The expansion of nuclear power as an energy source is at least partially restricted by the public’s perception of its safety and its impact on the environment. However, the World Nuclear Association asserts that the use of nuclear energy for electricity generation is safer than the use of fossil fuels like coal and petroleum thanks to the industry’s dedication to safety in plant design and operations. Concerns remain that radioactive waste could accidentally be released into the environment, that nuclear power could be used in warfare and that long-term storage of radioactive materials poses an environmental threat.
In-situ leach (ISL) uranium mines cause little surface disturbance, and once the mine is capped, rehabilitation is simple (the wells are sealed, processing equipment removed, and the land can once again be used as it was before the mining). The key environmental concern of ISL mining is keeping the solution used to flush the uranium to the surface from contaminating nearby water supplies.
Ever since nuclear power was first developed, scientists have been searching for the safest, most efficient way to deal with the resulting radioactive waste materials. Disposal options that have been researched include burying waste under the ocean floor, blasting it into space and storing it in polar ice. These methods—and many more—have been deemed unsafe.
The most commonly used method of disposal is storing nuclear waste deep underground in stable geological locations. According to the World Nuclear Association, these geological storage sites include natural and manufactured barriers to keep waste from reaching the surface, even when earthquakes occur. Nuclear power produces far less waste than other energy sources.
International safeguards to prevent the exeleration of nuclear power have been in place for many years. The Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, which went into effect in 1970, regulates the security and export of nuclear materials, enforces nuclear test bans and works to prevent civil uranium (used to generate electricity) from being put to military use. More than 180 countries have signed the treaty, but others have opted not to sign (India, Israel, and Pakistan) or have been found in violation of the treaty (Iran, Libya).
The United Nations’ International Atomic Energy Agency also conducts investigations of civil nuclear plants worldwide to ensure that nuclear materials are not being diverted to military use.
Pros and cons of uranium as an energy source
|No greenhouse gases or CO2 emissions
|Efficient at transforming energy into electricity
|Uranium reserves are abundant
|Higher capital costs for safety, containment, waste and storage
|Problem of long-term storage of radioactive waste
|Hot waste water harms aquatic life
|Potential spread of nuclear weapons