The main use of nuclear energy is the generation of electrical energy in nuclear power plants. However, some of the benefits of nuclear power are reflected in applications related to the environment.
The main source of pollution of the environment is found in human activities. Population growth and industrial technological developments imply a growing need for electrical energy.
Since the industrial revolution the use of fossil fuels has grown exponentially. The particularity of this form of energy is that it generates waste and greenhouse gases that are harmful to climate change.
Surface water and groundwater contamination are also a major environmental problem.
The main environmental uses of nuclear energy are:
1. Reduction of the Greenhouse Effect
Global warming is a latent problem for the environment. This is due to the release of gases during the combustion of fossil fuels and organic matter such as wood and garbage.
Nuclear energy allows the use of isotopic analyzes that allow the calculation of carbon dioxide emissions in an industrial zone. Nuclear methods, such as electron beam irradiation, are very useful for removing polluting gases emitted from thermal power plants.
An innovative and simple method to calculate CO2 emissions consists of observing the plants growing in an industrial area. These plants capture radioactive carbon-14 from cosmic radiation and also the carbon emitted by industries.
In this way, by determining the proportion of radioactive carbon, the total CO2 emission in the area can be determined.
At the same time, as with most renewable energies, generating electricity through a nuclear power plant reduces dependence on conventional thermal power plants.
However, the main drawback of nuclear plants is the possibility of nuclear accidents like the one in Fukushima in 2011.
2. Surface and Groundwater Contamination
Isotopic techniques can help assess the vulnerability of groundwater to contamination from the surface. They also make it possible to specify the sources of surface contamination:
From low radiation levels a sterilizing effect is achieved. This property is used for the elimination of pathogenic germs from wastewater.
3. Soil Contamination
Soil contamination is now known to affect the food chain.
Agriculture more frequently uses polluting chemicals that penetrate the soil through nitrogen fertilizers and pesticides. These products must be carefully tested before use and guarantee their decomposition into products that do not pose risks to the environment.
The application of isotopic techniques allows determining the decomposition of these products and their final destination. Nuclear methods are best suited to accurately assess pollution and the exact source that caused it.
4. Eradication of Insect Pests
Insects are sometimes a threat to the health of animals and humans. An insect infestation can destroy valuable food crop crops.
Traditionally, insecticides were used, but due to their chemical composition they constituted a potential risk of environmental and food contamination. In addition, the insects developed greater resistance to them, having to use larger quantities.
At present, new methods of fighting insects are being developed, which do not pose a risk to the environment. The following can be highlighted:
Sterile insect technique (SIT): consists of the production of large quantities of insects in breeding plants which are sterilized with gamma radiation. These insects are released and when they mate with wild insects, no offspring are produced.
Genetic manipulation for the selection of male insects: the release of only male insects allows the eradication of fly pests, reinforcing the SIT technique. This technique is based on genetically manipulating the chromosomes of flies with ionizing radiation to release only males.
Inherited sterility: this technique is used primarily to eradicate moth pests. It has been proven that by irradiating a population of moths with low doses, their descendants are sterile.
5. Hydrology and Drinking Water Treatment
Water scarcity and degradation are causes of concern around the world. Failure to optimize water resources could result in reduced economic growth and certain risks to human health and the environment.
Isotopic hydrology allows us to know the behavior of water. The main uses of radioactive isotopes are the dating and transit time of water. Using tracers, the origin, flow velocity, sources of contamination, and water degradation processes can be determined.
Nuclear technology also allows:
Desalinate sea water.
Treat groundwater contamination.
Determine the origin of salinity.
Know the age of the water.
Sizing a reservoir.