Environmental Externalities of Nuclear

Environmental externalities are an important cost associated with energy, but are a much more dispersed cost. Most of the other economic factors discussed in this report have related directly to the costs of energy companies, unless paid for by subsidy. For example, energy companies will have to buy the fuel, account for the reliability of an energy source, and build the necessary capital development. However, the environmental costs of an energy source are something not only paid for by energy companies, but by everyone to some degree. We all have a vested interest in the environment in varying degrees of capacity, which means we all foot the bill in some kind of way for environmental externalities.

Each energy source has some kind of environmental externality which is either obviously seen or more hidden. However, comparing environmental effects can be difficult as the effects are generally in completely different metrics. For example, how many birds and bats would have to be killed by wind farms in order to equal the amount of pollutions given off by a coal electricity generator? How much radioactivity exposure is equivalent to the environmental damages caused by liquid natural gas spills? It is like comparing apples to oranges.

Being emission-free is a popular concept and buzzword among many people. Out of the primary sources of energy which have been examined in this paper, wind, solar, and nuclear are all emissions free during the production of electricity. Hydro and geothermal are both emission free as well.

However, while this may be the case, emissions are not the only form of environmental effects related to energy production. A lot of the environmental externalities faced by energy production are faced during the mining of fuels, instead of the generating of electricity. For natural gas, reserves must be drilled to at depth. For renewables, rare earth elements must be mined. For coal and nuclear, mining also needs to take place.

When it comes to the environmental effects of nuclear energy, almost all of it has to do with the release of radioactivity, which is a unique from other forms of energy, which most concerns deal with emissions, animal deaths, etc. According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, there are two forms of radioactive waste associated with nuclear power: low level waste and high level waste. Low level waste is radioactivity associated with the mining of uranium which would include mill tailings and tools that came into contact with the uranium during mining. The current and common practice with dealing with low level waste is to seal it with barrier so that radon is unable to escape into the environment.

High level waste is more difficult, as this is the spent reactor fuel after electricity has been produced. High level waste is generally dealt with on a case by case basis. For Fort St. Vrain, the former nuclear power plant in Colorado, fuel is kept on site and is under the discretion of the Department of Energy. Thought there is currently no permanent repository for nuclear waste disposal in the United States.

The environmental effect, and in turn the health effects, of high levels of radiation should not be understated. After large amounts of radiation were introduced from Chernobyl, 42,000 people had to be evacuated within a 30 kilometer distance. Out of the 129 firefighters responding to the accident, 17 died of radiation sickness, and 13 others became seriously ill. Furthermore, residents experienced increased higher rates of thyroid cancer.

According to the EPA:

Ionizing radiation has sufficient energy to cause chemical changes in cells and damage them. Some cells may die or become abnormal, either temporarily or permanently. By damaging the genetic material (DNA) contained in the body’s cells, radiation can cause cancer. Fortunately, our bodies are extremely efficient at repairing cell damage. The extent of the damage to the cells depends upon the amount and duration of the exposure, as well as the organs exposed.


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