Friday, July 6, 2012

The Negative Impact of the Nuclear Weapons Industry on the Environment


In the past week more that 2,000 heat records have been matched or beaten in the United States.1 Rising heat averages have been regularly linked to environmental degradation. Could our continued proliferation and modernization of nuclear arsenals be feeding the destruction of our natural environment? I believe the answer is clearly yes. Here are a few reasons why:

  1. In order to have nuclear weapons, one must have nuclear fuel. Uranium mining is a dirty business. While ordinary strip and pit mining is heavily critiqued by environmental watch groups, these processes pale in comparison to the negative environmental impacts of uranium mining. When mining uranium every million grams of Earth could yield as little as only 500 grams of recoverable uranium. Just because the Uranium isn’t recoverable doesn’t mean its radioactivity is not present. These radioactive tailings often remain at the mine. Even when they are stored, it is in poor conditions. After all, what is the incentive for the mining firms to safely secure these hazardous materials? Not only does this loose radioactivity damage local fauna and wildlife, but it also contaminates surface and groundwater.2

  1. Even after only procuring the small amount of recoverable uranium, not all of that is usable in nuclear weapons. Only 1% of Uranium is of the U-235 variety which is fissionable, meaning the atoms can be split leading to large amounts of released heat. Large amounts of U-238 must be removed, leading to depleted uranium. While the complete lack of secure, safe, and effective storage for nuclear waste is of course a worry, the fact that governments including the United States include this byproduct in other compounds only makes the problem worse. One of the prime uses is in armor penetrating munitions. The shells made from depleted uranium burst into flames upon impact, spreading radioactive dust. This dust has resulted in millions of years of contamination Iraq, Afghanistan, Bosnia, and even on American territory where the munitions were tested. These by products not only have spread radiation abroad, they are also a prime suspect in investigations into the cause of Gulf War Syndrome, a multisystem disorder suffered by American soldiers.2

  1. This enrichment process also takes tremendous amounts of energy. Because most energy is generated in unclean ways, such as through coal production, immense amounts of dirty emissions are released into the atmosphere to power enrichment facilities. The enrichment process itself also has hazardous emissions, “In 2001, 93% of the nation’s reported emissions of CFC-114, a potent greenhouse gas, were released from the U.S. Enrichment Corporation.”2

  1. Within the next fifty years supplies of low cost uranium will be completely exhausted.3 While uranium is not cheap now, it will only get more expensive. Every dollar spent on nuclear weapons results in funds not going toward sustainable energy and efforts to restore our environment and combat climate change. As we progress toward the future uranium will become more expensive, and we will have fewer funds to put toward preservation measures. Every dollar put toward the development of more illegal nuclear weapons pushes us closer toward complete climate collapse.

All issues of injustice are connected, and nuclear weapons are no different. Next time you are uncomfortable from the heat, just remember that the nuclear weapons infrastructure is directly contributing to the destruction of our environment and home. More importantly though, remember that every dollar reallocated away from the proliferation and modernization of these tools of destruction is funds that could go toward securing our climate future.

1 “More than 2,000 Heat Records Matched or Broken in the Past Week,” Scientific American. July 3, 2012.
2 “Nuclear,” Energy Justice Network.
3 Green, Jim, “Global Warming: Nuclear Power No Solution,” Green Left. April 13, 2005.

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