waste than a light water reactor by reprocessing spent fuel.

The United States currently has limited means of reprocessing spent uranium fuel, and also currently has no means of permanent disposal, so spent fuel rods are stored on site at power plants. Plans are currently being devised that would allow permanent high level storage in Yucca Mountain, Nevada, but a site is still being decided upon, and storage arrangements are still being made. High level waste represents only five to ten percent of the nuclear waste each year in the U.S. but its long term storage is an important concern because it is highly toxic, and has a radioactive half-life of thousands of years.

“In the United States , low-level radioactive waste is sent to disposal sites [that are] licensed by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.”8 Low level waste is more able to be dealt with, as it is easier to contain safely, and consequences of a radiation leak are less. Radioactivity levels in low level waste can decay to a safe level in ten to one hundred years, so storage containers have a little more flexibility in their robustness than those that will need to be built to store high level waste one day. Regardless, there still is a large amount of low-level waste. Currently there is nearly one million cubic feet of low level waste each year.

The dangers of low and high level wastes are to the environment surrounding plants, and to people living in nearby communities. Should waste not be stored adequately, radioactive substances could find their way into ground water, or contaminate other valuable resources or sites. It’s important to note that all nuclear waste stored in a manner that absolutely prevents any sort of nuclear reaction from occurring, i.e., nuclear waste cannot explode. Excessive radiation exposure can negatively effect humans, animals, and plant life.

Moreover, nuclear waste is something that cannot go away. It must be contained for the safety of the environment, and its storage is not something the world has prepared itself for. High level waste today is stored on site in nuclear facilities. This has been going on for decades, and the storage that a nuclear plant has is limited. One could say it’s irresponsible of the nuclear power industry to begin running nuclear facilities when such a significant aspect of the technology is unaccounted for. The practicality of nuclear power is in question when such enormous amounts of waste are created. This solution to man’s power needs should not be an absolute one, as there are a lot of implications that come with the commitment to continue dependency on such a wasteful power source. Perhaps solutions that don’t result in such large amounts of waste should be investigated.

Worker Safety

Worker safety issues arise in every industry and it is important to look at whether the workers themselves are being negatively affected by the nuclear activity in the plant. Here, we discuss the health effects on nuclear power plant workers who work in plants that operate normally and obey the U.S. regulatory standards. Regardless of whether society benefits greatly from the energy output from these power plants, it is important to examine the condition of the workers maintaining the plant.

The first concern that people have about nuclear power plants is radiation exposure. Only 2 to 4 radiation related deaths occur a year, which were caused by incidents where radiation exposure met the standard regulatory limits.9 However, these deaths are not related to nuclear power plants but other sources like abandoned medical equipment.10 Radiation exposure is not an issue for workers in nuclear power plants due to the implementation of radiation shielding.11 The shielding is usually made out of lead or steal and the entire reactor is in an airtight containment structure which is also resistant to natural events like tornados and earthquakes.12

Since the radiation exposure is so low, there is not much risk to the workers. However, some opponents might argue that exposing workers to minor amounts of radiation violates the “avoid harm to others” section of the code of ethics for the Association for Computing Machinery (ACM).13 Depending on the moral standards of the surrounding community, an additional argument is that exposing an individual to any sort of radiation is ethically unacceptable. If these power plants are not safe to work in, should they be implemented at all or does the benefit to society outweigh these minor risks? Since radiation exposure is a minor risk due to low exposure rates, the benefits of having nuclear power outweigh the risks. However, there are other risks that can play a factor in this decision.

Safety standards and implementation plans are a lot stricter in the nuclear industry compared to facilities that do not deal with nuclear material. The nuclear power plant industry “experiences only 0.34 accidents resulting in lost work time per 200,000 worker-hours, compared with a 3.1 average throughout private industry.”14 It is important to note that .34 accidents may be much smaller than 3.1 accidents, but the damage that can be done by a nuclear plant is much greater than the damage arising in private industry; consequently, there are several safety measures taken in order to prevent major nuclear disasters. There is no way to reduce risk by 100 percent but in order to reduce hazards in nuclear power plants, management teams employ multiple levels of safety causing an adherence to the ACM ethical code of “avoiding harm to others.” Tolerance for risk is based on personal standards and; therefore, can not be distinctly defined. Consequently, society determines acceptable levels of risk even though 100 percent risk elimination is not a possibility.

Worker Competency

Another concern regarding worker safety in the plant is whether or not the workers are properly trained in the safety techniques for running the power plant. Power plants are trying to be more competitive on the market by reducing labor and training costs. Some power plants are reducing costs by targeting senior employees for downsizing and cutting the safety budget.15 Lapses in safety and improper plant management could result in a higher probability for catastrophic failure. With a higher probability of failure, citizens and workers could be injured or killed due to plant damage or meltdown.

The three main ACM codes of ethics that are apparent when dealing with employee safety are “avoid harm to others,” “acquire and maintain professional competence,” and “articulate social responsibilities of members of an organizational unit and encourage full acceptance of those responsibilities.”16 In nuclear power plant accidents, there are many different groups of people that can be violating these codes of ethics: the plant owners, plant management, the government, and workers.

By knowingly lowering plant safety, people are being at risk and violating the “avoid harm to others” code. Having incompetent workers is harmful to others in society because of the increased risk of nuclear accidents. These accidents cause environmental problems, health problems, deaths of people in the surrounding area, as well as potentially harming plant workers.

It’s the worker’s responsibility to “acquire and maintain professional competence.” If workers are unable to complete their job assignments safely and properly he or she should inform management that more training is needed. Workers are hesitant to request training due to the fact that extra training may seem as though he or she is incompetent. In contrast, such behavior should be encouraged because plant workers have an obligation to seek help when needed due to the fact that the environment and people’s lives are at risk.

Moreover, it’s the management’s responsibility to “articulate social responsibilities of members of an organizational unit and encourage full acceptance of those responsibilities” because they have a responsibility to society to guarantee that workers are conducting themselves in a professional manner. They should not cut costs at the expense of the environment or other people’s health and safety.

Additionally, it is the plant owner’s responsibility to make sure that the plant is being run properly. They do not have as great an influence as plant managers, but they pressure the management to cut costs. It is also important for plant owners to “articulate social responsibilities of members of an organizational unit and encourage full acceptance of those responsibilities” due to the fact that they profit from its operation and have money invested in the plant. Consequently, it is their duty to make sure the plant is being run properly.

Finally, the government has an important role to protect citizens and regulate the industry properly. The ACM code states, “avoid harm to others;” therefore, the government is obligated to employ preventive plant measures. By placing safety regulations on the industry, the likeliness of plant managers and owners to cut safety costs decreases. In addition to imposing regulatory guidelines, it is necessary for the government to effectively conduct inspections and enforce safety regulations.

In an ideal world, the government should not need to educate nuclear power plant constituents regarding health and safety regulations but it is necessary to guarantee and maintain the constituent’s adherence to their personal responsibility to the environment and society. With government regulations in place, it gives the workers and the plant managers legal power to be whistleblowers if major lapses in safety occur. Furthermore, it is also the government’s responsibility to protect society and to step up as whistleblowers if needed.

Exterior Plant Conditions

Several environmental concerns are introduced in normally operated plants due to the fact that plant workers are required to handle dangerous materials. Generating nuclear power produces small amounts of radiation which could possibly harm humans; however, nuclear power plants are designed to shield radiation exposure.17 Moreover, small amounts of radiation have not been proven to directly cause illness. For example, cancer studies are routinely done to determine if certain areas of the United States have more cases of cancer than others. A cancer cluster is a location with an abnormally high amount of cancer cases. The American Cancer Society states in the Annual Facts and Figures 2005 that “reports about cancer case clusters in such communities have raised public concern, but studies show that clusters do not occur more often near nuclear plants than they do by chance elsewhere.”18 If there is not an abnormal amount of cancer cases in the area around a nuclear power plant then the dangers posed to humans via nuclear plant exposure is eliminated.

An additional exterior plant condition that effects the environment is the affect that the plant has on rivers, streams, or lakes used to cool the reaction process. As previously mentioned, nuclear plants generate excessive heat during power generation while using nearby bodies of water for the reaction. Consequently, a raise in water temperature in addition to radiation leaks can harm nearby aquatic life.

Issues regarding environmental obligations fall under the ACM code’s “avoid harm to others” clause.19 If a plant is running properly then there are no major effects on the health of the people surrounding the nuclear power plant. However, depending on one’s personal environmental ethics, there are environmental effects which violate the ethical code. For example, the rise in temperature could cause hazards for the surrounding water life because some organisms might not do as well in higher temperatures than others. Some organisms might survive in affected ponds and streams but the affect could harm our ecosystem and conflict with the natural balance in the body of water. From an environmental standpoint, such a harmful imbalance is ethically unacceptable.


1 “RBMK.” 20 April. 2005. Wikipedia. Retrieved from the World Wide Web: <>.

2 Freemantle, Michael. “Nuclear Power For The Future.” 13 September. 2004. Retrieved from the World Wide Web: <>.

3 Martin, Mike W., and Roland Schinzinger. Ethics in Engineering. New York. McGrawHill, 2005.

4 Martin, Mike W. and Roland Schinzinger.

5 Martin, Mike W. and Roland Schinzinger.

6 “Nuclear Power Plant Accidents.” 2005. Fact Monster. Retrieved from the World Wide Web: <>.

7 Retrieved from the World Wide Web: <>.

8 “Radioactive Waste: An international Concern.” Office of Civilian Waste Management. Retrieved from the World Wide Web: <>

9 “Safety of Nuclear Power Reactors.” June 1, 2005. Retrieved from the World Wide Web: <>.

10 “Safety of Nuclear Power Reactors.”

11 Thierens H, Vral A, Barbe M, De Ridder L. , “Micronucleus Assay Reveals No Radiation Effects Among Nuclear Power Plant Workers”, Health Phys. 2002 Aug;83(2):178-82. and “Radiological WMD “ June 1, 2005. Retrieved from the World Wide Web: <>.

12 “Radiological WMD ” June 1, 2005 . Retrieved from the World Wide Web: <>.

13 “ACM codes of ethics” June 1, 2005. Retrieved from the World Wide Web: <>.

14 “The Enemies of Nuclear Power.” June 1, 2005. Retrieved from the World Wide Web: <>.

15 “Public Benefits of Renewable Energy Use.” June 2, 2005. Retrieved from the World Wide Web: <>.

16 “ACM codes of ethics.”

17 “Prevent Harm & Shut Down Dangerous Plants.” June 1, 2005. Retrieved from the World Wide Web: <>. and “Radiological WMD.”

18 American Cancer Society “Annual Facts and Figures 2005.” June 3, 2005. Retrieved from the World Wide Web: <>.

19 “ACM codes of ethics.”