Fact Sheets

Nuclear Energy and the Environment

Nuclear energy is the only large-scale, clean-air technology that can be expanded widely to produce large amounts of electricity.

March 2013
Key Facts

  • President Barack Obama has established a goal of transitioning the United States to a clean-energy, low-carbon economy. Nuclear energy can help meet this goal because—like wind, solar and hydropower—it does not produce greenhouse gases.
  • Nuclear energy is by far the largest clean-air energy source and the only one that can produce large amounts of electricity around the clock. Nuclear energy facilities provide nearly two-thirds of America’s clean-air electricity. Even if carbon dioxide emissions are evaluated on a total life-cycle basis, nuclear energy is comparable to renewable energy sources such as solar, wind and hydropower.
  • Protecting the environment extends to safely managing used fuel, protecting water quality, and preserving and improving habitat for plants and wildlife. All U.S. nuclear energy facilities have extensive environmental monitoring programs, which are under the oversight of the independent U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission and state regulators.

Generating Clean-Air Electricity
The Clean Air Act and regulations established by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency set limits on the emission of certain pollutants for states and regions of the country. These pollutants include nitrogen oxide, a precursor of ground-level ozone and smog; sulfur dioxide, which produces acid rain; particulate matter, such as smoke and dust; and mercury. Several types of sources produce these pollutants, including industry, coal- and natural gas-fired electric generating facilities, and automobiles. Nuclear energy facilities do not produce these pollutants.

U.S. policymakers are weighing legislative and other approaches for reducing greenhouse gas emissions, especially carbon dioxide (CO2). Most CO2 emissions result from the combustion of fossil fuels, such as coal, oil and natural gas. Generating electricity is the single largest source, accounting for 40 percent of all CO2 emissions, according to EPA. The transportation sector accounts for 31 percent and industry for 14 percent.

Analyses by mainstream organizations show that reducing carbon emissions will require a portfolio of technologies and that nuclear energy must be part of the portfolio. These organizations include:  

  • U.S. Environmental Protection Agency
  • Academies of Science for the G8+5 countries
  • Electric Power Research Institute
  • U.S. Energy Information Administration
  • OECD/International Energy Agency
  • Business Roundtable.

Protecting Soil, Water and Wildlife
Protecting the environment extends to safely managing used fuel, protecting water quality, and preserving and improving habitat for plants and wildlife. All U.S. nuclear energy facilities have extensive environmental programs, which are under the oversight of federal and state regulators.

During normal operation, nuclear energy facilities release small amounts of radioactivity in airborne and liquid forms. All such releases are subject to stringent annual limits established by NRC regulations. These releases have decreased substantially in the past 30 years, according to the NRC, largely because of improved reactor fuel performance and waste-handling techniques. The federal limit for annual radiation dose to the public from nuclear plant operations is 25 millirem. The average actual dose to the public from living near a nuclear energy facility is less than 1 millirem, according to EPA.

Monitoring Programs
Radiological monitoring at nuclear energy facilities has two essential elements that serve as checks on each other. The companies operating these facilities monitor the small releases that occur during normal plant operations, accounting for all pathways that could lead to a radiation release to the environment. They also monitor the environment—air, water, land and locally produced milk and produce—to verify that radiation levels are normal.

Environmental monitoring locations for air and land pathways typically are within 10 miles of the plant. Personnel monitor the aquatic pathway at the point where the plant’s diluted waste water is discharged to the water body and at the closest downstream municipal water treatment facility that processes drinking water. Controls for the aquatic pathway are upstream or up-current of the plant’s discharge into a local body of water. Technicians compare the downstream samples with the control samples taken upstream of the facility.

Nuclear energy facilities also monitor and test drinking water and crops that have been irrigated with water that may be affected by plant operations, if downstream or down-current of a plant situated near a river or lake. Technicians take samples from local dairy farms and fish from local waters. Independent laboratories test the samples for any radioactivity that could be attributed to nuclear energy facility operation.

In 2006, the nuclear industry adopted a voluntary program to enhance groundwater protection and     communications about the results of the monitoring. A subsequent industry peer assessment found that all U.S. reactors have completed major actions that significantly enhanced their monitoring of groundwater.
Federal and state regulators provide oversight of nuclear plant environmental programs. The NRC has resident inspectors at all nuclear energy facilities. Reports on the environmental monitoring programs are submitted annually to the NRC and are available on the agency’s website. Additionally, many state environmental protection or public health departments assign staff to monitor nuclear plants, and some conduct their own sampling and testing programs.

Because nuclear energy facilities are industrial sites, they report annually to EPA the results of separate programs that monitor the potential impact of cleaning solutions, diesel fuel or other potentially hazardous materials used at the site.

Nurturing Habitat for Endangered Species 
Many electric utilities augment their environmental programs with voluntary initiatives to enhance natural habitats at nuclear reactor sites for endangered species. Some of the nation’s best-known environmental organizations have recognized these programs, including the Audubon Society, Ducks Unlimited, the National Wildlife Federation, the Nature Conservancy, Trout Unlimited, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and the Wildlife Habitat Council.