Nuclear power
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Nuclear Energy and the Environment

Nuclear Energy and the Environment

The main use of nuclear energy is the generation of electrical energy in nuclear power plants. If, however, you are also familiar with other uses in the civil field. One of them is the applications of nuclear energy related to the environment.

Although the popularity of nuclear energy is very low due to the effects produced in nuclear accidents such as Fukushima or Chernobyl, there are applications of nuclear energy to work in favor of the environment.

In these applications we highlight the following:

  • Improve the greenhouse effect problem
  • Improve the problem of pollution of surface and groundwater
  • Problem of soil contamination
  • Eradication of insect pests
  • Hydrology

Relationship Between Nuclear Energy and the Environment

To reduce pollution in the environment, we need to know where and how much we find these pollutants, the causes of pollution and the appropriate solution to prevent it from spreading.

The main source of pollution of the environment is found in human activities, contributing greatly to the increase in pollutants, population growth and industrial technological developments.

Currently, the biggest environmental problem is global warming, a consequence of the so-called greenhouse effect.

Nuclear energy allows techniques to work in favor of the environment in the greenhouse effect.

The contamination of surface water and groundwater is also a problem in the important environment.

Nuclear energy allows the application of isotopic techniques; It is a procedure that uses the interaction of ionizing radiation with matter to achieve a useful purpose, which is more effective than another conventional procedure.

This useful purpose can be:

  • The investigation of the mechanism of an industrial process
  • The measurement of the functioning of a gland
  • The sterilization of a product
  • or the determination of the degree of contamination of surface and groundwater.

Application of Nuclear Energy to the Problem of the Greenhouse Effect

Global warming is provably the most damaging phenomenon for the environment. This is due to the release of gases during the combustion of fossil fuels such as coal and organic matter such as oil, wood and garbage.

Nuclear energy allows the use of isotopic analyzes that allow calculation of carbon dioxide emissions in an industrial zone. Nuclear methods, such as electron beam irradiation, are very useful for removing polluting gases, including harmful gases such as sulfur dioxide or nitrogen oxide emitted in coal and fuel thermal power plants.

An innovative and simple method for calculating carbon dioxide emissions consists of observing the plants that grow in an industrial zone. These plants capture radioactive carbon-14 from cosmic radiation (solar radiation, etc.) in the form of carbon dioxide, and also incorporate that emitted by industries. In this way, determining the proportion of radioactive and non-radioactive carbon can determine the total emission of carbon dioxide in the area.

Application of Nuclear Energy to the Problem of Contamination of Surface and Groundwater

Isotopic techniques can help to assess the vulnerability of groundwater to pollution from the surface, and allow to specify the sources of surface contamination (natural, agricultural, domestic and industrial) discovering incipient pollution, serving as an early warning when the indicators chemical or biological do not show worrisome signs.

Taking advantage of its "sterilizing" capacity, radiation is used for the elimination of pathogenic wastewater germs. At an international level, the use of advanced electron beam accelerators has been promoted for the large-scale treatment of contaminated water, mainly aimed at the treatment of wastewater and drinking water.

Improvements in the Problem of Soil Contamination

The problem of soil contamination became important after studies of water and air pollution, since it was found to affect the food chain. Agriculture more frequently uses chemical contaminants that penetrate the soil through nitrogen fertilizers and pesticides. These products must be tested carefully before use, to ensure their decomposition into products that do not generate risks for man and the natural environment.

The application of isotopic techniques allows to determine the decomposition of these products and their final destination. The nuclear methods are the most suitable to accurately assess the contamination and the exact source that has caused such contamination, since they allow to determine the filtration of pipes containing oil or the spillage of chemical products transported.

Eradication of Insect Pests

In some cases, insects are a threat to the health of animals and humans, and can destroy valuable crops of food crops.

Traditionally, insecticides were used, but due to their chemical composition, they constituted a potential risk of environmental contamination and the existence of toxic residues in food. In addition, the insects developed greater resistance before them, having to employ larger quantities.

At present, new methods of fighting against insects are being developed, which do not pose a risk to the environment. The following can be highlighted:

  • Sterile insect technique (SIT): consists in the production of large quantities of insects in breeding plants, which are sterilized with gamma radiation, from radioactive sources of cobalt-60 and cesium-137, to be released in the affected areas for the plague. When the sterile insects mate with the wild insects, no young are produced, thus decreasing the population of the insects of the pest. The TAR is specific to each species, so they can not have an adverse impact on other species, whether of insects or other animals or plants. This technique is useful not only to eradicate pests, but also to control agricultural areas free of pests.
  • Genetic manipulation for the selection of male insects: the release of only male insects allows the eradication of fly pests by reinforcing the TIE technique. To manipulate flies genetically, so that only males are released, chromosomes are altered by ionizing radiation. If only male insects are produced, the sterile insect breeding plants will increase their yield.
  • Inherited sterility: this technique is used primarily to eradicate moths. It has been proven that irradiating with low doses a population of moths, their descendants are sterile, being able to control this family of insects. For this technique, the sources used are gamma emitters (cobalt-60).

Application of Nuclear Energy to Hydrology

The scarcity and degradation of water are causes of concern throughout the world. If water resources are not optimized, there could be a reduction in economic growth and certain risks to human health and the environment.

Isotope hydrology allows to know the behavior of water and helps establish the bases for a rational use of this resource. The main uses of radioisotopes are dating, to know the age and time of transit of the waters, and as tracers to determine the origin, flow velocity, sources of pollution and degradation processes. Among the radioactive isotopes used are tritium, carbon-14, oxygen-18 and chlorine-36.

The application of isotopic techniques in hydrology allows to obtain information about groundwater, in terms of its origin, age, distribution, water quality and possible interconnections with aquifers, and on surface waters, in what refers to the transport of suspended sediments in the bottom, possible leaks of dams and river discharges, sedimentation rate and filtration to underground ducts. Other remarkable applications of the isotopic techniques are the following:

  • Nuclear desalination: nuclear techniques are used for the desalination of sea water to produce fresh water, without disturbing the environment, as occurs in plants that use steam and electricity from fossil fuels, and since they also support high energy consumption that these processes suppose.
  • New isotopes useful in hydrology: boron isotopes are used to treat groundwater contamination, isotopes of chloride, to determine the origin of salinity, the age of water and the size of a reservoir, and kripton-85 and Helium-3 to improve the isotope measurement methods that help to determine the age of the water.

    Published: October 4, 2010
    Last review: March 8, 2019