Nuclear power, as with all power sources, has an effect on the environment through the nuclear fuel cycle, through operation, and potentially through the disposal of waste.

Waste heat

As with any thermal power station, nuclear plants exchange 60 to 70% of their thermal energy by cycling with a body of water or by evaporating water through a cooling tower. This thermal efficiency is slightly greater than that of coal fired power plants.

The cooling options are typically once-through cooling with river or sea water, pond cooling, or cooling towers. Many plants have an artificial lake like the Shearon Harris Nuclear Power Plant or the South Texas Nuclear Generating Station. Shearon Harris uses a cooling tower but South Texas does not and discharges back into the lake. The North Anna Nuclear Generating Station uses a cooling pond or artificial lake, which at the plant discharge canal is often about 30°F warmer than in the other parts of the lake or in normal lakes (this is cited as an attraction of the area by some residents). The environmental effects on the artificial lakes are often weighted in arguments against construction of new plants, and during droughts have drawn media attention.

The Turkey Point Nuclear Generating Station is credited with helping the conservation status of the American Crocodile, largely an effect of the waste heat produced.

The Indian Point nuclear power plant in New York is in a hearing process to determine if a cooling system other than river water will be necessary (conditional upon the plants extending their operating licenses).

It is possible to use waste heat in cogeneration applications such as district heating. The principles of cogeneration and district heating with nuclear power are the same as any other form of thermal power production. One use of nuclear heat generation was with the Ågesta Nuclear Power Plant in Sweden. In Switzerland, the Beznau Nuclear Power Plant provides heat to about 20,000 people. However, district heating with nuclear power plants is less common than with other modes of waste heat generation: because of either siting regulations and/or the NIMBY effect, nuclear stations are generally not built in densely populated areas. Waste heat is more commonly used in industrial applications.

During Europe's 2003 and 2006 heat waves, French, Spanish and German utilities had to secure exemptions from regulations in order to discharge overheated water into the environment. Some nuclear reactors shut down.

Uranium mining can use large amounts of water - for example, the Roxby Downs mine in South Australia uses 35 million liters of water each day and plans to increase this to 150 million litres per day.

Radio Active

Radioactive waste typically comprises a number of radioisotopes: unstable configurations of elements that decay, emitting ionizing radiation which can be harmful to humans and the environment. Those isotopes emit different types and levels of radiation, which last for different periods of time.


fission products
Q *
155Eu 4.76 .0803 252 βγ
85Kr 10.76 .2180 687 βγ
113mCd 14.1 .0008 316 β
90Sr 28.9 4.505 2826 β
137Cs 30.23 6.337 1176 βγ
121mSn 43.9 .00005 390 βγ
151Sm 90 .5314 77 β
fission products
Q *
99Tc 0.211 6.1385 294 β
126Sn 0.230 0.1084 4050 βγ
79Se 0.295 0.0447 151 β
93Zr 1.53 5.4575 91 βγ
135Cs 2.3 6.9110 269 β
107Pd 6.5 1.2499 33 β
129I 15.7 0.8410 194 βγ

The radioactivity of all nuclear waste diminishes with time. All radioisotopes contained in the waste have a half-life—the time it takes for any radionuclide to lose half of its radioactivity—and eventually all radioactive waste decays into non-radioactive elements. Certain radioactive elements (such as plutonium-239) in “spent” fuel will remain hazardous to humans and other creatures for hundreds of thousands of years. Other radioisotopes remain hazardous for millions of years. Thus, these wastes must be shielded for centuries and isolated from the living environment for millennia.[2] Some elements, such as iodine-131, have a short half-life (around 8 days in this case) and thus they will cease to be a problem much more quickly than other, longer-lived, decay products, but their activity is much greater initially. The two tables show some of the major radioisotopes, their half-lives, and their radiation yield as a proportion of the yield of fission of uranium-235.

The faster a radioisotope decays, the more radioactive it will be. The energy and the type of the ionizing radiation emitted by a pure radioactive substance are important factors in deciding how dangerous it is. The chemical properties of the radioactive element will determine how mobile the substance is and how likely it is to spread into the environment and contaminate humans. This is further complicated by the fact that many radioisotopes do not decay immediately to a stable state but rather to a radioactive decay product leading to decay chains.


Actinides Half-life Fission products
244Cm 241Pu f 250Cf 243Cmf 10–30 y 137Cs 90Sr 85Kr
232U f
238Pu f is for
69–90 y

151Sm nc➔
4n 249Cf f 242Amf 141–351 No fission product
has half-life 102
to 2×105 years
251Cf f 431–898
240Pu 229Th 246Cm 243Am 5–7 ky
4n 245Cmf 250Cm 239Pu f 8–24 ky
233U f 230Th 231Pa 32–160
4n+1 234U 4n+3 211–290 99Tc
126Sn 79Se
248Cm 242Pu 340–373 Long-lived fission products

237Np 4n+2 1–2 my 93Zr 135Cs nc➔
236U 4n+1 247Cmf 6–23
107Pd 129I
80 my >7% >5% >1% >.1%
232Th 238U 235U f 0.7–12by fission product yield

Exposure to high levels of radioactive waste may cause serious harm or death. Treatment of an adult animal with radiation or some other mutation-causing effect, such as a cytotoxic anti-cancer drug, may cause cancer in the animal. In humans it has been calculated that a 5 sievert dose is usually fatal, and the lifetime risk of dying from radiation induced cancer from a single dose of 0.1 sieverts is 0.8%, increasing by the same amount for each additional 0.1 sievert increment of dosage. Ionizing radiation causes deletions in chromosomes. If a developing organism such as an unborn child is irradiated, it is possible a birth defect may be induced, but it is unlikely this defect will be in a gamete or a gamete forming cell. The incidence of radiation-induced mutations in humans is undetermined, due to flaws in studies done to date.

Depending on the decay mode and the pharmacokinetics of an element (how the body processes it and how quickly), the threat due to exposure to a given activity of a radioisotope will differ. For instance iodine-131 is a short-lived beta and gamma emitter, but because it concentrates in the thyroid gland, it is more able to cause injury than caesium-137 which, being water soluble, is rapidly excreted in urine. In a similar way, the alpha emitting actinides and radium are considered very harmful as they tend to have long biological half-lives and their radiation has a high linear energy transfer value. Because of such differences, the rules determining biological injury differ widely according to the radioisotope, and sometimes also the nature of the chemical compound which contains the radioisotope.

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