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Nuclear pollution is sometimes also referred to as radioactive contamination. It is the deposition or presence of radioactive materials within solids, liquids, gases, or on surfaces. Their presence within these bodies may be undesirable or unintentional. Today, however, we commonly refer to nuclear pollution as pollution of the atmosphere by radiation or radioactive particles.
Before we go on to understand nuclear pollution, let’s take a small physics lesson about radioactivity. Some elements in nature are unstable in their natural state. Therefore, the atoms of these elements have an unstable nucleus. To achieve stability, the nucleus will begin releasing radiation. We call this phenomenon radioactive decay or radioactivity. How does this relate to nuclear pollution and nuclear power? Well, we obtain nuclear energy through radioactivity. We call it nuclear energy because it is the energy released from the nucleus of the atom. In short, radioactively decaying particles provide us with nuclear energy.
The decaying of radioactive particles releases alpha, beta, gamma rays, and free neutrons. These particles are ionizing radiation. They are incredibly harmful to human health and the environment.
The degree of hazard these particles pose depends on their concentration in the atmosphere, the type of radiation they emit, the energy or intensity of the radiation, and their proximity to animals, plants, and humans. The instability of these particles seriously and severely damages human, plant, and animal life.
Nuclear power production almost always causes nuclear pollution. Of course, nuclear plants try to limit the number of radioactive contaminants they release. But, radioactive material and nuclear waste still find a way to enter the environment.
Nuclear plants use fuel to run. When the plant cannot use that fuel any longer, it must dispose of the spent fuel. Most nuclear fuels have a half-life of up to four billion years. It means that the energy can remain radioactive for up to four billion years!
When we humans first discovered and started using nuclear energy, a lot of the nuclear waste would end up in the oceans. Even today, we continue to dump our nuclear waste in the seas. The Pacific Ocean is a famous nuclear waste dumping ground for many countries.
Apart from dumping it in oceans, some nuclear plants store their spent fuel in underground pools. Nuclear fuel is hot and needs to cool before it can be disposed of. However, storing nuclear waste underground puts groundwater and the surrounding land at risk of contamination. If the surrounding area is cropland, radioactive materials can enter the crops and, ultimately, our food chain.
We find some of the most concentrated areas of nuclear pollution in the region surrounding accidents at nuclear power plants. History has witnessed only a handful of such events. But the effects are catastrophic and prevail many years after the accident.
Many will remember the Chornobyl nuclear disaster of 1986 as one of the most infamous and devastating nuclear accidents. The disaster occurred in modern-day Ukraine. The failure of a nuclear reactor destroyed the entire nuclear plant. Eastern Europe witnessed air pollution caused by the release of hazardous, radioactive materials. It affected thousands of people. Many people died from exposure to radioactivity from the Chornobyl reactor.
The Second World War saw the extensive use of nuclear weapons by countries. We will all recall when our history professor explained how the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki were destroyed by atomic bombs. Since the Second World War, countries have been racing to develop nuclear weapons in the name of defense.
Countries test their nuclear weapons by firing them into the atmosphere. The explosion in the atmosphere returns back debris to the Earth as radiation. When this radiation settles on vegetation and in our seas and oceans, it enters the food chain.
The radiation from nuclear pollution has enough energy to damage living cells and their DNA. The cells in our body are capable of repairing this damage. However, if our bodies fail to repair the damage correctly, cells may die or eventually turn cancerous.
Being exposed to extremely high levels of radiation can result in skin burns and acute radiation syndrome (also known as radiation sickness). High radiation levels can also cause long-term health effects like cancer and cardiovascular disease.
Exposure to low radiation levels does not result in immediate health effects. However, it is a minor contributor to our overall cancer risk.
Exposure to a high level of radiation within a short time span causes symptoms such as nausea and vomiting. These symptoms may appear within hours of exposure. But it may result in death over the following days or weeks. This is what scientists call acute radiation syndrome or radiation sickness.
The level of radiation required to develop acute radiation syndrome is equivalent to getting 18,000 chest X-rays within a few minutes. Acute radiation syndrome is extremely rare. Scientists mainly observe the syndrome in people exposed to a nuclear explosion or in the vicinity of a highly radioactive source rupture.
Studies conducted on numerous atomic bomb survivors and radiation industry workers have shown that radiation exposure increases the chance of getting cancer. The higher the dose of exposure, the greater the risk of developing cancer.
1. Containment of Nuclear Waste
Nuclear radiation is a form of heat transfer. While radiation can occur in almost any condition, heat increases the amount of radiation. More radiation means a higher health risk. Scientists recently found that apart from the ash released from nuclear plants, even coal ash, and wood ash contain radiation because of their heat. Therefore, we must store nuclear waste in cool places, away from a heat source.
2. Law Enforcement
We need laws that protect human health and the environment from nuclear and radioactive radiation. Federal agencies in every country must establish radiation exposure standards and limits. National governments must also develop standards for nuclear power plants. They must implement strict actions against nuclear plants for failing to comply with environmental and health regulations.
3. Individual Prevention Measures
You should regularly test your home for radon. The internet can find you many consulting services and inexpensive testing kits.
If you’re buying a new home, make sure it is away from primary sources of radiation and nuclear pollution.