Human and environmental health and safety

Nuclear power generation is not without human health and environmental risk. In fact, this is an underlying theme in any consideration of the issues of proliferation, economics and waste management, and the subsequent ambivalence about embracing nuclear unequivocally as an appropriate response to climate change.

Any full life-cycle analysis would point to potential emissions from reactor construction and mining as well as from the actual nuclear reactor operation. There are radioactive tailings, leftover sludge, contamination of groundwater and the surrounding environments to be dealt with. Reactors use huge quantities of water. They are also potential sources of routine and accidental releases of radio nuclides and other toxic substances. And, of course, radioactive wastes are themselves highly toxic and include elements with very long half lives. Direct exposure is fatal. Indirect exposure, through seepage into groundwater, for example, can lead to life-threatening illness.

Physical, chemical and biological stresses on wetlands, waterways, land, groundwater and air sheds can result from activities as diverse as the building of necessary infrastructure, transportation, mining, fuel fabrication, transmission of electricity and, ultimately, decommissioning and management of waste. Furthermore, the effects may be local and widespread, cumulative and intergenerational. Another consideration is that nuclear power generation is not entirely carbon neutral. The estimates of greenhouse gases produced vary widely depending upon the assumptions made about factors such as the quality of the uranium ore used for fuel, waste management and decommissioning requirements.

While modern reactors can achieve a very low risk of serious accidents, the 1979 and 1986 reactor accidents at Three Mile Island and Chernobyl, respectively, have had a lasting impact upon public confidence. Undoubtedly, concern about safe and secure plant operations, ageing equipment and materials and transportation of nuclear materials have grown since 9/11. Due to the fact that there has, of yet, been no experience with waste repositories for used nuclear fuel, uncertainty remains about their safety.

Arguably, through long-term monitoring of environmental impacts, rigorous environmental assessment processes and regulatory regimes, we are identifying and mitigating risk to the environment. There is opportunity to assess and mitigate impacts so that environmental integrity is maintained over the long term.

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