Climate and environment
Climate effects of a nuclear war
Nuclear weapons affect our environment in several ways. Obviously, a nuclear war would be devastating, as well as the consequences of a large-scale nuclear power plant accident. But we also need to note the environmental damage caused by the full nuclear fuel chain, from uranium mining to waste management – including management of radioactive waste from nuclear power plants.
A nuclear war would cause climate changes to the extent that we refer to it as “nuclear winter”. Nuclear winter is caused by the enormous amount of soot and ash produced when cities and forests are set on fire by multiple nuclear explosions. The resulting fires create massive amounts of soot and ashes that spread as heavy black clouds over the continents. The sun heats these soot clouds and make them rise up into the stratosphere, where the soot is spread around the whole globe and can affect climate globally for up to 8-10 years. (1) It will be cold and dark. In the mid-continents, temperatures can drop more than 10 degrees C (50 degrees F), while the sinking temperatures will be less significant by the coasts and above the oceans. When everything goes dark and cold, and when less rain falls, farming and agriculture will be significantly affected. Farmers will have smaller harvests, resulting in a worldwide famine. Furthermore, food scarcity may lead to armed conflicts over the limited resources available – causing even more death and injuries. It will also be difficult for the survivors of a nuclear war to find safe drinking water, which will lead to severe epidemics and pandemics.
Only a fraction of today’s nuclear arsenals need to be used to trigger a nuclear winter. The number of cities on fire determines the level of nuclear winter. Nuclear missiles are to a large extent expected to hit military facilities and industries, which are often placed close to major cities.
Even a limited, regional nuclear war, e.g. a war where nuclear weapons in India and Pakistan are used against cities, could affect the climate globally and cause a global famine with hundreds of millions of victims. (2)
This is what the world could look like from space after a major nuclear war. The soot clouds from cities and forests on fire would mainly cover the Northern Hemisphere and bring darkness and cold.
Effects on food and water
The lack of sunlight and a significant temperature drop would lead to poor harvests and lack of food. A global famine would be the result. A large part of the larger land living mammals would die, while insects and animals living in water would have better chances of survival. The only food that could be eaten would be canned food or other food that has been protected from radioactive contamination. It cannot be predicted if people anywhere will survive the nuclear winter, but at least human civilisation could be annihilated.
A nuclear war could also mean the water system would be destroyed. Almost all water would be contaminated by harmful radioactive particles and thereby extremely dangerous to drink.
In February 2008, an international seed vault was opened in Svalbard in the northernmost part of Norway. Drilled more than 100 meters into the mountain, with a constant temperature of –18 degrees C, the vault has been referred to as the Doomsday Vault. The idea is that seeds for all the world’s crops would be kept in the vault, safe from natural disasters, climate change and nuclear war.
Environmental effects of nuclear weapons production
The production of nuclear weapons has not only created an immediate threat to humanity in the shape of the risk of nuclear war, but also contributed to a protracted threat to human beings and the environment in the shape of nuclear waste products. Between 1945 and 1970, the cooling water from nuclear reactors was routinely released into the Columbia River in the US. Also the Savannah River is contaminated by radioactive waste. It will cost an estimated 300 billion dollars up to 2070 to “clean up” the nuclear waste. (3)
In Russia, the situation is even more distressing. Nuclear submarines, some still armed with nuclear warheads, are rusting away in the fjords of Murmansk. Elsewhere, rivers have been polluted and open reservoirs and lakes have been used to hold large quantities of liquid radioactive materials. In 1957, a waste storage tank (not unlike those at Hanford, USA) at the Chelyabinsk nuclear weapons site in Russia exploded and a radioactive cloud dispersed over more than 200 square kilometers of an agricultural region containing numerous rivers and lakes
Nearly all the trees within the most radioactive zone were damaged or killed. Radioactive waste has been routinely dumped into Lake Karachay, recognized as the world’s most radioactive body of water, also at Chelyabinsk. The highest reading there, recorded near a discharge pipe, was approximately 6 grays per hour, enough radioactivity to give an adult human being a lethal dose in less than one hour.
The environmental damage resulting from nuclear technology is not limited to the two largest nuclear weapons states. All nuclear weapons and nuclear energy producing nations have caused some level of environmental contamination, both in their own countries and abroad – such as, nuclear testing in the South Pacific, Australia, Nevada, Kazakhstan, China, India and Pakistan; water and airborne discharges from reprocessing plants in the UK and France; and uranium mining in Namibia, Canada, former East Germany and Australia. Moreover, the ongoing production of both nuclear weapons and nuclear power continues to create nuclear waste. Any long-term approach to ‘clean-up’ must be tied to a halt in the production of nuclear weapons, weapons usable materials and nuclear power.
The burial of radioactive materials is presently being touted as the ‘solution’ to radioactive waste ‘disposal’. WIPP in New Mexico, Yucca Mountain in Nevada, Gorleben in Germany, proposed sites in the UK, Russia, Australia and elsewhere are among the places where nuclear engineers claim to have ‘solved’ the nuclear waste problem. However, at present, there are no established disposal routes for long-lived radioactive materials. The burial of these materials must not be confused with their safe containment and isolation from the environment. (4)
Facts and figures (5)
- In the United States alone, more than $44 billion has been spent on the production of nuclear weapons as of 1996. ‘Clean up’ is projected to cost more than $300 billion through the year 2070, and even then the contaminated sites will require monitoring and stewardship into the distant future.
- The production of nuclear weapons has polluted vast amounts of soil and water at hundreds of nuclear weapons facilities all over the world. Many of the substances released, including plutonium, uranium, strontium, cesium, benzene, polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), mercury and cyanide, are carcinogenic and/or mutagenic and remain hazardous for thousands, some for hundreds of thousands, of years.
- Contaminants from nuclear weapons production and testing have often traveled far down wind and down stream. Radioactivity released from atmospheric nuclear testing — including plutonium, strontium, cesium, carbon-14, and radioactive iodine — has been widely dispersed throughout the world. Underground tests have contaminated soil and groundwater. A 1991 US government report called the soil contamination from underground testing at the Nevada Test Site “a threat to human health and the environment”.
- Radioactive wastes created in the manufacture of a single nuclear bomb containing 4 kg of plutonium-239 and 20 kg of uranium-235 include: 2,000 metric tons of uranium mining waste, 4 metric tons of depleted uranium, 12,000 curies of strontium-90, 12,000 curies of cesium-137, 50 cubic meters of ‘low-level’ waste and 7 cubic meters of transuranic waste. For an approximate picture of radioactive waste production to date, multiply the above by the estimated 70,000 nuclear warheads that have been manufactured on an international scale.
- Decommissioning nuclear weapons and nuclear power facilities will create an entirely new radioactive waste stream. It is important to realize that what is contaminated also becomes contaminating. Thus, cleaning up the world’s nuclear facilities will produce further, large amounts of radioactive materials which will require continual maintenance and responsible care.
- Radioactive materials ought to be stored on-site in monitored, retrievable configurations, and isolated from the environment for manageable time frames, such as 50 year periods. These materials need to be vigilantly guarded and kept in safe containment until, eventually, the responsibility for our nuclear legacy will be passed to future generations.
- Currently at the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant, in Carlsbad, New Mexico, plutonium contaminated waste and plutonium residues are being buried in a salt flat formation, more than 2000 feet beneath the surface of the Earth. Although it has been argued that a subterranean salt formation is a safe place to store radioactive waste, it is more accurate to say that WIPP was chosen for political reasons, not geological reasons. The population surrounding the area are predominately Hispanic and Native American, who hold little or no political power in the United States. This type of environmental racism also applies to the High-Level Radioactive Waste dump in Yucca Mountain, Nevada.
Nuclear power and nuclear weapons: what is the connection?
The connection between nuclear power and nuclear weapons will become clear when you read the section about the nuclear fuel chain from uranium mining to waste management. Nuclear power thereby becomes a political hotspot.
- Any country that has nuclear power has the potential to make nuclear weapons. This means there are 44 potential nuclear weapons states in the world.
- The technique and the equipment for uranium enrichment for nuclear power reactors is the same as needed for enriching uranium for nuclear weapons.
- The Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) enshrines the right of member states to have nuclear power as long as they promise not to develop nuclear weapons.
- The United Nations International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) promotes the spread of nuclear technology as part of its remit, as well as trying to ensure that civil nuclear material is not used for military purposes. Both the NPT and the IAEA, who are responsible for controlling nuclear proliferation, also have a brief to spread the use of nuclear power.
- The inspection and safeguarding roles of the IAEA are limited, in the official nuclear weapons-states as well as in others. Accounting for fissile materials is very problematic – Russia being a case in point, but not a lone case. This means easier access for terrorists in search for material for a ”dirty bomb”.
- Both Iraq and North Korea have succeeded in developing a clandestine nuclear weapon programmes under the auspices of ”peaceful” nuclear use. The nuclear weapon programme of Iraq was discovered and dismantled during and after the Gulf War 1991.
To be used in nuclear power reactors or in nuclear weapons the natural Uranium has to be enriched to a higher level of radiation. Nuclear weapons were invented in the 1940′s and nuclear power plants have been supplying energy since the 1950′s. Still, no long term solution for managing nuclear waste has been found. Nuclear waste remains radioactive when removed from a nuclear power plant after energy has been extracted. U-235 has a half-life of 704 million years and U-238 of 4,5 billion years. Thus, it is far from a short term problem humanity has created and keeps creating for itself through the use of nuclear power and weapons.
The most popular solution for managing high-level radioactive nuclear waste to date is by burying it in tight capsules surrounded by clay, deep in a mountain. It is extremely important to ensure the sealing of the capsules and the suitability of the mountain, as the material will stay radioactive for so many generations to come. Still, no matter how safely it is packed and how deeply it is buried, humanity cannot tell today what the world will look like in a thousand years. We cannot ensure future generations will not be plagued by the legacy of our nuclear use.
Nuclear power accidents
Today, nuclear power is suggested by many as an energy alternative that does not release greenhouse gases and thereby not contributes to global warming. Nuclear power is claimed to be environmentally friendly and safe. Critics respond that one cannot get much further from the truth, neither regarding environment friendliness nor safety.
100% safe nuclear reactors are a myth. An accident can happen in any reactor, anywhere in the world. A serious nuclear power reactor accident is a real catastrophe both to humans and to our environment. A combination of human and technological mistakes can result in an accident killing thousands of people, injuring many thousands more and polluting vast areas of land. Apart from the risk of accidents in nuclear power plants, they are also very vulnerable to sabotage and acts of terrorism.
The most serious nuclear accident in history was the Chernobyl disaster in 1986. The accident happened during the night of 26 April 1986 at 1:23 am, when the Reactor 4 in the Chernobyl area in the outskirts of the town of Prypjat was destroyed in an explosion. A radioactive cloud quickly travelled with the winds over large areas of Europe. Most affected were Belarus, Ukraine and the western parts of Russia. After the accident, a significant increased level of radioactive Iodine could be found in agricultural products from the area, e.g. in milk. Radioactive Cesium has polluted large forest areas, where high levels of radioactivity have been found in berries, mushrooms and animals. While the radioactivity in agricultural products reduce with time, the level of Cesium in forest products will remain high for decades to come. This is not only affecting the areas close to the accident, but also the northern parts of Scandinavia, where contaminated reindeer meat poses problems to the Sami people. (6)
- Robock, A et al, “Climatic consequences of regional nuclear conflicts” Atmos. Chem. Phys.,7, 2003-2012, 2007. Copernicus GmbH on behalf of the European Geosciences Union.
- Helfand, Ira. An assessment of the extent of projected global famine resulting from limited, regional nuclear war. © 2007 Royal Society of Medicine
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This page was last revised 2013-01-17