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marine life

Other stages of the nuclear fuel cycle

Nuclear Monitor Issue: 

The Union of Concerned Scientists summarises water issues associated with uranium fuel fabrication [1]:

Processing uranium requires mining, milling, enrichment, and fuel fabrication, all of which use significant quantities of water.

  • Mining − Uranium mining consumes one to six gallons (3.8−22.7 litres) of water per million Btus of thermal energy output, depending on the mining method. Mining uranium also produces waste that can contaminate local water sources, and which can be especially dangerous given the radioactivity of some of the materials involved. (A Btu or British Thermal Unit is a measure of energy content, usually used to describe the energy content of fuels. One kilowatt hour is the rough equivalent of 3,400 Btus.)
  • Processing − Uranium processing consumes seven to eight gallons (26.5−30.3 l) of water for every million Btus of thermal output.
  • Milling − The milling process uses a mix of liquid chemicals to increase the fuel's uranium content; milling leaves behind uranium-depleted ore that must be placed in settling ponds to evaporate the milling liquids.
  • Enrichment − The next step, enriching the gaseous uranium to make it more effective as a fuel accounts for about half of the water consumed in uranium processing. The conventional enrichment method in the US is gas diffusion, which uses significantly more water than the gas centrifuge approach popular in Europe.
  • Fuel Fabrication − Fabrication involves bundling the enriched uranium into fuel rods in preparation for the nuclear reactor. 

At the 'back end' of the nuclear fuel cycle, the large commercial reprocessing plants in France and the UK are major sources of radioactive marine pollution. Cogema's reprocessing plant at La Hague in France, and the Sellafield reprocessing plant in the UK, are the largest sources of radioactive pollution in the European environment.[2]

[1] Union of Concerned Scientists, 'Water for Nuclear',
[2] WISE-Paris, Study on Sellafield and La Hague commissioned by STOA,

More information:
Friends of the Earth, Australia, 'Impacts of Nuclear Power and Uranium Mining on Water Resources',

Licensed to Kill

Nuclear Monitor Issue: 

Water outflows from nuclear plants expel relatively warm water which can have adverse local impacts in bays and gulfs, as can heavy metal and salt pollutants. The US Environmental Protection Agency states: "Nuclear power plants use large quantities of water for steam production and for cooling. Some nuclear power plants remove large quantities of water from a lake or river, which could affect fish and other aquatic life. Heavy metals and salts build up in the water used in all power plant systems, including nuclear ones. These water pollutants, as well as the higher temperature of the water discharged from the power plant, can negatively affect water quality and aquatic life. Nuclear power plants sometimes discharge small amounts of tritium and other radioactive elements as allowed by their individual wastewater permits."[1]

A report by the by the US Nuclear Information and Resource Service (NIRS), US Humane Society and other groups, 'Licensed to Kill: How the Nuclear Power Industry Destroys Endangered Marine Wildlife and Ocean Habitat to Save Money', details the nuclear industry's destruction of delicate marine ecosystems and large numbers of animals, including endangered species. Most of the damage is done by water inflow pipes, while there are further adverse impacts from the expulsion of warm water. Another problem is 'cold stunning' – fish acclimatise to warm water but die when the reactor is taken off-line and warm water is no longer expelled. For example, in New Jersey, local fishers estimated that 4,000 fish died from cold stunning when a reactor was shut down. (See the report and 6-minute video at and the video is also posted at

Case Study: Close to one million fish and 62 million fish eggs and larvae died each year when sucked into the water intake channel in Lake Ontario, which the Pickering nuclear plant uses to cool steam condensers. Fish are killed when trapped on intake screens or suffer cold water shock after leaving warmer water that is discharged into the lake. The Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission told Ontario Power Generation to reduce fish mortality by 80% and asked for annual public reports on fish mortality.[2]

Case Study: The Oyster Creek nuclear plant in New Jersey, US, has killed 80 million pounds (36,300 tonnes) of aquatic organisms in the Barnegat Bay over the past 40 years, according to the US Fish and Wildlife Service.[3]

[1] US Environmental Protection Agency, 'Nuclear Energy',
[2] Carola Vyhnak, 6 July 2010, 'Pickering nuclear plant ordered to quit killing fish', 'Millions of adults, eggs and larvae perish when sucked into intakes or shocked by cold water',
[3] Todd Bates, 22 March 2012, 'Oyster Creek nuclear plant kills 1,000 tons of sea life a year, agency says',

NIRSPickering-1Pickering-2Pickering-3Pickering-4Pickering-5Pickering-6Pickering-7Pickering-8Oyster Creek

Sellafield: still the dirty old man of Europe - discharges set to breach marine pollution targets

Nuclear Monitor Issue: 

A report published February 17 by CORE (Cumbrians Opposed to a Radioactive Environment) exposes Sellafield’s plans for substantial increases in radioactive discharges to the Irish Sea over the coming decade.

The rate of discharge from planned reprocessing operations, and subsequent concentrations of radioactivity in the marine environment, will breach international commitments and targets agreed by the UK Government in 1998 at an OSPAR (Oslo-Paris) Convention meeting in Portugal. As a contracting party, the Government committed to the ‘progressive and substantial reduction in radioactive discharges so that by the year 2020, concentrations of (man-made) radioactivity in the marine environment, above historic levels, were ‘close to zero’.

CORE’s report reveals that, despite an awareness of the threat posed to those commitments by its current plans for Sellafield – including the threat of legal action by international governments - site owner the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority (NDA) has been prepared to adopt contingency plans if necessary, including an agreement ‘not to meet the OSPAR deadline’.

Spokesman for CORE, Martin Forwood said: "The NDA’s cavalier hit or miss approach to meeting UK commitments is breathtakingly complacent. Unless action is taken now, simple arithmetic dictates that if its work program is to be completed by the reprocessing plants’ scheduled closure dates, the rate of reprocessing must be significantly raised above anything achieved recently - with a correspondingly progressive and substantial increase in radioactive discharges that contravenes the commitment made in 1998 to reduce discharges”.

Radioactive discharges to the Irish Sea, including plutonium, are dominated by those from Sellafield’s two reprocessing plants B205 and the Thermal Oxide Reprocessing Plant (THORP), particularly the former. The accepted correlation between annual reprocessing rates and subsequent radioactive discharge levels is amply demonstrated by the recent reduction in discharges from the site following several years of unusually low reprocessing rates.

This recent reduction however will be completely reversed by NDA plans that include the reprocessing of some 4700 tons of spent fuel from the UK’s magnox reactors in B205 in the next 6 years - requiring a rate more than double that achieved over the last 5 years – and the reprocessing of at least 3700 tons of spent fuel, mostly from the UK’s Advanced Gas Cooled reactors (AGR) but also including 600 tons of overseas fuel in THORP whose operational life has now been extended by 10 years to 2020.

CORE’s assessment also highlights the extra pressure piled on the ageing B205 reprocessing plant, already under the tightest of schedules, by the extensions recently approved for the Wylfa and Oldbury power stations – a complete U-turn on earlier decisions, and one that means more magnox fuel than necessary must now be reprocessed.

The assessment further shows that, coupled with NDA indecision on whether or not to reprocess part or all of thousands of tons of AGR fuel not specifically contracted for reprocessing, a range of technical issues currently restricting Sellafield operations - particularly the lack of capacity to treat the highly radioactive liquid wastes produced by reprocessing – could see reprocessing extended beyond its scheduled end-date of 2020.

CORE’s spokesman added: “The rise in radioactive discharges from what increasingly resembles a crash program of reprocessing will not only breach UK commitments to OSPAR but also pose a potent threat to international waters. Meeting its commitments and reducing that threat could be resolved by the urgent adoption of alternatives to reprocessing – though Government and NDA addiction to reprocessing has so far prevented positive action on alternatives being pursued - and only then as a contingency in the event of a chronic failure of the reprocessing plant rather than as a constructive means of reducing discharges”.

The Government view, that the UK is ‘on course’ to meet its commitments is made in its 2009 UK Radioactive Discharge Strategy report, mirrors OSPAR’s view that progress is being made towards meeting its targets of discharge reductions. Based almost entirely on the reductions that have followed Sellafield’s recent poor reprocessing performance, both views ignore, or are oblivious to, the implications of the NDA’s escalated reprocessing plans. Further, weaknesses in OSPAR procedures for monitoring and sampling the marine environment could, if unresolved, provide convenient loopholes through which claims of success in meeting targets might be made when OSPAR’s final analysis is undertaken in 2020.

Martin Forwood further commented that: “The political will and courage needed to honour UK’s international commitments is conspicuous by its absence. Officialdom is sleepwalking towards a situation which, unless avoiding action is taken now, will see commitments broken and the UK once again earning the Dirty Old Man of Europe tag”.

At the 1998 meeting of OSPAR at Sintra in Portugal, the then UK Minister John Prescott signed up to what were described as groundbreaking commitments for action on radioactive discharges, stating “I was ashamed of Britain’s record in the past but now we have shed the tag of Dirty old Man of Europe and have joined the family of nations”.

The CORE report 'Sellafield – Breaching International Treaty Targets on Radioactive Marine Pollution' is available via CORE

Source and contact: CORE, Dry Hall, Broughton Mills, Broughton-in-Furness, Cumbria LA20 6AZ. United Kingdom, Tel: + 44 1229 716523