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Security - Uranium Milling and Mining - Enrichment - Storage/Waste - Reprocessing


Nuclear reactors pose serious safety concerns. The history of nuclear power is marked by a deficient safety culture, a nonexistent long-term solution to waste, repeated unintentional radiation releases, and both major and minor accidents. Proponents have revised initial claims of an “inherently safe” technology in the aftermath of catastrophic incidents such as Fukushima, Three Mile Island, and Chernobyl. Those two accidents, along with a continuum of accidents across six decades, reflect nuclear’s fundamentally unsafe nature.

Nuclear reactors are at risk of a terrorist attack. In the final 9/11 Commission Report, Mohammed Atta said that he had considered targeting a nuclear facility in the New York area. More than seven years after 9/11, and despite Atta’s statements, there are no requirements that existing nuclear reactors be protected against an air attack. Moreover, repeated incidents show an epidemic of undertrained and overworked security guards and clearly indicate- the questionable security of nuclear reactors and radioactive materials.

Additional Resources

Lessons from Fukushima and Chernobyl for US Public Health Briefing Book
(PSR, April 2011)
A briefing book on radiation and health issues, lessons learned from Fukushima and Chernobyl, and its implications for US public health and safety.

BEIR VII: Health Risks from Exposure to Low Levels of Ionizing Radiation
(The National Academies, 2005)
A report showing that any exposure to radiation poses a risk of cancer.

The Use of Reference Man in Radiation Protection Standards and Guidance with Recommendations for Change
(Institute for Energy and Environmental Research, April 2009)
A report on the ineffectiveness of ‘reference man’ in calculating health risks posed by radiation.

Low-level Ionizing Radiation and Human Health: An Evaluation of Impacts of Proposed Deregulation of Radioactive Waste
University of North Carolina School of Public Health
A discussion of the carcinogenic risk factors posed by deregulation of radioactive waste.

Childhood Leukemia and Cancers Near German Nuclear Reactors: Significance, Context, and Ramifications of Recent Studies
International Journal of Occupational Environmental Health, 2009; 15:318-323
A government-sponsored study of childhood cancer in areas near German nuclear power plants found that children < 5 years living < 5 km from plant exhaust stacks had twice the risk of contracting leukemia than those residing > 5 km.

Uranium Milling and Mining

As most uranium mines in the U.S. have closed, the country imports more than 75% of refined uranium, largely from Canada.

As usually less than 1% of ore is usable, milling is necessary to refine the ore to a powder than contains around 90% uranium oxide. Milling produces radioactive mill tailings, which led to widespread environmental contamination until regulations were put in place in 1980.

The most serious health hazard associated with uranium mining and milling is lung cancer, which occurs by the inhalation of uranium decay products. Furthermore, radium-226 and heavy metals, such as manganese and molybdenum, leach into ground water.

Furthermore, the detrimental health impacts of uranium mining and milling disproportionately affect indigenous populations within the U.S. More than one-third of all mill tailings, the radioactive byproduct, are on the lands of Navajo Nation.

Additional Resources

Poison Wind (Film clip) (2007)
A documentary clip that shows the degradation caused by uranium mining on the communities, environments, and health of indigenous people in the American Southwest.

Report: Grand Canyon Threatened by Approval of Uranium Mining Activities
Environmental Working Group (January 29, 2008).
This study finds that Forest Service permits to allow uranium mining near the Grand Canyon would pose serious threats to the ecosystem of this national treasure.


The enrichment of uranium increases the level of uranium-235 to uranium-238, via the conversion of yellowcake (produced from milling) to uranium hexafluoride and then to the usable materials: uranium dioxide or metal.

The hazards involved with uranium enrichment come from mishandling uranium hexafluoride, which is both toxic and radioactive. It reacts readily and violently with moisture, releasing a highly toxic acid. Accidents of this sort commonly occur at enrichment facilities.

Depleted uranium composes the majority of waste, and has been incorporated into weapons and armor plating by the U.S. military without regulations regarding its radioactivity and dose-control.

Additional Resources

Uranium: Its Uses and Hazards
Institute for Energy and Environmental Research (July, 2005).
A brief, scientific factsheet about uranium and its hazards.

Iran nuclear deal raises hopes for science
Nature, 14 April 2015.
Iranian physicists excited at prospects for a new physics lab and greater collaboration with the rest of the world.

Hazards of Depleted Uranium
Stanford University, March 21, 2012


There are 65,000 tons of spent fuel in the United States, with about 75% of the fuel stored in pools. Essentially, the spent fuel is put into rods surrounded by a thin cladding layer, and put at least twenty feet under cold circulating water.

These spent fuel pools are under increasing pressure as there are no permanent deep disposal waste repository in the United States, and the number of spent rods in each pool is increasing. The danger with this increase in rods is that if the water is heated too much, it can begin to evaporate.

Additionally, pools are in secondary containments without extra protection and are highly vulnerable to attack. If the water from a pool began to leak due to a terrorist attack, the remaining water will boil and evaporate at a faster rate, causing the cladding, which is less than 1 millimeter thick, to rupture, allowing the radioactive materials to escape. Furthermore, reactors in the US are not required to have back up generators to keep the used fuel rods cool or concrete reinforced with steel barriers to prevent the escape of radioactivity in case of emergency.

In the past thirty years, there have been at least 66 incidents at American reactors in which significant amounts of spent fuel water have been lost.

If there were a spent fuel pool fire at one of the Indian Point reactors near New York City, it would cause, at the least, 5600 deaths to cancer and more than $461 billion in damage.

These rods are highly radioactive, releasing 1 million rems of radiation per hour – if a person were within a foot of the rod, he or she would be dead within seconds.

Additional Resources

Spent Nuclear Fuel Pools in the US: Reducing the Deadly Risks of Storage
Institute of Policy Studies, May 24, 2011
A report by Dr. Robert Alvarez of the Institute for Policy Studies detailing the threat of a catastrophic release of radioactive materials from a spent fuel pool in the United States, which are typically filled with far more radioactive material than the reactors at Fukushima-Daiichi.

Principles for Safeguarding Waste at Nuclear Reactors
(March 2010)
A set of principles, endorsed by over 170 groups in all 50 states, for the safeguard of nuclear waste at reactor sites with provisions including low-density, open-framework spent fuel pools, hardened on-site storage, and prohibitions against reprocessing

Safer Storage of Spent Nuclear Fuel
Union of Concerned Scientists
A report detailing the process of storing spent fuel rods in pools, the vulnerability of spent fuel pools, and the advantages of dry cask storage.


Reprocessing spent fuel is the process of separating plutonium and uranium from nuclear waste. Currently in the United States, there are no reprocessing sites as per the non-proliferation discussions in the 1970’s, in which the United States decided to opt for permanent ground storage.

While reprocessing is often touted as the solution to the nuclear waste problem in the United States, it would actually increase the total volume of radioactive waste and increase the risk of proliferation and terrorist attacks.

As plutonium, which can be used to make nuclear weapons, comprises only 1% of nuclear spent fuel, reprocessing leaves large amounts of diluted uranium. Although the diluted uranium is classified as a low-level radioactive material, the volume of uranium is nearly 7 times larger than it was in the start, which would require multiple new waste facilities to be built.

Reprocessing is highly expensive, far more than direct deposit of spent fuel, at least until uranium reaches of a price of $360 per kg, a price unlikely to be reached in the coming decades.

These estimates were made using highly conservative estimates of prices in the future. It is likely that the cost of reprocessing will be even higher than estimated in this study.

To reprocess the 60,000 metric tons of waste currently in the US, with the additional 2,000 metric tons produced annually, would require the building of two $20b facilities and add a cost of $3b-$4.5b per year onto the American public.

Additional Resources

Reprocessing and Nuclear Waste Fact Sheet
Union of Concerned Scientists, July 2009
A fact sheet disproving statements made by the nuclear power company, Areva, that reprocessing decreases the amount of radioactive waste.

Managing Spent Fuel in the United States: The Illogic of Reprocessing
International Panel of Fissile Materials (January, 2007)
Frank von Hippel, Co-Director of Program on Science and Global Security, Princeton University
An analysis of the economic and security risks posed by the development of irradiated fuel reprocessing program in the United States.

Spent Nuclear Fuel Reprocessing in France
International Panel on Fissile Materials (April,2008)
Mycle Schneider, International Consultant on Energy and Nuclear Policy & Yves Marignac, Executive Director of the Energy Information Agency WISE-Paris

The Safeguards at Reprocessing Plants under a Fissile Materials (Cutoff) Treaty
International Panel of Fissile Materials (February, 2009)

Nuclear Reprocessing: Dangerous, Dirty, and Expensive
Union of Concerned Scientists

The Economics of Reprocessing vs. Direct Disposal of Spent Nuclear Fuel
Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, John F. Kennedy School of Government and Harvard University (December, 2003)

Japan's Spent Fuel and Plutonium Management Challenges
International Panel of Fissile Materials (September, 2006)
An academic report by the International Panel on Fissile Materials on the proliferation, safety, and economic risks posed by Japan's reprocessing program.

The Real Costs of Cleaning Up Nuclear Waste: A Full Cost Accounting of Cleanup Options for the West Valley Nuclear Waste Site
Synapse Energy Economics, Inc. (July 7, 2008)
Robert Alvarez, Institute for Policy Studies
A critical analysis of proposed and actual clean-up costs at the West Valley Reprocessing site in upstate New York.