Environmental Injustice: Racism Behind Nuclear Energy

Oluwaseun Adebagbo
March 26, 2018

Submitted as coursework for PH241, Stanford University, Winter 2018


Fig. 1: Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant (Source Wikimedia Commons)

Nuclear power plant (NPP) reactors produce low-level ionizing radiation, high level nuclear waste, and are likely to lead to catastrophic contamination events. Power generated from NPPs produce nuclear waste that should kept away from humans for thousands of years. [1] The key concern in NPP accidents is when radioactive elements escape from the core into the environment. [2] (See Fig. 1 for example of a power plant.) Communities living near NPPs are also exposed to possible soil and water contamination. [1] Risks presented by NPP can have multigenerational effects on people and communities in close proximity to these power plants. There are three key forms of environmental justice: distributive justice, procedural justice, and recognition justice. According to Rawls theory of distributive justice, it is unjust for disadvantaged populations to bear further harms from the placement of nuclear power facilities unless they derive special benefits. Communities where certain disadvantaged populations (such as low income and minority groups) reside are where the U.S. stations waste facilities. [3] Environmental racism combines public policies and industry practices to provide benefits for whites while shifting the costs to people of color. [4]

Low-income and Minorities Disproportionately Impacted

In a study done by Kynes, there was a larger percentage of African Americans living within the 50 mile radius of NPPs, while there was a larger percentage of whites living outside the 50 mile radius. [1] An example of this can be found from Warren County, the Savannah River nuclear facility. This facility which is a source of radioactive leaks, is located in a predominantly African American community in South Carolina. [3]

Minorities communities are unequally more impacted by the NPP than white communities. Minority and poverty-level communities often include higher percentages of women and children and both are more sensitive to ionizing radiation, yet most radiation standards are created to only protect adult males. [5]

Despite the lack of consent from Indigenous peoples, NPP use their lands for uranium mining/processing. Indigenous people have been harmed by working in unregulated uranium mines or by exposure to uncontrolled uranium wastes on native lands. Uranium mining and milling on reservation lands in the Black Hills and Four Corners regions, are primary examples of nuclear colonism and racism. [4] In the U.S., Native-American uranium miners, face 14 times the normal lung-cancer risk, mostly caused by their uranium-mining, not smoking. [5] US nuclear-facility owners are legally allowed to expose workers to annual radiation doses up to 50 times higher than those allowed for members of the public. Radiation workers typically do not receive hazard pay. They often accept dangerous nuclear jobs because of economic necessity. [5]

In the event of emergency evacuation, housing, job, and financial uncertainty can serve as barriers thus, heightening the stress associated with the inability to evacuate. Low-income and minority populations are more likely to lack financial resources and social networks to rely upon during emergencies. Further, low-income populations have the worst health and health care. People of color also have higher rates of illness and mortality, and lower usage rates of health care facilities and procedures. This becomes more problematic for people coping with associated health impacts of a nuclear accident.They are likely to suffer greater costs in the case of an accident and face more difficulties in recovery. Yet it is unclear whether these groups get any special benefits such as cheaper electricity.


Minority groups are more likely to live proximal to NPP thus increasing their exposure and risk of radioactive health related problems. In the case of Indigenous peoples, their land was non-consensually taken and used for processing nuclear energy, thus putting them at risk of NPP related issues. Income necessity is usually the motivating factor in minorities taking jobs at NPP. U.S. government needs to improve upon current policies and regulations that impact NPP workers. More policies also need to be put in place to protect minority and low income communities who face uncertainty in the event of emergency evacuations.

© Oluwaseun Adebagbo. The author warrants that the work is the author's own and that Stanford University provided no input other than typesetting and referencing guidelines. 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] D. Kyne and B. Bolin, "Emerging Environmental Justice Issues in Nuclear Power and Radioactive Contamination," Int. J. Environ. Res. Public Health 13, 700 (2016).

[2] J. P. Christodouleas et al., "Short-Term and Long-Term Health Risks of Nuclear-Power-Plant Accidents," New Engl. J. Med. 364, 3224 (2011).

[3] S. Harding, ed., The "Racial" Economy of Science (Indiana University Press, 1993).

[4] D. Endres, "From Wasteland to Waste Site: The Role of Discourse in Nuclear Power's Environmental Injustices," Local Environ. 14, 917 (2009).

[5] M. Alldred and K. Shrader-Frechett, Environmental Injustice in Siting Nuclear Plants," Environ. Justice 2, 85 (2009).