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Are Nuclear Reactors Inequitably Distributed?

Updated: Nov 2, 2022

By: Lila McNamee and Richard Lee


In 1895, scientists started researching nuclear energy and its application in developing nuclear bombs. In doing this, they discovered nuclear fission (World Nuclear Association, 2020). Fission is a reaction in which an atom is hit with a neutron and splits into two or more smaller atomic nuclei. This leads to a chain reaction in which more nuclei are split and energy is released as seen in Figure 1 (IAEA, 2021). Through further experimentation, scientists were able to discover different aspects of fission which revealed that Uranium-235 was much more conducive to the reaction than Uranium-238 (though there is a much higher abundance of Uranium-238 in nature) and that if one was able to slow the movement of the particles by storing the reaction in water, the reaction would improve and become more stable.

These, among other discoveries, led to the creation of the atomic bomb, which was the object of most early nuclear research (World Nuclear Association, 2020).

After the end of the second World War, research shifted from the development of nuclear

weapons to nuclear energy (World Nuclear Association, 2020). The atoms and reactions used in atomic bombs were easily applied to energy. One uranium pellet, roughly the size of a pencil eraser, was found to be able to produce the same amount of energy as a ton of coal, 3 barrels of oil, or 17,000 cubic feet of natural gas and can provide up to five years of heat for power generation (Nuclear power basics). These statistics alone show the value of nuclear energy. This type of energy becomes even more appealing due to the density of nuclear fuel which produces only low levels of waste (Office of Nuclear Energy, 2021). Nuclear power plants produce no combustion byproducts and do not contribute to air pollution (World Nuclear Association, 2020). This can be compared to natural gas production which can produce large amounts of waste through the emission of both carbon dioxide and methane gasses. These emissions affect the environment through air and water pollution (Green America).

One major problem with nuclear energy is the disposal of the waste that is produced. Currently, there is no clear disposal method which has led many plants to simply store their waste in storage near plants and weapons facilities. This strategy has amounted to 1⁄4 million metric tons being left, essentially abandoned to decay. Due to the danger surrounding nuclear waste, this can quickly become a hazard. As containers age, toxic chemicals can leak out, especially when these chemicals are exposed to sea-salt aerosol. Because power plants need easy access to water to cool and slow reactors, they are often built around coastlines. However, when the waste containers are left in the open air, the salt air can create stress corrosion cracking and allow dangerous materials and radiation to seep out (Jacoby, 2020). There are safer waste management options including vitrification and the construction of permanent repositories. Vitrification involves converting liquid waste to glass which prevents leakage and makes the waste more durable (Jacoby, 2020). Repositories, or underground facilities designed to store high-level radioactive waste (U.S. NRC, 2022) have been proposed across the world, but there are few actually in use. In the United States, the Nuclear Waste Policy Act of 1982 declared that Yucca Mountain in Nevada is the sole location where such a repository can be built in the U.S. (H.R.3809).

Despite this act becoming law, Yucca Mountain remains untouched, in part because of hesitancy surrounding nuclear energy and its materials in general. According to the Nevada Attorney General, Yucca Mountain is unsuitable as a repository because it is volcanically active and cannot hold the waste, it is adjacent both to agricultural regions and Las Vegas, the transportation route that would be used poses too much risk to citizens in case of an accident, and it would create a national security risk as the Mountain would become the largest spent fuel storage site in the world (The Fight Against Yucca Mountain).

This hesitancy is consistent with the opinions of the American public in general. According to a Gallup poll, there is a very thin margin between those who oppose and those who support the development of nuclear energy (51% in support and 47% opposing) (Saad, 2022). This statistic has changed in recent months with the rise of oil and gas prices making affordable, alternative energy more appealing. One main argument for those opposing nuclear energy is the history of grave disasters at power plants like Fukushima and Chernobyl, suggested to have carried the same impact of thirty to forty of the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagaski (L.A. Times Archives, 1986). While Fukushima’s meltdown was due to a tsunami followed by a massive earthquake (World Nuclear Association, 2022), Chernobyl was due, in part, to human error as scientists turned off an automatic control system which regulated the reactor's power level, thus leading the reactor to grow unstable and explode (L.A. Times Archives, 1986). However, with President Biden’s budget of $6 billion to help keep struggling nuclear power plants open, nuclear energy appears to be a growing certainty for the future of energy production in the United States (Gardner, 2022).

Equity Analysis

In this section equity will be defined as the fair and justified allocation of, and opportunity to

receive the benefits of nuclear energy, while also ensuring that not only one sect of the

population bears the brunt of its consequences. This definition will be analyzed in three

categories: energy distribution, facility distribution, and employment opportunities.

Facility Distribution

A key determinant in where a nuclear reactor can be placed is the area’s proximity to water.

Water is vital in the production of nuclear energy. When a nuclear reaction takes place, it heats the cooling agent (water) which produces steam. The steam then spins turbines in the reactor which creates nuclear energy (Office of Nuclear Energy). Because of this, and as is seen in Figure 2 (Energy Justice Communities Map), most of the nuclear reactors in the United States are located near a body of water (lake, ocean, river, etc.) ((Energy Justice Communities Map)). [Note: this map does not include Alaska or Hawaii because there are no

nuclear reactors in either of these states]. Based on data from 2022, the distribution of reactors presented in Figure 2 primarily impacts low-income and black communities (See Appendix for further demographic-based maps). Because of this, it is easy to assume that there is injustice motivating the placement of reactors. However, when considering the importance of water in both the cooling process as well as the fact that it is the main vehicle to create energy, this correlation is more of a coincidence than a racially or socio economically motivated objective.

The concentration of Black and/or low-income communities in the Southern United States dates back to slavery and racial segregation. Black people and families were regularly denied access to “well-resourced and opportunity-rich neighborhoods” (Turner and Greene). This kept them in the under-funded neighborhoods, which is seen in Appendix.3 and Appendix.8. Further, from 1916 - 1970, many recently freed slaves moved to the North and West regions of the U.S. in what is now referred to as the Great Migration. This had the potential to radically change the demographic layout of the country as in 1900, 90% of Black Americans lived in the South. While 47% of African Americans were able to leave the South by 1970, many were forced to stay in the South due to Reconstruction and Jim Crow laws (Clark, 2022). For example, after emancipation, many Black Southerners were given the opportunity to become sharecroppers (or renters of small plots of land from established landowners) ( Editors, 2019). While this may have been appealing at the time, it ended up leaving many sharecroppers in massive debt– which was required to be paid off before they could leave the land rented. Arguably more grotesque, after lynchings in the South began to increase, many Black families returned to the South the bring other family members or friends with them where it would be safer. Unfortunately, their return trips were often obstructed as White Southerners used intimidation tactics as well as legislation (such as making pre-paid ticket acceptance illegal on trains) to dissuade and prevent African Americans from getting back to the North (Clark, 2022).

The evidence here shows that the placement of nuclear reactors in Black and low-income areas has less to do with discrimination and instead with the geographic features, namely water, that these areas hold. Instead, the fact that these areas are populated primarily by Black and low-income people is due to a multitude of racial injustices going back to slavery, the Reconstruction Era, and Jim Crow. Because of this, it can be argued that the distribution of facilities, while concentrated in these areas, is not inequitable.


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Appendix.1 - Native American population and locations of nuclear reactors in the contiguous United States.

Appendix.2 - Asian population and locations of nuclear reactors in the contiguous United States.

Appendix.3 - Black population and locations of nuclear reactors in the contiguous United States.

Appendix.4 - Hispanic population and locations of nuclear reactors in the contiguous United States.

Appendix.5 - Multi-racial population and locations of nuclear reactors in the contiguous United States.

Appendix.6 - White population and locations of nuclear reactors in the contiguous United States.

Appendix.7 - Income levels and locations of nuclear reactors in the contiguous United States.

Appendix.8 - Income level key.


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