How Nuclear Waste Impacts Marginalized Communities

Nuclear power is one of the most promising options for clean, sustainable energy. Unfortunately, however, this option does not come without its drawbacks. Historically, nuclear waste led to problems that have disproportionately impacted marginalized communities.

For nuclear power to make a positive difference in the world, we will need to address the challenges of handling waste and securing systems to protect everyone — not just the rich and powerful. This begins with understanding how nuclear waste has harmed marginalized communities in the past.

From the devastation wrought by nuclear bombs to the accidents that have driven marginalized people from their homes, the impact of nuclear waste cannot be ignored. But first, it’s important to understand why this power source has been sought out by governments and corporations across the world. 

The Power of Nuclear

Nuclear power has incredible potential. With zero-carbon methods of producing electricity for massive populations, exploring this energy alternative can offer clean and reliable solutions. Since one of the biggest drawbacks of other renewables is their questionable reliability, nuclear makes sense.

Already, this carbon-free source of energy powers homes and businesses. In 2020 alone, 790 billion kilowatt-hours of electricity were produced in the US, providing around 20% of the nation’s electricity all without any impact on carbon emissions. These nuclear plants operated at full capacity 92% of the time, which makes them at least 1.5 times more reliable than natural gas and up to 3.5 times more reliable than wind and solar plants.

It goes without saying that with such benefits come financial interests. The nuclear industry in the US contributes an estimated $60 billion to gross domestic product and, in turn, creates around 700 jobs per power plant. Additionally, capital costs for building nuclear power plants tend to be lower than wind and solar plants.

That said, the poverty cycles that lead to rich people getting richer while the poor stay poor are inherent in striving for nuclear power. With wealthy investors pouring money into these power plants to harvest financial gain, safety is at risk of being forgotten over a bottom line. Without proper safeguards and considerations, nuclear power has proven unsafe for marginalized communities. 

The Unfortunate Consequences for Marginalized Communities

Nuclear power can be immensely beneficial. At the same time—if improperly handled—nuclear energy and the waste it creates can be a ticking time bomb for disaster. And like we saw with the COVID-19 pandemic, poor management will mean that marginalized communities face the worst of the effects.

Three unfortunate circumstances faced by societies all over the world make this so. These are: the lack of power marginalized communities have in making their voices heard, the tendency of nuclear power plants to be built in low-income areas, and existing protections designed around an adult white male base.

Here’s how these factors play out to the detriment of marginalized communities:

Marginalized Voices are Ignored in Favor of Nuclear Development

All over the world, nuclear power plants are planned and developed within communities that do not want them and question their safety. Yet, corporations press on with their plans. One prominent example occurred in the aftermath of the Fukushima nuclear disaster, in which an estimated 32 million people were affected.

Then, plans in South Africa to develop a nuclear reactor set off political activism in the nation. Social equality groups pressed for reconsideration, stating that any fallout would only further widen the gaps generated by apartheid. But were they listened to? South Africa has moved ahead time and time again with plans to develop more nuclear reactors.

Nuclear Power is Built in Low-Income Communities

As a direct consequence of their being ignored, marginalized communities like those below the poverty level or with higher populations of minority groups tend to live closer to nuclear power plants. According to Stanford University research, a larger percentage of African Americans lived within 50 miles of nuclear power plants than their white peers.

Infamously, Chernobyl represents exactly what happens to marginalized communities when a nuclear disaster occurs. The city’s many subsistence farmers found themselves suddenly without the means to make a living when the disaster occurred. As a result, they were forced to rely on government subsistence to make ends meet, and many have either returned or stayed in the region where housing is cheaper.

Because the risks associated with nuclear power lower property values, lower-income families both already live in planned sites for nuclear development or come to live there after they’re built. This means when a disaster occurs, it is the poor who face more of the devastation. 

Protections Aren’t for Everyone

The leaks at the Savannah River nuclear site in the American South showcased just how racially and financially disparate the effects tend to be when dealing with dangerous nuclear waste. From the evidence that emerged that black workers were frequently sent into high-radiation areas without the proper protection to the lack of job mobility experienced by the same, historically marginalized workers and the larger black community in Savannah River took a disproportionate amount of the fallout.

There were at least 30 cases of cancer and ailments associated with the Savannah River site in its earlier days, but the leaks of nuclear containments continue to give the community health concerns, especially when it comes to the availability of safe drinking water. Poor water quality can lead to illness and even death. When polluted with radiation, the effects of contaminated drinking water can be even worse.

But Stanford research shows that ionizing radiation standards are designed more to protect adult males. For nuclear facility workers, even these standards can be waived, allowing facility owners to expose workers to as much as 50 times more radiation than is allowed for the common citizen. Often, these workers don’t even receive hazard pay.

Minority and low-income communities are at higher risk of the radiation pumped via nuclear waste into their communities because of their proximity. At the same, these communities have statistically higher levels of women and children. These risk factors, much like the reasons nuclear power plants are built in these areas in the first place, perpetuate racist and classist outcomes.

Facing these tragic problems, is there any hope that we can make clean nuclear energy safe for everyone?

Making Clean Energy Safer for Everyone

There is no debate whether or not nuclear power has potential. However, determining whether or not we can ensure the safety of this energy source for everyone is an essential question. Because socio-economic factors put marginalized communities at greater risks of the hazards of nuclear waste, comprehensive solutions must be found to ensure that no one is put in disproportionately harmful situations.

To do so, the nuclear power industry needs a coalition of trained and empathetic professionals who can work to protect communities. From hydrologists who can guarantee the safety of community drinking water to advocates that can be a powerful voice to represent these communities, making nuclear energy safer requires expertise and care. 

Understand the impacts of nuclear waste on marginalized communities, then explore how you can mitigate these risks in your own work and community. 

Ainsley Lawrence is a freelance writer that lives in the Northwest region of the United States. She has a particular interest in covering topics related to politics, social justice, and workplace issues. The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author.

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