As the world's population is set to reach 9 billion by 2050 the demand for electricity is going to continue to rise. There are many different methods available to generate electricity, each with their own set of positives and negatives. Nuclear energy is somewhat of a new technology and is gaining more interest as a way to produce power without the burning of coal or fossil fuels which produce carbon dioxide, a main driver of climate change. Although electricity generation from a nuclear method does not produce carbon dixoide that is not to say that it is a totally environmentally friendly alternative.
The waste produced as part of electricity generation is the main concern for both environmental and human health. There are a range of management options for dealing with this, some more effective than others.
This wiki aims to look at the state of the nuclear power environment. Not only in the strictest sense of the physical but also to explore and discuss its implications on the social, economic and legal environments. This will be done by examining the available indicators for these and looking at methods used in its management.
As New Zealand has a strong nuclear-free stance, the focus will be mostly international with specific case studies from the US
First the history and current state of nuclear energy will be briefly outlined. Trends and future projections will then be examined. The current issues concerning nuclear energy (waste, accidents and public opinion) will be discussed before turning attention to the indicators. For nuclear energy these are radiation levels, amount of radioactive waste produced, other emissions, uranium mining plus indicators related to social economic factors. As assessment of these indicators and the future prospects of indicators will follow. Lastly, management strategies that are being used to control some of the issues already stated will be put forward. Practical,legislative and regulatory tools are commonly used and will be illustrated in an example from USA
- the process by which the nucleus of an atom is split. In electricity production a uranium isotope, U-235, captures a neutron that it fired at it. This causes the nucleus to split in into two seperate nuclei which have combined mass less than the original. This loss of mass is converted into heat energy which can be used to heat water to produce steam that turns a turbine, thus creating electricity.
- Nuclear Fuel Cycle
- as shown by Figure 1,this can either be a once through (open) cycle when after the fuel has been used it goes straight to waste. It can also be a closed cycle when the used fuel is reprocessed for further production before disposal.
HistoryThe concept of nuclear energy is a relatively recent one. During the 1930s the discovery of the neutron evolved the research into the chemical reactions of radioactive elements. In 1939 Otto Hahn and Fritz Strassman found that firing a neutron into the nucleus of a Uranium atom caused it to split into two sub-equal parts <ref> Hore-Lacy, I. (2007) Nuclear Energy in the 21st Century. World Nuclear University Press. </ref>
Unfortunately, these discoveries coincided with the period in history in which the World War II dominated. This meant that most of the research and application of fission was for the purpose of creating atomic bombs rather than for power generation. This continued to be the focus in the United States of America and the Soviet Union during most of the Cold War. However, in 1946 the USA government established the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) to develop nuclear energy for peaceful civilian purposes <ref> U.S. Department of Energy. (1995) The History of Nuclear Energy. Washington: U.S. Department of Energy. </ref>. This resulted in the construction of an experimental reactor in Idaho which produced the first amount of electricity generated from nuclear energy on December 21, 1951 (Figure 2) <ref> U.S. Department of Energy. (1995) The History of Nuclear Energy. Washington: U.S. Department of Energy. </ref>. From the 1950s on, commercial nuclear power plants were developed and operated in countries all over the world.
As of July 2013 there is a total of 427 nuclear reactors operating worldwide, distributed throughout 31 countries with the capacity to generate 364 GW of energy <ref> Schnider, M. and Froggatt, A. (2013) The World Nuclear Industry Status Report 2013. http://www.worldnuclearreport.org/World-Nuclear-Report-2013.html#nh3-7 [Accessed: 1 October 2013]. </ref>. This provides approximately 10% of the world's power, with coal, gas and hydro still the dominant sources <ref> Amano, Y. (2012) International Status and Prospectus for Nuclear Power 2012. Vienna: International Atomic Energy Agency. </ref>. As shown by Figure 3, the countries currently producing the most nuclear power are the United States, France and Russia <ref> Schnider, M. and Froggatt, A. (2013) The World Nuclear Industry Status Report 2013. http://www.worldnuclearreport.org/World-Nuclear-Report-2013.html#nh3-7 [Accessed: 1 October 2013]. </ref>. The reactors in use can be divided into groups depending on what mechanism they use for cooling and moderating the fission process and its products. The type of reactor also varies with 82% of all commercially operating reactors use light water, 11% use heavy water, 3% use gas, 3% use water to cool and graphite to moderate and two reactors use liquid metal <ref> International Atomic Energy Agency. (2013) Nuclear Technology Review. Vienna: International Atomic Energy Agency. </ref>.
The current state of global nuclear governance can be examined in terms of safety and nonproliferation
The most important conventions on nuclear safety are the 1994 Convention on Nuclear Safety and the 1997 Joint Convention on the safety of Spent Fuel Management and on the Safety of Radioactive Waste. These commit the signed parties to strict rules and regulations from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) on safety. It also requires them to establish legislation to set up a national regulatory body that can conduct independent safety inspections before the development of a power plant and during its lifetime, all of which which the IAEA estimates would take five years to set up <ref> Alger, J. and Findlay, T. (2013) Strengthening global nuclear governance. Issues in Science and technology 27 (1): 73-79. </ref>. After the disasters at Chernobyl in 1986 and Three Mile Island in 1979 were found to both have been exacerbated by human error, stronger emphasis has been placed on creating a nuclear safety culture.
Nuclear nonproliferationThe fear that states would acquire civilian nuclear energy as a front for nuclear weapon manufacturing led to the 1968 Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty which prevents countries from spreading nuclear weapons. For a country to use their peaceful power plants to produce weapons they must have the ability to complete the full fuel cycle which included uranium enriching and plutonium reprocessing. Due to high expense and strict safeguards most nuclear countries do not possess the full fuel cycle. However, some states such as Iran, Egypt, Syria and Turkey are seeking the full fuel cycle saying they wish to enrich their own domestic uranium instead of being subject to international demand <ref> Alger, J. and Findlay, T. (2013) Strengthening global nuclear governance. Issues in Science and technology 27 (1): 73-79. </ref>. This is leading the USA and members of the G8 to review the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty with the aim of preventing any additional states from gaining enrichment capabilities.
As illustrated by Figure 4, all current projections show a rise in the amount of nuclear power that will be generated. The high projections (e.g. 100% growth by 2030 by the IAEA), assume that the global economics will be fully recovered from the recession and the demand for electricity will resume to levels predating this. It also takes into consideration that stricter polices to control the emission of carbon dioxide will be put in place, favouring non-fossil fuel energy sources <ref> International Atomic Energy Agency. (2013) Nuclear Technology Review. Vienna: International Atomic Energy Agency. </ref>. Although the low projection still shows growth, it has been reduced by 16% relative to previous projections that had not taken into account the impact of the Fukushima-Daiichi disaster.
The growth is predicted to occur in regions that already have nuclear power. One reason for this is that projections show an increase in nuclear energy output, but that does not necessarily equate in an increase in the number of reactors. Many reactors that are alrady in operation are set to undergo a process of uprating. This involves increasing their generating capacity this can be done by putting in more powerful steam turbines or generators,or replacing units with larger ones <ref> Schnider, M. and Froggatt, A. (2013) The World Nuclear Industry Status Report 2013. http://www.worldnuclearreport.org/World-Nuclear-Report-2013.html#nh3-7 [Accessed: 1 October 2013]. </ref>. For example, although between 2012 and 2013 two units are no longer in operation the installed capacity has remained identical. In 2012 the Nuclear Regulatory Commission approved six uprates in 2012 which increased capacity at the sites from 1.6% to 13.1%. Similar trends are prevalent in Europe with Sweden undergoing two upratings that would see their plants Oskarshamn-2 and Oskarshamn-3 undergo a 38% and 33% increase in capacity, respectively <ref> Schnider, M. and Froggatt, A. (2013) The World Nuclear Industry Status Report 2013. http://www.worldnuclearreport.org/World-Nuclear-Report-2013.html#nh3-7 [Accessed: 1 October 2013]. </ref>.
The construction of reactors has typically pursued economies of scale however, a trend towards small and medium sized reactors (<300 MW and 300-700 MW, respectively) is beginning to arise. Small and medium sized reactors are developed towards being used in isolated areas or where there are small electricity grids with limited interconnections, traits common in developing countries. They also reduce financial risk by allowing smaller financial investment and in the future small, transportable reactors are proposed which can be delivered as pre-constructed packages <ref> Amano, Y. (2012) International Status and Prospectus for Nuclear Power 2012. Vienna: International Atomic Energy Agency. </ref>.
Nuclear Accidents and Public Perceptions
The risk of a nuclear accident is managed as strictly as possible because the magnitude of effects from a catastrophic nuclear disaster would reach beyond the scope of human management. Nuclear accidents more commonly occur due human error, such as Chernobyl and Three Mile Hill; while others are caused by environmental stimulus such as the earthquake and associated tsunami responsible for the on-going problems at Fukushima.
Consequences of catastrophic accident
The consequences of a catastrophic accident are environmentally and socially devastating due to the release of radioisotopes into the environment. Radioisotopes affect the environment, people and animals depending on the length of half-life (which is the time it takes for the radioactive waste to decay into a non-dangerous state), the quantity released, and the form. Iodine -131 is a radioisotope with substantial impacts. It has a high prevalence in the reactor and so during an explosion is widely distributed and tends to settle on the ground although the first mechanism after the explosion by which it affects people or animals is through inhalation. After it has settled, it can enter the food chain through groundwater, contaminated food, dairy , fruit and veges after which is accumulates in the thyroid gland where it can cause cancer <ref> Christodouleas, J., Forrest, R., Ainsley, C., Tochner, Z., Hahn, S., Glatstein, E. 2011. Short-Term and Long-Term Health Risks of Nuclear-Power-Plant Accidents. The New England Journal of Medicine. 364:2334-2341 </ref>.
The main example of a significant nuclear explosion is that of Chernobyl in 1986. It released 400 times the amount of radioactive debris into the atmosphere than the atomic bombing of Hiroshima affecting 100,000 km2 of land, destroying ecosystems, i.e the aptely named “red forest” and fatally affecting animal species including boar, fish, horses and cattle, primarily as a result of the destruction of their thyroid glands due to radiation exposure. The disaster has resulted in a zone of alienation around Chernobyl of 30 kilometers in all direction of which is not deemed safe for human life for another 20,000 years <ref> Rahu, M., 2003. Health effects of the Chernobyl accident: fears, rumours and the truth. European Journal of Cancer. 39295-299 </ref>.
The consequential health conditions caused by the Chernobyl explosion, not including the 29 casualties caused by acute episodes of exposure from the initial explosion, range from radiation sickness, cancer, birth defects, abnormalities and social disarray. The rate of abortions after Chernobyl increased significantly, as did the amount of infants born with abnormalities or other health issues <ref> Rahu, M., 2003. Health effects of the Chernobyl accident: fears, rumours and the truth. European Journal of Cancer. 39295-299 </ref>.
Chernobyl is the largest nuclear disaster in history but the other incidents such as the most recent, Fukishima, Three mile Hill and smaller scale radiation exposure incidents has played a leading role in the development of intense controversy. It represents the potential effect nuclear energy has, and will continue to have, on the global environment. It is significantly more risky then other forms of renewable energy due to the nuclear weapons proliferation aspect and the sheer impact a catastrophe could have, not just initially, but for the times scale the consequences have to be managed for - i.e the Chernobyl case.
The cause of controversy
The risk associated with nuclear energy combined with environmental concern over waste disposal ; and the general public opinion of release of radioactivity during a potential catastrophic accident has caused a huge amount of public controversy over the topic of nuclear energy. It is obviously beneficial in regard to its role as a non-carbon energy resource however its links to atomic bomb and weapons development, the high economic costs, and overall risk has not convinced many people of its feasibility as a non-carbon energy resource <ref> Gamson, W & Modigiliani, 1989. A Media Discourse and Public Opinion on Nuclear Power: A Constructionist Approach. American Journal of Socialogy. 95(1) 1-37 </ref>. Prior to 1955 there was not a lot of concern, however media begun to report widely nuclear accidents which caused a stir. Therefore the media probably played an important role in the initial nuclear energy stir. After this episode, the U.S Atomic Energy Commission completed the first major piece of work citing the possible consequences of a nuclear catastrophe which started the first opposition organised by citizens in regard to nuclear power plants. Before this, opposition had roots based in a broad social themed movement but the recognition of the environmental risk from nuclear power initiated the development of an environmental agenda in regard to the concerns associated with nuclear energy. The public perception is generally wrought by concern over safety and the general wariness of high level waste disposal, weapon proliferation, catastrophic accidents and thermal water pollution. Incidents like Fukushima and Chernobyl were significant at igniting fear and casting doubt in the public's view of nuclear energy; particularly because of the catastrophic and involuntary nature that it poses <ref> Gamson, W & Modigiliani, 1989. A Media Discourse and Public Opinion on Nuclear Power: A Constructionist Approach. American Journal of Socialogy. 95(1) 1-37 </ref>
The following points are what proponents and opposition of nuclear energy base their arguments on.
- The proponents believe that nuclear energy is a reliable source of renewable energy with no greenhouse gas emissions and high energy load.
- They believe it will reduce pollution by taking the pressure off fossil fuels and also because nuclear energy produces very little pollution, like the other renewable energy options.
- They believe that nuclear energy gives countries energy independence compared to countries dependant on fossil fuels, Countries such as Australia and Canada are willing to export uranium at a competitive price (Uranium remains relatively unaffected by embargoes.)
- They argue that the issue of nuclear power waste can be solved through future technology improvements to reactors <ref> Van der plight, J. 1992. Nuclear energy and the public, social psychology and society. Malden: Blackwell Publishing. 193 pages </ref>.
- The opposition argue that the costs of nuclear energy are uneconomical. This includes costs associated with uranium mining for fuel, costs for the initial development and construction of the nuclear power plant, continuous costs of uranium fuel, waste disposal and eventually for de-comissioning.
- They believe the unresolved problem of nuclear waste; and environmental impacts of uranium mining, including massive water use, leakages and spills from the mines, and impact on indigenous livelihoods, are further negative aspects of nuclear power which outweigh the positives that come from it.
- Opposition view nuclear power as not being sustainable because uranium is not a finite resource and this comes with the idea that current mines have perhaps 50 years left which could cause the price of uranium to become volatile and therefore does not really make nuclear energy sustainable <ref> Van der plight, J. 1992. Nuclear energy and the public, social psychology and society. Malden: Blackwell Publishing. 193 pages </ref>.
Indicators of Environmental Quality
Role of Environmental Indicators
Environmental indicators can be used to tell us whether there is any variation in environmental quality, to assess whether policies, laws and other actions are having the desired effect over the long term environmental health, and to identify emerging issues and help develop future environmental policies <ref> Ministry for the Environment. (2013). Environmental Indicators Used to Measure New Zealand's Environment.http://www.mfe.govt.nz/environmental-reporting/about-environmental-reporting/national-environmental-indicators/environmental-indicators/index.html. [Accessed: 28 September 2013].</ref>. In regard to nuclear power, environmental indicators are of particular importance in maintaining the potential hazardous effects of radiation and radioactive waste on both humans and the environment, as well as identifying productivity levels for economic comparison with other energy sources. Nuclear environmental indicators are dependent on relative agency and vary worldwide. These indicators are documented in private-sector organisation and government reports, particular examples including the Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution presented to the British parliament, the United States Nuclear Regulatory Commission, and the Institute of Energy Economics in Japan. These wider reports along with specific reactor documents set a precedent for the management of nuclear power programmes, providing quantitative statistics that show performance compared with ideal thresholds.
Specific Nuclear Energy Indicators
There are a number of environmental performance indicators documented in nuclear reports that assess the environmental impact of nuclear energy. High emphasis is placed on maintaining a safe reactor for nearby human populations and the surrounding environment to the nuclear energy process. As a result, specific radiation and nuclear fuel temperature thresholds may be used to gauge reactor levels as well as to prevent core meltdown and consequent catastrophe. An example of this can be seen in the United States Nuclear Regulatory Commission, showing threshold levels for a number of variables ranging from unplanned scrams (emergency shutdown) and power changes to occupational exposure and emergency preparedness indicators <ref> United States Nuclear Regulatory Commission. (2012). Inspection Procedures & Performance Indicators. http://www.nrc.gov/NRR/OVERSIGHT/ASSESS/cornerstone.html. [Accessed: 29 September 2013]..</ref>.
The measurement of high-level radioactive waste emitted from nuclear sites is another key environmental performance indicator associated with the generation of nuclear energy. This indicator may be measured as the spent fuel generated at various stages of the nuclear energy cycle, from uranium mining and milling, enrichment, and the operation of nuclear reactors through to the decommissioning of reactors, where typically at the end of the power plant’s life, about 10,000 tonnes of medium to high level radioactive waste and 10,000 tonnes of low to medium level radioactive waste are in need of disposal <ref> Lenzen, M. (2008). Life cycle energy and greenhouse gas emissions of nuclear energy: A review. Energy Conversion and Management. 49; pgs. 2178–2199.</ref>. As a result it is important to monitor the annual spent fuel of a plant to ensure levels do not exceed what may be safely disposed.
Measurement of atmosphere composition provides a valuable indicator in determining nuclear energy emission levels, although this form of energy has been found to be a low emitter of greenhouse gases, with previous studies showing that the most popular reactor types, Light and Heavy Water Reactor’s produce greenhouse gas intensities on average of 65-66 g CO2-e for every kWh of electricity generated <ref> Lenzen, M. (2008). Life cycle energy and greenhouse gas emissions of nuclear energy: A review. Energy Conversion and Management. 49; pgs. 2178–2199 </ref><ref> Sovacool, B.K. (2008). Valuing the greenhouse gas emissions from nuclear power: A critical survey. Energy Policy. 36; pgs. 2950– 2963 </ref>. Monitoring of emissions from individual power plants continues to justify nuclear energy as an environmentally friendly alternative in regard to emissions, with emission levels steady at a similar level with other proposed renewable energy sources (Figure 1).
Social indicators for nuclear energy may include changed employment levels, risk perceptions, social consensus, and changed cultural impact, with obvious indications found to be stress attributed to hazard vulnerability and a degree of social conflict created through nuclear energy’s controversial nature <ref> Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development. (2008). Broad impacts of nuclear power. http://www.oecd-nea.org/brief/brief-09.html [Accessed: 26 September 2013] </ref>.
Economic performance indicators are highly variable worldwide, differing with the extent in which privatisation is occurring, with regulated monopolies and government subsidies for power generation occurring in some nuclear countries while in others electricity is sold in an open and competitive market <ref> International Atomic Energy Agency.(2006). Economic Performance Indicators for Nuclear Power Plants. Technical Reports Series. No. 437. </ref>. There are a number of economic indicators directly applied to the operation of nuclear power plants, fitting into measures of productivity, profitability, safety, valuation, operating expense, capitalisation, cost of service, and finally measures of market condition and orientation <ref> International Atomic Energy Agency.(2006). Economic Performance Indicators for Nuclear Power Plants. Technical Reports Series. No. 437. </ref>. Economic indicators can be seen at both national and regional levels, and provide opportunities for management to enhance efficiency while reducing costs.
A final indicator used to gauge the environmental performance of the nuclear energy process is the monitoring of the uranium extracted through mining. The amount of uranium mined is subject to demand so this indicator provides an indication of the energy supplied at a certain time by the plant. To supply enough annual enriched fuel for a standard 1000MW reactor, about 200 ton of natural uranium has to be processed (sovacool). There are also land-use implications with uranium mining, with open pit excavation (30% uranium used) in particular involving the largest of material to be removed from the land <ref> Lenzen, M. (2008). Life cycle energy and greenhouse gas emissions of nuclear energy: A review. Energy Conversion and Management. 49; pgs. 2178–2199 </ref>.
Evaluation of Current Nuclear Energy Indicators
Assessment of Current Indicators
The importance placed on reducing the potentially hazardous effects related to nuclear power programmes, as well as maintaining economically efficient energy generation has led to close monitoring worldwide of existing environmental performance indicators. Major organisations worldwide; for example the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) in Europe, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission in the US, and the World Nuclear Association have conducted a significant amount of research on nuclear energy, resulting in a large quantity of data available and consequent reliable environmental performance indicators. There is variability in certain indicators used association with nuclear energy, with key measures of economic success and social perception for the nuclear power industry differing widely from one region or country <ref> International Atomic Energy Agency.(2006). Economic Performance Indicators for Nuclear Power Plants. Technical Reports Series. No. 437.</ref>. In contrast specific threshold levels for radiation and waste safety would be similarly applicable in reactors worldwide, with adequate scientific information providing a general basis for all indicators in regard to safety and the environment.
Response to Current Indicators
Over time the response of management has been to tighten control of nuclear indicators through policy implementation, the result of this being improvement in many indicators, including power generation and waste efficiency as well as air quality. This has been achieved through systems of regular checks and reviews adopted toward achieving numerical targets set in relation to indicators <ref> Tokyo Electric Power Company. (2013). Environmental Indicators (Performance and Targets). http://www.tepco.co.jp/en/challenge/csr/initiatives/indicators-e.html. [Accessed: 2 October 2013] </ref>. Although the amount of radioactive waste is projected to accumulate annually, as seen in Figure 2 there has been a decreasing trend in the annual quantity of spent fuel arisings since 1990 primarily due to improvements in plant and process efficiency <ref> European Environment Agency. (2012). Nuclear energy and waste production (ENER 013). http://www.eea.europa.eu/data-and-maps/indicators/nuclear-energy-and-waste-production/nuclear-energy-and-waste-production-3. [Accessed: 1 October 2013] </ref>. This response is especially significant as at the same time reactor capacities and electricity demand are becoming larger, resulting in a higher overall total of energy produced over this time.
The effectiveness of measures taken in response to current indicators may be described as adequate and effective across the board. Another example of performance indicator improvement can be seen in the IBERDROLA nuclear power plants in the U.S, where following the Fukushima accident in Japan, safety reassessment stress tests are continuously carried out looking at the robustness of nuclear plants designs to cope with extreme natural hazards and other safety challenges <ref> Iberdrola. (2013). Management and Nuclear Performance Indicators. http://www.iberdrola.com/webibd/corporativa/iberdrola?cambioIdioma=ESWEBRESINDSOSN. [Accessed: 3 October 2013] </ref>. The implementations of tests such as these are also accompanied by the documentation of indicator trends continues to improve the safety and efficiency of nuclear energy production, effectively resulting in nuclear becoming an increasingly viable energy option moving forward.
Future Role of Environmental Indicators
On a national scale, the importance of environmental indicators in assessing effects of nuclear energy can be seen by looking at France’s energy success. The country has been the top performer in the Low-Carbon Competitiveness Index provided by Yale University that assesses both carbon emissions and economic prosperity (Malik, 2013). This ranking has been attributed largely due to having a cost-efficient nuclear energy supply providing 78.6% of the power generation as well as one of the cheapest electrical bills and CO₂ emissions in the European Union for electricity generation (Commisioner for alternate….). This example shows how specific environmental indicators will continue to play an important role in the evaluation process of nuclear energy performance in the future, providing a means of comparison to other energy generation alternatives as well as assessing effects on surrounding people and the environment. While quantitative data comparisons will continue to provide ways to specifically improve specific safety, economic, and environment performance indicators, research should be given to improving social performance indicators of nuclear energy in order to obtain a more favourable social consensus and perception towards the ever improving energy alternative.
The key aim in managing the negative effects of nuclear energy is to protect people and the environment from harm. This section outlines the range and effectiveness of management responses by making comparisons and references to nuclear energy operations worldwide, but with a particular focus on the United States. The production of nuclear energy involves three major areas that need to be managed and regulated: (1) the reactor in the power plant; (2) transportation of radioactive materials; and (3) storage of used radioactive fuel <ref>Macfarlane M, Ewing R eds. (2006) Uncertainty underground, Yucca Mountain and the nation’s high-level nuclear waste. Massachusetts Institute of technology press, Cambridge </ref>.
Practical Management Response
Types of Waste to Manage
The radioactive waste produced from nuclear energy is the area of most significant concern when managing nuclear reactors to generate electricity<ref>Efremenkov, V.M. 1989. RadioActive Waste Management at nuclear power plants, An overview of the types of low- and intermediate level wastes and how they are handled, IAEA Bulletin, a</ref>. The toxic waste requires careful handling and highly technical procedures. The greatest challenge faced in this area has been developing and refining technologies to prevent the risks associated with nuclear power plants and the radioactive waste produced <ref>M.R. Greenberg, Nuclear Waste Management, Nuclear Power and Energy Choices Chapter 1: Managing the Nuclear Legacies, Springer-Verlag London 2013</ref>. The industry has developed technologies that are capable of disposing of the waste safely. The method employed depends on the type of waste being managed and it varies between low-level, intermediate-level, and high-level wastes<ref>Efremenkov, V.M. 1989. RadioActive Waste Management at nuclear power plants, An overview of the types of low- and intermediate level wastes and how they are handled, IAEA Bulletin, a</ref>. The waste needs to be either contained or diluted to an extent that it is harmless to the environment. Low level waste accumulates from materials which come into minor contact with nuclear radioactivity, but may contain small amounts of radioactivity. For example, tools, clothing, filters, pipes and valves can all contain low levels of ‘short-lived’ radioactivity. It is no more harmful than other common industrial wastes and is usually incinerated or disposed of by shallow burial. This accounts for 90% of the volume but only 1% of radioactivity. Low-level wastes in liquid form are often discharged into the ocean, but the radiation levels are not harmful to humans or the environment, and do not exceed natural levels. Some gaseous discharge is released into the atmosphere which contains small amounts of radioactive gases. They have a short half life and are not considered to pose a threat by most regulators. <ref>Efremenkov, V.M. 1989. RadioActive Waste Management at nuclear power plants, An overview of the types of low- and intermediate level wastes and how they are handled, IAEA Bulletin.</ref> Intermediate-level waste requires a slightly more rigorous management response, and usually some degree of isolation or shielding. High-level waste is of most concern and requires the most thorough management response. Essentially, it is the product of uranium or plutonium that has been burned in the nuclear reactor, known as radioactive waste or burned fuel. It is extremely radioactive and hot. It requires cooling, storing, and containing. This type of waste poses high risk to the environment if not managed adequately. See below for a more in depth analysis. <ref>Efremenkov, V.M. 1989. RadioActive Waste Management at nuclear power plants, An overview of the types of low- and intermediate level wastes and how they are handled, IAEA Bulletin.</ref>
Disposal of High level Radioactive Waste
High level radioactive waste is comprised of radioisotopes from elements such as uranium, which are unstable. When they decay they emit ionizing radiation which can be deadly to humans and the environment. This type of waste is typically spent nuclear fuel rods which contain fission products that emit gamma and beta radiation. Radioactive waste is therefore a contentious environmental issue because it requires sophisticated and complex treatments to isolate it from the biosphere to protect the environment from its detrimental effects. This issue is further complicated by the time-scale that waste must be managed for, estimated to be 10,000 to a million years due to the slow decay of some radioisotopes. The section will briefly cover the present and proposed methods of waste disposal in terms of protecting the environment from the adverse affects of nuclear waste <ref> Chapman, N & McKinley, I. 1987. The geological disposal of nuclear waste. United States </ref>.
The present most favoured method of waste disposal is deep geological storage however the implementation of long-scale management programmes has had little progress due to the enormity of the task at hand. This is further made difficult by extreme public and political hostility because nobody wants to host highly radioactive waste in their country because of the environmental risks and length of commitment surrounding it, the threat of terrorism. This is even despite hefty economic incentives attached and the verdict from experts that this method of waste disposal can be safe and is capable of protecting the environment from leakages <ref> Kasperson, R., Berk, G., Pijawka, P., Sharaf, A., Wood, J. 1980. Public Opposition to Nuclear Energy: Retrospect and Prospect. Science, technology and Human values. 5 (31) 11-23 </ref>.
The current status and success rate for concealment of waste material by geological storage have varied. The Asse II research turned waste storage mine in Asse, Germany was found to be leaking brine contaminated with radioactive material since 1988 into groundwater systems. The study of environmental impacts and future implications from this situation is currently incomplete <ref> Schwartz, M. 2009. Modelling groundwater contamination above the Asse 2 medium-level nuclear waste repository, Germany. Environmental Earth Sciences 59(2) pp 277-286. </ref> The Bartensleben salt mine turned deep geological storage mine in Germany is in a state of collapse despite concrete salt being pumped into it as an attempt to stabilize it <ref> Hocke, P., & Renn, O. 2009. Concerned public and the paralysis of decision‐making: nuclear waste management policy in Germany. Journal of Risk Research, 12(7-8), 921-940 </ref> This second example outlines another issue associated with the method of deep geological storage, the stability and security of waste mines, which further convinces sceptics that this method of storage is not adequate. Many of the proposed sites for storage of high level waste have been declined after being deemed environmentally unsuitable because of inappropriate rock formations or facing up against strong opposition <ref> Van der plight, J. 1992. Nuclear energy and the public, social psychology and society. Malden: Blackwell Publishing. 193 pages </ref>
Other Options being considered for the disposal of nuclear waste include transmutation reprocessing and space disposal .
Transmutation is the process whereby the chemical components of the waste material are converted into a less harmful version through the application of chemical compounds which drive the change by causing the protons to hit the reaction materials. This process occurs naturally over long periods of time and is the main idea behind geological storage whereby time allows for the waste to convert to non-fissionable waste material <ref> Hileman, B. 1982. Nuclear waste disposal. Environmental Science & Technology, 16(5), 271A-275A </ref>.
Space disposal involves exiling waste material into space so earth would not have to deal with any of the issues associated with the decay of material in the atmosphere. However the logistics and economics involved make space disposal not a very feasible option. The amount of waste able to be launched into space per shuttle would be very small compared to the amount produced, with each shuttle being economically significant. Furthermore if the shuttle was to explode on the way out, nuclear waste would be scattered far beyond the measure of human control causing an environmental catastrophe of unprecedented levels <ref> Saaty, T., & Gholamnezhad, H. 1982. High-level nuclear waste management: analysis of options. Environment and Planning B, 9(1), 181-196 </ref>.
Reprocessing involves the separation of useful material from other less useful material. In terms of nuclear waste this specifically refers to the separation of irradiated nuclear fuel from the fissionable material. Many are opposed to this method because it is believed reprocessing would lead to increased instances of nuclear proliferation through the spread of fissionable materials . Fissionable materials are those which, after capturing high-energy neutrons, are capable of undergoing fission and therefore are a concern in regard to nuclear weapon development and terrorism <ref> Hileman, B. 1982. Nuclear waste disposal. Environmental Science & Technology, 16(5), 271A-275A </ref>.
The controversy and lack of progress towards a successful management programme of high level waste is concerning considering current nuclear power plants are still producing energy at full capacity, but nobody seems to want to take responsibility for the waste. Methods have been combined (excluding space disposal) and it some instances have been successful; but the overall trend seems to be that social, environmental and political factors; and the sheer amount of time require; are limiting the implementation of a successful and safe method of waste disposal.
Managing the Waste
Some countries such as the UK, France, Germany, Russia, and Japan have adopted techniques to recycle radioactive material, while other countries simply store or dispose of the radioactive material <ref>Flowers,B. 1976. Nuclear Power and the Environment, Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution, London</ref>. The recycling of material normally involves separating unrecoverable waste from recoverable uranium and plutonium, which can then be reused as reactor fuel. The recycling and reprocessing of used reactor fuel is an effective way to manage the waste. Not only does it limit risk of environmental pollution, but it saves the expense of acquiring uranium and plutonium, both very valuable resources. The hot radioactive liquefied material is cooled, vitrified (turned into glass), and then contained in heavy stainless steel drums<ref>Efremenkov, V.M. 1989. RadioActive Waste Management at nuclear power plants, An overview of the types of low- and intermediate level wastes and how they are handled, IAEA Bulletin.</ref>. The drums are kept in storage ponds to keep the waste cool and act as a shield from the surrounding environment. The ponds, which are made of robust metallic materials, are normally 7-12m deep, and designed to hold the waste for the life of the reactor which is about 40-50 years. The waste then decays to levels around 0.1% of the original level which makes the waste easier to handle and dispose of. At this stage, the waste can be disposed of by burying it underground.<ref>Efremenkov, V.M. 1989. RadioActive Waste Management at nuclear power plants, An overview of the types of low- and intermediate level wastes and how they are handled, IAEA Bulletin.</ref> An impermeable clay layer is sometimes used to act as a further seal to prevent escape of nuclear waste. One benefit of this management method is that it provides a potential resource for future generations. Other countries such as the United States, Sweden and Finland do not use such separation methods and instead directly dispose of all of the material, without separating the recoverable uranium and plutonium <ref>M.R. Greenberg, Nuclear Waste Management, Nuclear Power and Energy Choices, Chapter 1: Managing the Nuclear Legacies, Springer-Verlag London 2013</ref>. These countries either store the waste or dispose of it in a deep and stable underground rock structure. The inherent risk of this management method is that natural disasters, such as earthquakes or tsunamis, can cause the waste to escape and cause devastating harm to the environment or people. The United States, which hosts 104 major nuclear power plants, nuclear power plants and waste sites are built away from cities to minimize the risk of harm to people in the event of a disaster. However, most of the non-reprocessing countries are now researching or building surface repository sites that store the radioactive waste until it decays and is safe to dispose of <ref>M.R. Greenberg, Nuclear Waste Management, Nuclear Power and Energy Choices, Chapter 1: Managing the Nuclear Legacies, Springer-Verlag London 2013</ref>.
Law and Regulation
The regulation of the nuclear waste industries is guided by both international organisations, governmental authorities, and industry organisations. International organisations help to develop general standards and guidelines that are agreed upon - to aid countries in setting an effective framework to regulate the nuclear waste industry. From these, countries form their own policies, legislation, and regulations, in order to protect both people and the environment from the potential effects of nuclear waste. The first multilateral instrument in relation to safeguarding the use of nuclear energy was the Statute of the International Atomic Energy Agency in 1957 <ref> Dupont, Pierre-Emmanuel. “Compliance with Treaties in the Context of Nuclear Non-Proliferation: Assessing Claims in the Case of Iran” (2013) Journal of Conflict and Security Law, vol. 18. Published by Oxford Journals. <http://jcsl.oxfordjournals.org/> </ref>. The agreement formed the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) which is the most central cooperative organisation in the nuclear field. The Agency works with its Member States worldwide to promote safe, secure, and peaceful nuclear technologies. Its role as an international safeguard includes monitoring and inspections of declared facilities <ref> “IAEA & Iran” (2013) International Atomic Energy Agency. Vienna, Austria. http://www.iaea.org/newscenter/focus/iaeairan/index.shtml </ref>. However, its ability to undertake such inspections and monitoring is reliant upon the particular countries government to cooperate and declare all nuclear facilities <ref> Kerr, Paul. K. “Iran’s Nuclear Program: Tehran’s Compliance with International Obligations” (31 July 2013) Congressional Research Service</ref>. While these agreements are essential, it is difficult to monitor and enforce the agreed obligations. For example, Iran claims to be making energy for peaceful purposes and states that it is in full compliance with agreements such as the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons. Yet the IAEA disagrees, and claims that Iran is creating nuclear energy for the purpose of weapons, as their nuclear energy production greatly exceeds their own needs <ref> Ghannadi-Maragheh, Dr. M. “Atomic Energy Organization of Iran” (4-6 September 2002) World Nuclear Association Annual Symposium. http://www.world-nuclear.org/sym/2002/pdf/ghannadi.pdf </ref>.
An Example of Local Regulation - the USA
In the United States, nuclear energy generation and waste is regulated by a mixture of both federal and state laws. All federal agencies are required to prepare environmental impact statements of actual and potential impacts on the environment. This obligation has been codified since 1970 under the National Environmental Policy Act <ref>Greenberg M, Krueckeberg D, Kaltman M, Metz W, Wilhelm C (1986) Local planning v. national policy: urban growth near nuclear power stations in the United States. Town Plann Rev 57:225–238</ref>. In response to the effects of nuclear waste, The Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation and Liability Act play an important role in locating, containing, and cleaning up nuclear related effects on the environment. The Resource Conservation and Recovery Act help’s to regulate the generation, disposal, and storage of hazardous waste. Nuclear materials and facilities are regulated by the Atomic Energy Act 1946. The release of gaseous emissions is regulated by the Clean Air Act 1963. The release of pollutants into waterways is regulated by the Clean Water Act 1972. Other relevant legislation includes: The Nuclear Waste Policy Act 1972, The Occupational Safety and Health Act 1970, and the Toxic Substances Control Act 1976.<ref>M.R. Greenberg, 2013. Nuclear Waste Management, Nuclear Power and Energy Choices Chapter 1: Managing the Nuclear Legacies Springer-Verlag London</ref> In the United States, the Department of Energy (USA) plays a key role managing the environmental effects of nuclear energy <ref>The role of environmental management in Closing the Circle on the Splitting of the Atom (OEM, DOE 1995, p vii)</ref>. The Department was established by the Office of Environmental Management in 1989 to manage the storage and disposal of high-level radioactive waste <ref>Fehner T, Holl J (1994) Department of Energy, 1977–1994, a summary history. DOE/HR-0098.USDOE, Washington, DC.</ref>. Part of its role is to remediate decommissioned sites, which involves handling and securing used materials, landscaping, drainage, and ongoing monitoring of sites.
Another important part of nuclear waste management is ensuring that the public understands how nuclear waste is managed <ref>Flowers,B. 1976. Nuclear Power and the Environment, Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution, London</ref>. In the United States, parties such as the Department of Energy (DOE) is responsible for informing the public and listening closely to its views. Notification of nuclear activities is particularly important to people who live near to nuclear power plants and transportation routes, because they are the ones who would suffer if an escape was to occur. <ref>M.R. Greenberg, Nuclear Waste Management, Nuclear Power and Energy Choices, Chapter 1: Managing the Nuclear Legacies, Springer-Verlag London 2013</ref>. The DOE is required to receive public input when preparing environmental impact statements and assessments. The public needs to have confidence that nuclear facilities, disposal sites, incinerators, and transportation mechanisms are of a standard that minimizes disaster. However, despite the ongoing production of nuclear energy, a large part of the satisfying the public has been the response of government to move to alternative energy sources. For example, there has been a large increase worldwide in moving to sources such as solar, wind, hydro, gas, and coal; all of which have much lower environmental risks<ref>M.R. Greenberg, Nuclear Waste Management, Nuclear Power and Energy Choices, Chapter 1: Managing the Nuclear Legacies, Springer-Verlag London 2013</ref>.
Nuclear energy as a main source to help meet global electricity demands may become a reality in the future if current projections and trends are accurate. However, it is not a sustainable method as the waste produced remains harmful for hundreds of thousands of years and the supplies of uranium used in the process are not infinite.
The current knowledge of the nuclear energy environment comes from a range of indicators. These indicators are mostly reliable as they come from a variety of sources with an unbiased stance. The indicators continue to improve in value as new policies are regulations are forcing them to tighten up.
The current management methods to deal with waste from nuclear power productions are set up by strict laws and regulations. However; the problem of waste disposal is not resolved and continues to be hindered by intense public scepticism. Distrust by the public of the government in regard to nuclear energy and associated issues is one of the biggest challenges to be overcome in terms of the future of nuclear energy. Incidents such as Chernobyl and Fukushima have convinced the public that nuclear energy is not safe in contrary to what they were told in the past.
If nuclear energy was risk free and posed no threat to the environment and people; it would have been widely implemented by now.