Potential Health Hazards of Nuclear Plants

Radiation effects on health, particularly when there are accidents and radioactive waste leakage, are the main public concerns with nuclear power plants. Nuclear power plants are usually built near large bodies of water, like a river, because it needs large mount of water to cool off. About two-thirds of the nuclear plant’s energy becomes waste heat, which is transported through the river. But waste heat is not contaminated with radioactive materials.

The most significant challenge facing a nuclear plant is the disposal of highly radioactive spent fuel, which is made up of uranium, curium, plutonium, among others. These waste products would need oversight in their waste storage because they’d take thousands of years before turning into non radioactive materials. The storage of radioactive chemicals over a long period of time poses the threat of contamination when there will be accidents or a sabotage that would destroy the storage location. Two of the most tragic nuclear accidents are known as the Chernobyl and the Three Mile Island disasters.

The explosion in Chernobyl, Ukraine, resulted to the death of approximately 50 plant workers due to severe radiation exposure, nine kids from cancer of the thyroid, and future fatalities of about 4,000 due to radiation-related cancers. The Three Mile accident caused the plant nuclear reactor to partially melt, but fortunately, no radiation, or very little of it, was released to the environment. Nuclear power plants are vulnerable to accidents like the meltdown of a reactor, damage caused by earthquake, and attacks from terrorists.

No matter how well maintained a nuclear facility is, it would somehow leak radioactive chemicals to the environment. When the facility itself is abandoned, it will pose a radiation problems for a very long time. 2 Aside from the major radioactive chemicals, nuclear power plants also produce waste with low levels of radiations, like clothing, resins, and tools. These waste materials are treated as normal waste because the radiation they emit is just the same as that of coffee. To the environment, the primary hazards are the indirect production of greenhouse gases, waste heat, and uranium mining.

While nuclear power plants pose potential hazards to the environment through contamination or accidents, they also present several risks to the health of people near it or even those situated a few miles from the plant. The by-product of nuclear power plants are radioactive gases and solids that must remain inside the facility to prevent major health risks. However, it is unavoidable for nuclear plants to emit radioactivity in air and water. Among the major health risks associated with nuclear power plants are: death as a result of exposure to radioactive materials, cancers, mutations, and other abnormalities.

Death Uranium is used for fuel. It provides enormous amounts of energy. But being a radioactive metal, it releases ionizing or penetrating radiation, which when taken in large doses can result to instantaneous death. Radiation by penetration affects the entire body system by leaving high levels of energy in the tissues. At low doses, cell ionization can be repaired through normal regeneration process. But in large doses, this could result to cell damage, cell death, and bone marrow cell death.

All living creatures that are within the area of a nuclear explosion or accident will die right away as shown in the Chernobyl 3 disaster. The impact of the explosion coupled with the release of toxic materials made death inescapable. When nuclear plants explode, as in the case of Chernobyl, the long term effects can only be determined through time. It remains to be seen whether more people will fall prey to cancer and die. To get a parallel picture, Hiroshima was exposed to very high levels of radiation due to a nuclear fallout.

The impact of that could be used as a basis for researchers in determining the long-term effects of radioactive exposure. Radiation Effects Research Foundation has been studying for decades the rates of death in the region and found a 0. 7% rate increase in radiation-induced cancer death . In other cases, the exposure to uranium may not be direct. The nuclear plant could accidentally release through its waste disposal system doses of the metal in the river, which could find its way in fishes that will be eaten by people. Or, uranium can be inhaled through dusts.

When inhaled, uranium is mainly left in the lungs, which could cause lung cell damage. Once ingested, the substance will then enter the bloodstream causing severe damage to the kidney, which filters it from the blood. The main chemical damage associated with uranium is kidney failure that would lead to death depending on the toxicity level. When the level of toxicity is relatively low, kidney cell damage occurs but the organs can repair itself after the uranium is expelled from the body.

Cancer Nuclear plant workers who are in the proximity of large amounts of uranium that are being stored or being kept for processing are constantly exposed to low levels of the substance. The primary radiologic impact of this low level but constant exposure is a higher probability that a person may develop cancer during his lifetime. Cancers caused by radiation are not easy to distinguish from those that occur naturally. Nuclear facilities are often located nearby large communities or areas with high population to serve their energy needs. When accidents occur, the short-term consequences could be felt by both adults and children.

However, children are more vulnerable to the long-term effects of being exposed to radiation . Children have higher rates of breathing, oftentimes because of their activities. As a result, children can inhale more radioactive particles in the air. Especially damaging to them is the inhalation of radioactive iodides, which causes thyroid cancer. Four years after the Chernobyl disaster occurred, there was a notable rise in Ukraine and Belarus in the number of people affected with thyroid cancer, especially in children and adolescents.

The accident caused the released of massive amounts of radioiodines. Within the first four years of the disaster, thyroid cancer among very young children was at least 30 times higher than expected. Plutonium is another radioactive substance that is used in nuclear plants to produce massive amounts of energy. It can be released to the environment through accidents or as emissions of nuclear reactors. Constant exposure to plutonium can cause serious damage to the human body. There are three ways in which it can reach the system: inhalation, ingestion and open wound contamination.

When ingested, plutonium won’t have any significant effect because the gastro-intestinal organs have poor absorption of the substance and it is immediately expelled from the body through urine or feces. As for open wound 5 contamination, this seldom occurs since people handling them do so using protective clothing and mechanical tools. The biggest health hazard for plutonium is when it is inhaled as insoluble oxides, which are very minute in size. Plutonium that is inhaled gets transferred from the bronchial passage to the lungs and the gastro-intestinal system.

Some of the particles will get lodged in the lungs, while others will move to other parts of the body. Because of its minuteness, some particles will be trapped and transferred to the bloodstream or the lymphatic system before moving to the liver and bones where they get deposited. Plutonium particles left in the body will continually expose surrounding tissues and cells to radiation. The substance emits alpha particles that ultimately causes cancer to the liver, bones, and lungs. It is also believed that plutonium could probably affect childbirth and impair the body’s ability to fight diseases.

These claims remain to be proven through studies (Hore-Lacy, 2008). Cell Mutation and Damage Tritium One of the emissions from nuclear power plants is tritium, a radioactive hydrogen that is naturally occurring in the environment in very small doses. However, due to nuclear power plant emissions, tritium level in air and water has tremendously increased to dangerous levels. Radioactive water vapor is continuously formed and released while a nuclear reactor is in operation. Meanwhile, tritiated water discharges from nuclear plants are the result of discharges and spills when pipes and valves are opened for maintenance purposes.

There is no technology at present that could prevent the release of tritium from 6 nuclear facilities either in gas form or as water. Tritium’s half-life is 12. 3 years and turns into helium when decayed. As an external radiological source, it does not pose a significant threat because of its very low emission. But when ingested via water, food, or absorbed by the skin, can result to cell mutation and damage. Tritium is responsible for emitting radionuclide beta particles that are carcinogenic, mutagenic and teratogenic.

When inhaled or ingested, these beta particles would then act to destroy cells. Should a beta particle damage a DNA molecule, cell mutation generally occurs, which eventually results to fatal illnesses in the body. Tritium beta particles incorporated in DNA molecules of living organisms deliver radiation to the body, and this substance could be present in the body for at least a decade. Fairlie (2007) in a study of nuclear power facilities in Canada noted that tritium levels in rivers near those plants have up to five times the amount of the substance compared to rivers without nuclear reactors.

Aside from the higher level of tritium in rivers, Fairlie also found out that there are higher concentrations of tritium in drinking water and in vegetation near power plants. Tritiated water goes wherever water flows, either in the atmosphere, or in the surface or underground water sources. Because of its form, tritiated water can travel long distances at rapid paces. A large part of the human body is made up of water, which means that when tritiated water is ingested, the radioactive particles can easily join with the cells to become part of organic molecules.

For people living near nuclear power plants or for communities that live in the river 7 adjacent to the facility, they are receiving daily doses of tritium in many forms. The water they drink have tritium content as well as the air in the environment. Tritium could also be present in soil, and by its presence, anything that grows in the soil will also be contaminated. Clinical Researches and studies have proven that tritium exposure not only causes cancer but also mutations and birth abnormalities among animals used in the experiments. Cesium

Cesium is a naturally occurring element in the environment in very low levels of concentration. Its radioactive form is a by-product of uranium fission using fuel rods during operations of nuclear power facilities or explosions. Cesium in radioactive form produces gamma particles. Naturally occurring and stable cesium element binds strongly with the soil such that vegetation uptake through the roots is not possible. However, the non-stable or radioactive element enters plants through the leaves. In the Chernobyl accident, very high levels of cesium impacted Europe in a significant way.

The radioactive cesium were dispersed in the environment and affected livestock, caribou and reindeer . In small amounts, cesium helps maintain balance of electrical charges in the cells in order for them to function correctly and properly. In large doses, cesium can result to vomiting, bleeding, nausea and even death. In the unlikely event that an unborn child in the mother’s womb is exposed to large amounts of the gamma particles, this could result to problems in mental capacity and behavioral changes.

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