Risks of Nuclear Power Plants and Radioactive Waste: Safety and Health Concerns

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  • 0:07 Nuclear Power
  • 2:50 Meltdown
  • 3:18 Health Concerns
  • 5:07 Safety Concerns
  • 5:47 Radioactive Waste
  • 7:31 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Rebecca Gillaspy

Dr. Gillaspy has taught health science at University of Phoenix and Ashford University and has a degree from Palmer College of Chiropractic.

Nuclear power can generate electricity without greenhouse gas emissions. However, there are concerns about its safety. Learn about the safety and health concerns associated with the threat of nuclear meltdowns, as well as the challenges involved in storing radioactive waste.

Nuclear Power

Nuclear power certainly has its pros and cons. It is considered to be a climate-friendly energy source because it generates power without releasing carbon dioxide, which is a greenhouse gas thought to be harmful to the atmosphere. However, there are safety concerns that come with nuclear power, including the possibility that a nuclear power plant could accidentally release radiation into the environment or be targeted for a terrorist attack. There is also the issue of what to do with radioactive waste. In this lesson, we will explore the risks associated with nuclear power and discuss how radioactive waste is handled.

Most nuclear reactors are based on the concept of nuclear fission. Nuclear fission occurs when uranium nuclei are bombarded with neutrons. This bombardment breaks the uranium nuclei apart, releasing heat, radiation and more neutrons. The neutrons that are released cause a chain reaction as more uranium nuclei get bombarded, releasing massive amounts of energy. This explains how nuclear power plants can create so much electricity from only a small amount of uranium. However, it also helps explain some of the concerns governments, scientists and citizens have about the ramifications of an accident within a nuclear power plant.

Now, it's important to note that in a nuclear power plant, the uranium chain reaction is controlled. Therefore, a nuclear reactor cannot explode like an atomic bomb. This is because a nuclear bomb requires an uncontrolled chain reaction with highly-enriched uranium fuel. Uranium is a very heavy naturally-occurring element. Being an element, it can exist in different forms known as isotopes. Isotopes are different forms of the same element that contain different numbers of neutrons in their nucleus. The isotope U-235 is important because it can be used in the nuclear fission chain reaction to create a lot of energy.

Unlike the uranium used in a nuclear bomb, which is about 90% enriched with the isotope U-235, the uranium used in a nuclear reactor is only slightly enriched, to about four or five percent. This limits the amount of neutrons available for the fission chain reaction. Also, the chain reaction within the core of a nuclear reactor is controlled by control rods that absorb neutrons to control the rate of reaction. A nuclear bomb does not utilize control rods and, therefore, is an uncontrolled chain reaction.


Now, what can happen in a nuclear reactor is something called a meltdown. A meltdown is an accident in which severe overheating of the nuclear reactor results in the melting of the reactor's core. A meltdown could occur if there was a defect in the cooling system of the reactor that allowed one or more of the nuclear fuel elements to exceed its melting point. If a meltdown occurred, a nuclear power plant could release radiation into the environment.

Health Concerns

The biggest concern associated with a nuclear power accident is the negative effects that exposure to radiation can have on the human body. It is interesting to note that we are exposed to radiation naturally just by living our lives. Natural background radiation comes from outer space, and even radiates up from the ground below us. You may also have been exposed to a medical procedure, such as a CT scan, X-ray or nuclear medicine, such as an MRI, that utilized different types of radiation to diagnose problems or treat a disease.

For most people, the low-level exposure to radiation that comes from the environment and medical procedures does not result in any detectable health problems. However, if a person were exposed to significant amounts of radiation over a period of time, this exposure could damage body cells and lead to cancer. If a person were to be exposed to an acute dose of high-levels of radiation, the result would be radiation sickness. Radiation sickness is defined as illness caused by exposure to a large dose of radiation over a short period of time. Symptoms may include skin burns, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, hair loss, general weakness and possibly death.

In addition to personal health concerns, there are also environmental health concerns associated with nuclear power generation. Nuclear power plants use water from local lakes and rivers for cooling. Local water sources are used to dissipate this heat, and the excess water used to cool the reactor is often released back into the waterway at very hot temperatures. This water can also be polluted with salts and heavy metals, and these high temperatures, along with water pollutants, can disrupt the life of fish and plants within the waterway.

Safety Concerns

Since the World Trade Center attacks in New York City on September 11th, 2001, concerns have circulated that terrorists could target nuclear reactors with the purpose of releasing radioactive materials. While it cannot be completely predicted how a nuclear reactor would withstand a terrorist attack, it is worth noting that the containment walls that surround the nuclear reactor are typically constructed of an inner steel lining surrounded by two to five feet of reinforced concrete. Nuclear power plants within the United States are built to withstand hurricanes, tornadoes, earthquakes and small plane crashes.

Radioactive Waste

But perhaps the biggest challenge that comes with nuclear power is how to deal with the disposal of the radioactive waste that is generated during nuclear fission. Radioactive waste cannot be disposed of by conventional means. This is because some of the forms of radioactive waste, such as spent nuclear fuel rods, remain radioactive for hundreds or even thousands of years. This presents a tremendous challenge when it comes to proper disposal.

Currently, storage of spent fuel is handled onsite at the nuclear power plant. The spent fuel is first cooled underwater in steel-lined, concrete pools. After this initial cooling, the waste can be moved to above-ground containers that are built with steel-reinforced concrete walls. However, long-term storage is then required to allow the radioactive materials to decay. Long-term nuclear storage facilities must be located in stable geological locations that are not prone to flooding or natural disasters.

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