Contrary to what the television commercials and the nuclear industry would like us to believe the nuclear fuel cycle is far from safe and green. The process of mining, milling, and building nuclear power plants requires huge amounts of energy obtained from fossil fuels. Thus, this process alone produces carbon dioxide emissions and is not green.
The nuclear fuel cycle is harmful in other ways.
Nuclear energy depends upon elemental uranium 235, which is naturally radioactive and undergoes decay, meaning it spontaneously radiates or ejects radioactive energy. Once uranium 235 is removed from the earth and extracted from the ore that once cradled it, much soil and dirt is left behind. These tailings are loaded with other radioactive elements such as radon 222 and radium 226, which contaminate the air, land, and water tables in the surrounding areas for many years.
People need to know that there are three forms of radiation that consists of both particles and waves:
1. Alpha particles
2. Beta particles
3. Gamma photons
Radiation is undetectable through the human senses and this works against us in our learning and knowing process. Radiation harms us through ionizing the atoms and molecules that comprise our body cells, hence the term “ionizing radiation.”
There are three ways that radiation harms us:
1. Radiation is carcinogenic, meaning it causes cancer. It only takes one radioactive particle, for example, to damage a human cell. Children are particularly vulnerable because their bodies are “containers” of much cellular growth.
2. Radiation is mutagenic, meaning it mutates our egg and sperm cells and causes birth abnormalities.
3. Radiation is teratogenic, meaning it has the ability to infiltrate the mother-child placenta barrier. Unborn babies are particularly vulnerable because their bodies are “containers” of much cellular growth.
Uranium 235 is a gamma ray emitter, is carcinogenic, and causes bone cancer. Radon 222 is an alpha emitter, is carcinogenic, and causes lung cancer. Radium 226 is both an alpha and gamma ray emitter, is also carcinogenic, and causes bone cancer. These are the radioactive elements we are exposed to simply through the act of mining uranium.
In addition to these radioactive elements, creating nuclear energy through uranium fission produces additional radioactive elements such as strontium 90, iodine 131, cesium 137, and plutonium 239. Strontium 90 is both a beta and gamma ray emitter and causes bone cancer and leukemia. Iodine 131 is both a beta and gamma ray emitter and causes thyroid cancer. Cesium 137 is also both a beta and gamma ray emitter and causes muscle and brain cancer. Plutonium 239 is an alpha emitter that is both mutagenic and teratogenic and causes genetic mutations and gross deformities in our newborns.
Disturbingly, through the process of “venting,” nuclear reactors routinely release these radioactive by-products into the atmosphere. In this way too our air, land, and water becomes contaminated for many years.
In summary, uranium mining and processing produces carbon dioxide. While this in itself means that it is not a green process, uranium mining also contaminates the air, land, and water with radon, radium and other radioactive elements. Furthermore, through the process of generating energy through uranium fission, additional radioactive elements are created. We simply cannot afford to limit discussions about safe and green energy to carbon dioxide emissions. We must also consider radioactive emissions.