Although a bane to many environmentalists, nuclear power is still considered a viable option when it comes to considering alternatives to coal-powered facilities. Nuclear power is usually created by splitting either a uranium or plutonium atom, but other radioactive elements can be used. The splitting releases an incredible amount of energy, which is used to heat water and drive a steam turbine.
The power plants are usually very clean and safe when operated correctly. However, problems associated with nuclear power include the partial meltdown of a reactor at Three Mile Island near Middletown, Pennsylvania, in 1979, and the explosion and widespread radioactive contamination experienced at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant in the former Soviet Union in 1986.
More than 100 nuclear power plants are currently operating in the United States. Waste produced from nuclear power plants includes high-level and low-level radioactive waste. High-level waste is the spent fuel. Although it's depleted, it continues to be radioactive for tens of thousands of years or longer and must be handled using remote-control equipment.
The spent fuel is stored temporarily in water-cooled pools and dry casks at nuclear power plants across the country. Permanent storage requires burial of the material deep underground, and there are currently no permanent storage facilities in the United States. The U.S. Department of Energy identified Yucca Mountain in Nevada as a suitable location for permanent storage. The governor of that state opposed the selection but was overruled. Licensing and permitting of the facility has been delayed. So for now, only temporary storage of nuclear waste is available.
Environmental concerns regarding the storage of nuclear waste generally stem from the transportation to the facility and the potential for a nuclear accident, spill, or terrorist attack. Nuclear waste is generally transported by rail to a place for storage, which because of its inherent dangers can impact the real-estate value along the transportation route as well as in the vicinity of the storage unit.
Low-level radioactive waste consists of items contaminated by radioactivity like rags, discarded clothing, and equipment. Low-level waste can be stored in shallow burials for upward of 50 years until radioactive levels are low enough for disposal of the material as a solid waste. The federal government allows states and tribal programs to operate storage facilities as long as they abide by standards at least as strict as the federal requirements. There are currently only four active locations approved for disposal of low-level radioactive waste.
According to the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS), the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) does not require nuclear facilities to be adequately prepared in the event of a terrorist attack. The UCS wants to see potential attacks from airplanes, trucks, and boats considered when designing safety features. They also encourage the distribution of potassium iodide, an agent used in radiation emergencies, to all nearby residents.
Mining for radioactive minerals can also be a dirty business. Mill tailings generated as part of the mining process contain low levels of radioactivity but have long half-lives, up to tens of thousands of years. The tailings are sandy, silty material that will emit radon as it decays — the second leading cause of lung cancer.
The NRC and other federal agencies including the EPA, Occupational Safety and Health Agency, the Food and Drug Administration, and the Department of Transportation regulate laws governing different aspects of the nuclear industry. Title 10, Part 20 of the Code of Federal Regulations (CFR) includes standards for protection against radiation and dose limits for radiation workers and the public, monitoring and labeling of radioactive materials, posting of radiation areas, and reporting when radioactive material has been stolen or lost.