How nuclear energy affects the environment

The nuclear energy is probably the most controversial of all sources of energy available today. Despite being a highly efficient and economical technique compared to others, and relatively clean compared to other fossil fuels, it continues to create rejection among society. The reason is the disastrous consequences that an accident in a plant can cause, either by an explosion or by a natural phenomenon such as an earthquake. We will tell you below how nuclear energy affects the environment.

Carbon dioxide

One of the arguments put forward by the defenders of nuclear energy is that its production in nuclear plants does not entail an emission of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. Although it is true that this process is cleaner than, for example, that of a conventional thermal power plant, it is also true that to extract the uranium and to transport it to the power plants, there is a consumption of carbon dioxide that must also be taken into account.

Nuclear waste

The main problem with nuclear power, along with fear of potential accidents, is what to do with the waste that is generated. These can last for thousands and thousands of years and retain their radioactive power, so they must be safely locked up, locked in so-called nuclear cemeteries, which are a short-term exit but not a definitive solution, taking into account the time that they must be underground and completely isolated until they pose no threat to people and the environment.


Despite relatively few accidents at nuclear power plants, the impact of just one of these events is a real catastrophe. In the collective imagination is the accident at the Chernobyl power plant, in Ukraine, and the most recent one in Fukushima after the tsunami that devastated the Japanese coast in 2011. The exposure of people, animals and plants to large amounts of radiation is fatal to medium and short term, depending on the intensity of it, produces diseases such as cancer and malformations, and is transmitted through the food chain, contaminating crops and animals.

The true consequences of a nuclear accident of these magnitudes are not exactly known until, years later, all the damage caused to the environment can be assessed. In addition, they are not limited to the immediate surroundings of the plant, since radioactive releases after a nuclear accident can travel long distances through air or water, depending on where the spill occurs.

The fear of an accident, although the chances are very low thanks to all the security measures, is one of the main causes of the rejection that nuclear power plants tend to generate wherever they are installed. That same fear extends to the possibility that a large attack or a natural phenomenon such as an earthquake could also cause a major disaster.

Water cooling

The water-cooling systems used to prevent the power plants from overheating are also damaging to the environment, since they require large amounts of water from the sea or rivers, which often carry aquatic fauna. By returning this water to its natural environment, increases in temperature can also occur that harm the animals and plants used to living in this environment.

Positive aspects

Nuclear power, however, also has virtues that make it so attractive in the end for many countries, despite the misgivings they generate. It is much cheaper than other sources and generates large amounts of energy, and it is also the one that emits the least carbon dioxide into the atmosphere during its production process in the plant (only surpassed in cleaning, and at a short distance, by wind energy). Likewise, nuclear power plants take up very little space compared to the entire surface needed by solar or wind farms, hydroelectric power plants or some biomass plants.

The debate, many decades after the commissioning of the first plant, continues to be present in society, sometimes with more intensity and others with less, but without being resolved definitively.

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