Ethics of Nuclear Plant Locations

Penelope Edmonds
March 18, 2017

Submitted as coursework for PH241, Stanford University, Winter 2017


Fig. 1: A nuclear power station in Grafenrheinfeld, Bavaria, Germany. (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

A nuclear power plant (see Fig. 1) is a facility that converts atomic energy into usable energy like electricity. At the heart of the facility is a nuclear reactor that facilitates the chemical chain reaction needed to generate power from Uranium. Along with the nuclear reactor, the plant consists of a steam turbine, a generator, a cooling system, safety valves, a feedwater pump, and an emergency power supply. [1] These parts aid the chemical conversion process while also containing the energy in a safe way. There are 61 nuclear power plants commercially operating in the United States.

Locating Power Plants

In deciding where to locate nuclear power plants, the first obstacle to climb is finding a state where nuclear power plants are not banned. Fifteen states (California, Connecticut, Hawaii, Illinois, Kentucky, Maine, Massachusetts, Minnesota, Montana, New Jersey, New York, Oregon, Rhode Island, Vermont and West Virginia) have laws in place that restrict the building of new nuclear facilities. [2] Once a state is found that is willing to house a power plant, companies must find a topography that is well suited for the plant. Water is a vital part to the function of a power plant, and therefore it must be located near some body of water. Obviously, a power plant is going to be huge, and therefore a location with a lot of open space is ideal. When a location is found that meets this criteria, it comes down to the ethics.

Ethics Surrounding Power Plants

Many concerns surrounding the location of nuclear plants have to do with waste disposal and possible system malfunctions that could result in poisoning the environment with radioactive materials. Nuclear waste is nuclear fuel whose chemical composition has been altered. This results in toxically radioactive waste that, if not disposed of properly, could infect neighboring communities of nuclear power plants with radiation poisoning and lead to a catastrophic event. Because power plants utilize water sources, there is a high risk for contaminating those water sources, which neighboring communities might depend on. Tragic nuclear accidents have already happened in the past like the Chernobyl Disaster, which occurred in 1986. [3] In this case, a nuclear reactor blew up causing a huge explosion and fire that resulted in the emission of radioactive substances into the environment. It wrecked the ecology around it, turning pine trees orange (resulting in the region being called the "red forrest"), and caused humans living in the area to flee. [4] What came from this incident, and many others, was a huge concern for the location of power plants.

© Penelope Edmonds. The author grants permission to copy, distribute and display this work in unaltered form, with attribution to the author, for noncommercial purposes only. All other rights, including commercial rights, are reserved to the author.


[1] R. Meiswinkel and J. Schnell, Design and Construction of Nuclear Power Plants, (Ernst & Sohn, 2013).

[2] "Assessment of the Nuclear Power Industry - Final Report," Navigant Consulting, Inc., June 2013.

[3] A. V. Yablokov et. al., Chernobyl: Consequences of the Catastrophe for People and the Environment (Wiley-Blackwell, 2010).

[4] C. Goldenstein, "Ecological Consequences of the Chernobyl Disaster," Physics 241, Stanford University, Winter 2012.