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Myths & Facts About the Environment

Myth: Nuclear power plants consume large quantities of fresh water.

Fact: According to the U.S. Geologic Survey (USGS), the nation’s 100 nuclear power plants “consume” only a small amount of the freshwater they withdraw. While it is true that nuclear power plants collectively withdraw billions of gallons of water each day for their cooling systems, 98 percent of the water is returned to its natural source. Only 2 percent is not returned. In fact, USGS surveys found that heat-driven power plants (coal, natural gas and nuclear) that produce 86.8 percent of the nation’s electricity consume just 3.3 percent of the total water used annually in the United States. The remaining consumption is via mining (0.8 percent), commercial (1.3 percent), livestock (3.2 percent), industry (3.4 percent), residential (6.7 percent) and crop irrigation (81.3 percent). Scientific studies find that water withdrawals by nuclear plant cooling systems have a negligible impact on aquatic life populations because protective measures at the water intakes minimize risk to fish and other organisms.

Myth: Plant cooling systems greatly harm aquatic environments and fish populations.

Fact: Scientific studies have found that the nation’s nuclear plants have a negligible impact on the health of local fish populations and aquatic environments. Any fish mortality associated with nuclear plant cooling systems is an exceptionally small percentage of the overall fish population and is readily replenished through natural reproduction. In some instances fish populations near nuclear plants have increased. Anti-nuclear activists claim that 1 billion fish, fish larvae and eggs are destroyed each year by the once-through cooling system at one nuclear facility. They do not mention this number is only a tiny fraction of the total population or that fish population remains healthy around the facility that has operated for several decades. Their claims also do not acknowledge the adverse effects of pollution, sediment buildup, commercial and recreational fishing and questionable water resource management. For further information, visit NEI’s Water Use and Holistic Environmental Management Web page.

Myth: Nuclear energy is “dirty.”

Fact: Nuclear energy is one of the cleanest energy sources in America. In 2012, the nation’s nuclear plants produced 64 percent of the low-carbon electricity generated in the United States. This avoided the emission of 570 million tons of CO2, the equivalent of taking 110 million cars off the road. A University of Wisconsin study found that nuclear energy’s life-cycle emissions (including construction and all aspects of plant operation) are less than hydro, solar and biomass and on par with wind and geothermal, all of which are considered “clean” energy supplies.