The 3 Main Environmental Drawbacks of Nuclear Fission: The Big Picture

The 3 Main Environmental Drawbacks of Nuclear Fission: The Big Picture

By
Grace Smoot

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Nuclear fission has faced controversy over its use of radioactive materials, but it is still an energy source that can help us ensure a sustainable future for generations to come. It can play a vital role in mitigating climate change, yet no energy source comes without drawbacks. So, we had to ask: What are the environmental drawbacks of nuclear fission?

The main environmental drawbacks of wind energy are that it is a nonrenewable energy source that can negatively impact the environment because it generates nuclear waste. Overall, nuclear fission is still considered to be an environmentally friendly energy source.

Keep reading to find out all about what the environmental drawbacks of nuclear fission are, how safe and dangerous it is, what its pros and cons are, and how nuclear fission can specifically help mitigate climate change.

The Big Picture of the Environmental Drawbacks of Nuclear Fission

Nuclear fission, one of two ways to produce nuclear energy, is the generation of energy produced when splitting apart the nucleus of an atom. 

Nuclear fission: a nuclear reaction in which a heavy nucleus splits spontaneously or on impact with another particle, with the release of energy.”

Cambridge Dictionary
Illustration of the nuclear fission process
International Atomic Energy Agency: Nuclear Fission

All operating nuclear power plants today utilize the process of nuclear fission. Because of this, nuclear fission is commonly referred to as ‘nuclear energy’ in the data and literature. 

Related: Are you interested in learning more about the big picture of nuclear fission? Check it out in this article here: “How Does Nuclear Fission Work? From Source Til Energy Generation
How Environmentally Friendly is Nuclear FissionOverall, nuclear fission is considered to be environmentally friendly in its operating stage but not in its building and building back stages due to the environmental threats of uranium mining and nuclear waste.
Drawback #1: Nuclear fission is a nonrenewable energy sourceNuclear fission is classified as nonrenewable energy because nuclear fuel (Uranium) is a finite material that can only be found in certain locations in the Earth’s crust.
Drawback #2: Nuclear fission can negatively impact the environmentUranium mining can contaminate the environment with radiation, water-borne toxins, and radon gas.
Drawback #3: Nuclear fission produces nuclear wasteRadioactive waste products include uranium mill tailings, spent (used) reactor fuel, and other radioactive wastes. 

What Are the 3 Main Environmental Drawbacks of Nuclear Fission

Nuclear fission is a nonrenewable energy source that can negatively impact the environment via its production of nuclear waste.

Environmental Drawback #1: Nuclear Fission is a Nonrenewable Energy Source

Nuclear energy is a nonrenewable energy source that will eventually be depleted.

Environmental Drawback #1

Nonrenewable energy sources are those that will run out in our lifetime or will not be replenished in many, many lifetimes. 

Nonrenewables: existing in limited quantities that cannot be replaced after they have all been used”

Cambridge Dictionary

Nuclear fission is classified as nonrenewable energy because nuclear fuel (Uranium) is a finite material that can only be found in certain locations in the Earth’s crust.

Nuclear power plants use the second most common isotope of Uranium (U-235) which has a relative abundance of only 0.7%. And most of the original U-235 on earth has already decayed because it has a half-life of about 700 million years.

Although nuclear power plants use only tiny amounts of Uranium in the fission process and can be used as a reliable energy source for decades to come, we will still run out at some point. And once we run out of Uranium-235, we won’t be able to generate the nuclear fission reaction anymore.

Environmental Drawback #2: Nuclear Fission Can Negatively Impact the Environment

Uranium mining can contaminate the environment with radiation, water-borne toxins, and radon gas.

Environmental Drawback #2

The main fuel source for nuclear fission is Uranium, a naturally occurring, radioactive element found in the Earth’s crust. Mining Uranium involves digging either open-air pits or access shafts and tunnels. 

Uranium mining contaminates the environment with radioactive dust, radon gas, water-borne toxins, and increased levels of background radiation. Exploratory drilling and mining also heavily increase the risk of contaminating aquatic ecosystems. Small amounts of pollutants can poison and bioaccumulate in fish, cause reproductive problems and deformities in aquatic species, and contaminate water and land-based ecosystems for hundreds of years.

Environmental Drawback #3: Nuclear Fission Generates Nuclear Waste

Nuclear fission produces nuclear waste that is radioactive and can remain hazardous for many years.

Environmental Drawback #3

Although nuclear power produces minimal waste, the waste that it does produce is radioactive and can remain hazardous for many thousands of years. These radioactive waste products include uranium mill tailings, spent (used) reactor fuel, and other radioactive wastes

There are three types of nuclear wastes that are classified based on their radioactivity:

  • High-level: Used nuclear fuel from the nuclear reactions accounting for 3% of the total volume of nuclear waste and containing 95% of the total radioactivity.
  • Intermediate-level: Used filters, steel components, and effluents from reprocessing accounting for 7% of the total volume of nuclear waste and containing 4% of the total radioactivity.
  • Low-level: Lightly contaminated items like tools and work clothing account for 90% of the total volume of nuclear waste and contain 1% of the total radioactivity.

High-level nuclear waste poses a threat if not disposed of and isolated from the environment properly because it remains radioactive for many years. 

What Are the 4 Environmental Benefits of Nuclear Fission

Nuclear fission has a low carbon footprint and land use footprint, protects air quality, and produces very few waste products.

4 Environmental Benefits of Nuclear FissionQuick Facts
Benefit #1: Nuclear fission has a low carbon footprint On a life-cycle basis, nuclear fission emits 12 grams of CO2 equivalent per kWh of electricity produced, the second lowest out of all fuel types.
Benefit #2: Nuclear fission protects air qualityNuclear fission is a clean burning source of energy that produces minimal greenhouse gasses and emits no CO, SO2, or NOx, thereby helping to protect air quality.
Benefit #3: Nuclear fission has a small land footprintA standard, 1,000-megawatt nuclear fission facility requires only a little more than 1 square mile to operate, a number that is 360 and 75 times less than what is required for wind farms and solar power plants, respectively.
Benefit #4: Nuclear fission generates few waste productsA nuclear fission reactor supplying a person’s energy needs for an entire year produces only a brick-sized amount of nuclear waste
Related: Are you interested in learning more about the environmental benefits of nuclear fission? Check out the full article here: “The 4 Environmental Benefits of Nuclear Fission: The Big Picture

How Environmentally Friendly Is Nuclear Fission

Overall, nuclear fission is not considered to be environmentally friendly.

Environmentally friendly: (of products) not harming the environment.”

Cambridge Dictionary

Nuclear fission varies in environmental friendliness. The operating and maintenance stage is more environmentally friendly when compared to the building and building back stages.

How environmentally friendly is the building of nuclear fissionThis stage is not considered to be environmentally friendly because of the negative environmental effects associated with uranium mining and nuclear waste. 
How environmentally friendly is the operating and maintaining of nuclear fissionThis stage is considered to be environmentally friendly because minimal emissions are produced, and nuclear accidents are rare occurrences in the overall history of nuclear energy.
How environmentally friendly is the building back of nuclear fissionThis stage varies in environmental friendliness. Essentially, the smaller the nuclear facility, the more environmentally friendly the building back stage is considered. 
Related: Are you interested in learning more about how environmentally friendly nuclear fission is? Check it out in this article here: “How Environmentally Friendly Is Nuclear Fission? A Life-Cycle Assessment

How Safe or Dangerous Is Nuclear Fission

Overall, nuclear fission is considered to be minimally dangerous. Holistically and throughout its life cycle, fission is safe and beneficial for human and animal health, the environment, and the energy grid. It is also significantly safer than fossil fuels and some other types of renewable energy.

Related: Are you interested in learning more about how safe or dangerous nuclear fission is? Check it out in these articles here: 

Here’s How Safe Nuclear Fission Is

Overall, nuclear fission is a safe form of energy regarding human and animal health, the environment, the energy grid, and throughout all stages of its life cycle.

How Safe Is Nuclear Fission at a Holistic LevelHuman and Animal Health: Nuclear fission is considered safe when it comes to human and animal health due to the rarity of nuclear accidents in fission’s overall history.
Environment: Nuclear fission emits minimal greenhouse gas emissions and has a minimal effect on the environment, provided that proper siting of nuclear facilities and disposal of nuclear waste occurs.
Energy Grid and Infrastructure: Nuclear fission is not only safe, but it is also a beneficial addition to our energy grid and supporting infrastructure. 
How Safe Is Nuclear Fission Across Its Life-CycleBuilding: Safe work practices and proper training can mitigate the risks associated with the building stage of nuclear fission.
Operating and Maintaining: Nuclear fission is generally considered safe to operate and maintain if proper precautionary measures are followed
Building Back: This final stage is considered to be safe overall, with the hazard of handling, containing, and disposing of spent nuclear fuel able to be mitigated with proper procedures and safe work practices.
How Safe Is Nuclear Fission In Comparison to Other Types of EnergyNuclear fission is one of our safest forms of energy that has one of the lowest death rates from accidents and air pollution per unit of electricity generation.

Here’s How Dangerous Nuclear Fission Is

Overall, nuclear fission is considered minimally dangerous in terms of human and animal health, the environment, the energy grid, and through all stages of its life cycle. 

How Dangerous Is Nuclear Fission OverallOverall, nuclear fission is considered minimally dangerous in terms of human and animal health, the environment, the energy grid, and through all stages of its life cycle.
How Dangerous Is Nuclear Fission at a Holistic LevelHuman and Animal Health: Nuclear fission can be dangerous to human and animal health if proper measures are not in place.
Environment: Nuclear fission is minimally dangerous to the environment, provided that proper siting of nuclear facilities and disposal of nuclear waste occurs.
Energy Grid and Infrastructure: Nuclear fission is not considered to be dangerous to our energy grid and supporting infrastructure.
How Dangerous Is Nuclear Fission Across Its Life-CycleBuilding: Nuclear power plant construction and uranium mining come with risks involving radiation exposure
Operating and Maintaining: The uncontrolled release of radioactive material is the main concern associated with operating nuclear fission.
Building Back: Decommissioning nuclear facilities comes with risks involving direct contact with spent nuclear fuel.
How Dangerous Is Nuclear Fission in Comparison to Other Types of EnergyNuclear fission is one of our safest forms of energy that has one of the lowest death rates from accidents and air pollution per unit of electricity generation.

What Are The 6 Pros and 3 Cons of Nuclear Fission

Nuclear fission has a low carbon footprint, protects air quality, has a small land footprint, is energy dense, generates few waste products, and promotes energy independence.

However, nuclear fission is also a nonrenewable energy source that can negatively impact the environment and generate nuclear waste.

Related: Are you interested in learning more about the pros and cons of nuclear fission? Check out the full article here: “Nuclear Fission: All 6 Pros and 3 Cons Explained

What Are the 6 Pros of Nuclear Fission

Nuclear fission has a low carbon footprint, protects air quality, has a small land footprint, is energy dense, generates few waste products, and promotes energy independence.

6 Pros of Nuclear FissionQuick Facts
#1: Nuclear fission has a low carbon footprint On a life-cycle basis, nuclear fission emits 12 grams of CO2 equivalent per kWh of electricity produced, the second lowest out of all fuel types.
#2: Nuclear fission protects air qualityNuclear fission produces a fraction of the pollution and toxic chemicals that fossil fuels produce, helping to protect air quality.
#3: Nuclear fission has a small land footprintOverall, nuclear fission uses only 0.3 square meters of land per megawatt-hour of electricity produced, the lowest out of all energy types.
#4: Nuclear fission is energy denseA single, 1-inch tall Uranium-235 pellet contains the energy equivalent of 1 ton of coal, 120 gallons of oil, or 17,000 cubic feet of natural gas.
#5: Nuclear fission generates few waste productsA nuclear fission reactor supplying a person’s energy needs for an entire year produces only a brick sized amount of nuclear waste.
#6: Nuclear fission promotes energy independence and energy securityNuclear fission can help us transition away from fossil fuels and towards an energy-independent future.

What Are the 3 Cons of Nuclear Fission

Nuclear fission is a nonrenewable energy source that can negatively impact the environment and generate nuclear waste.

3 Cons of Nuclear FissionQuick Facts
#1: Nuclear fission can negatively impact the environmentThe process of Uranium mining can contaminate the environment with radiation, water-borne toxins, and radon gas. 
#2: Nuclear fission generates nuclear waste Nuclear fission produces nuclear waste including uranium mill tailings, spent (used) reactor fuel, and other radioactive wastes that can remain hazardous for many years to come.
#3: Nuclear fission is not a renewable energy sourceNuclear energy is a nonrenewable energy source that we will eventually deplete. 

How Effective and Efficient Is Nuclear Fission

In terms of effectiveness, nuclear fission effectively generates nuclear energy that has a low carbon footprint, protects air quality, and promotes energy independence. However, it is also a nonrenewable energy source. 

In terms of efficiency, nuclear fission efficiently generates nuclear energy, has a small land use footprint, and generates few waste products.

Nuclear fission is effective because:

However, a main drawback associated with nuclear fission is that it is classified as a nonrenewable resource. Once we run out of Uranium-235, we won’t be able to generate the nuclear fission reaction anymore.

Nuclear fission is efficient because:

Related: Are you interested in learning more about how effective and efficient nuclear fission is? Check out the full article here: “How Effective and Efficient Is Nuclear Fission?” 

How Can Nuclear Fission Help Mitigate Climate Change

Climate change is a severe, long-term consequence of fossil fuel combustion. If left untreated, atmospheric CO2 can remain there for tens of thousands of years and exacerbate the negative effects of climate change. Nuclear fission emits less CO2 upon operation than fossil fuels and can therefore reduce our total emissions. 

How Is Climate Change Defined

Climate change is arguably the most severe, long-term global impact of CO2. Every year, we emit approximately 37 billion tons of CO2. The carbon found in fossil fuels reacts with oxygen in the air to produce CO2

Climate change: changes in the earth’s weather, including changes in temperature, wind patterns, and rainfall, especially the increase in the temperature of the earth’s atmosphere that is caused by the increase of particular gasses, especially carbon dioxide.

Oxford Dictionary

When carbon enters the atmosphere, it absorbs sunlight and solar radiation, trapping the heat and acting as an insulator for the planet.

Since the Industrial Revolution, Earth’s temperature has risen a little more than 1 degree Celsius (°C), or 2 degrees Fahrenheit (°F). Between 1880-1980 the global temperature rose by 0.07°C every 10 years. This rate has more than doubled since 1981, with a current global annual temperature rise of 0.18°C, or 0.32°F, for every 10 years

How Does Nuclear Fission Specifically Help Mitigate Climate Change

The global average concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere today registers at over 400 parts per million, the highest ever recorded. Nuclear fission can help lower this concentration because it can replace some of the burning of fossil fuels (e.g., coal, oil, natural gas) with a cleaner form of renewable energy.

Nuclear fission helps to avoid 1.5 gigatons of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions per year and 180 billion cubic meters of global gas demand per year. In the past 50 years, nuclear energy has helped avoid over 70 gigatons of GHG emissions

Increasing nuclear fission usage can reduce CO2 emissions, and the more we reduce CO2 emissions, the more we combat the negative effects associated with climate change including temperature rise, sea-level rise, ice melting, and ocean acidification. When these rates are slowed, the earth’s biodiversity does not have to struggle to adapt to temperature and pH changes. People will not be displaced due to the flooding of coastal areas. And icebergs will continue to provide climate regulation. 

Final Thoughts

Nuclear fission is a nonrenewable energy source that can negatively impact the environment via its production of nuclear waste. But overall, nuclear fission is still considered to be an environmentally friendly energy source.

Environmentally friendly energy is poised to see continued growth in the future as we look to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and mitigate global warming. As we look towards a future without fossil fuels, nuclear fission can help us bridge the gap in a time of transition.

Stay impactful,

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