What Is Radioactive Water Pollution? | Renew Method

Radioactive water pollution can be extremely dangerous for the health of the environment and the public at large, but what exactly is it?

Radioactive water pollution occurs during the aftermath of a nuclear explosion and the mismanagement of nuclear waste and materials.  In addition, radioactive pollution can enter our water during the extraction and mining of radioactive materials such as uranium.

The very term radioactive can often make a person’s skin crawl - and for good reason.  As nuclear energy developed during the 20th century, we saw breakthroughs in energy technology that could potentially revolutionize the world - or lead to its demise.  Humanity had unlocked a power far greater than it ever thought possible, which came with a lot of excitement and opportunities, but also a lot of risk and responsibility.  Unfortunately, nuclear energy is something that humans to this day do not have full control over.  This has resulted in one of the darkest sides of human history, as well as many environmental catastrophes, which have been caused by radioactivity entering our water.  Let’s take a closer look at what radioactive water pollution is.

After years of studying the effects that radioactive pollution has on our water, I have concluded that this contamination is directly linked to serious health risks for humans, as well as the ecosystems that plant, animal, and marine species depend on.

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Radioactive Water Pollution  

When most people commonly hear the term radiation or nuclear energy, they are generally thinking of a large-scale nuclear bomb going off or the production of energy at a nuclear power plant, but actually, radiation is something that we are all exposed to on a daily basis.  So much of the technology that we use today puts us directly in contact with radiation every time we turn on our microwaves or use our cell phones.  This raises the question, are radiation and radioactive water pollution really all that bad?

The honest answer is, it depends.  When we are exposed to light forms of radioactivity whether it be from warming up our lunch in our microwaves, browsing social media on our cell phones, or even drinking water, the damaging effects are minimal or completely irrelevant.  Where radiation becomes extremely dangerous is when we are exposed to large amounts of it.  

These days, radioactive water pollution is something that can be found all over the world (including the U.S.) - within our oceans, rivers, lakes, streams (etc.).  In fact, some people living within the United States are consuming a certain amount of radiation from their drinking water on a daily basis.  While we do test the amount of radioactive water pollution that we consume, it is still an uncomfortable notion.  At the moment, the Environmental Protection Agency has determined that in order for drinking water to be safe, it should have no more than 5pCi/L radiation content.  This is calculated based on the amount of uranium found within water, as well as some other radioactive elements and gases.

With that being said, radioactive water pollution is quite common these days and its level of harm is determined by the amount of radiation produced by its source.  To understand what radioactive radioactive water pollution is better, we have to take a closer look at what causes it and how it affects us and our planet.

Causes: Radioactive Water Pollution

As mentioned above, radioactivity is something that we are exposed to on a daily basis, but not all of this exposure is necessarily dangerous to us or the environment.  However, when a large amount of radiation is released into our water the effects can be catastrophic.

Since the discovery of nuclear energy, we have watched this powerful entity become a platform for creating weapons, electricity, and so many other modern technological advancements such as space exploration and saltwater purification.  This has kept nuclear energy as a vital source of power for decades within our society.  While it has served many purposes and helped us become more technologically advanced, it has also led to massive amounts of destruction and the radioactive pollution of our water.

If nuclear energy is produced and properly handled, it tends to not have so many damaging effects.  However, the mismanagement of this powerful resource can have a dire impact on humanity and all life on this planet, which makes this a human innovation that we should approach with extreme caution.  Here are the different things that cause radioactive water pollution.

Nuclear Weapons

The most notorious use of nuclear energy has been to create nuclear weapons - the most destructive and powerful weapons that humanity has ever made, which has been both a technological breakthrough and a curse at the same time.  Nuclear weaponry has been a slippery slope for human civilization, as we have essentially created something that can conquer any enemy, but at the cost of destroying all life as we know it.

This was perpetuated by the arms race during the cold war, as east and west began to produce thousands of nuclear weapons with a constant aim to one-up the other.  Luckily, these weapons were never used against people during the war, which could have had dire consequences.  However, a lot of these nuclear weapons were tested during this period - with most of them being dropped directly into our oceans.  

When these nuclear weapons are detonated in our oceans, they release an enormous amount of radioactive pollution into the water, which can have a catastrophic impact on marine life and, ultimately, our own well-being.

Nuclear Power Plants

You can find nuclear power plants all over the world and they are still one of the most popular ways of producing energy.  These plants tend to have a reputation of being environmentally friendly, as they produce a very small carbon footprint and rarely contribute to radioactive water pollution.

However, while nuclear physicists and governments make these claims, we have seen throughout history just how damaging nuclear power plants can be when things go wrong.  One of the most infamous cases of a failure from a nuclear power plant was during the Chernobyl meltdown in 1986.  

While the massive effects of the meltdown were primarily contained, the effects that this incident had on the environment and the local water supply which spanned hundreds of miles was catastrophic.  However, if the meltdown had not been contained, the Chernobyl incident would have added high amounts of radioactive water pollution that would have reached distances of thousands of miles away.

In recent years, we saw a nuclear disaster in Japan at the infamous Fukushima power plant.  This was a reminder of how this unstable technology can backfire and potentially destroy the livelihoods of millions of people and pollute our water.  This single incident resulted in millions of tons of radioactive water being dumped directly into the ocean.


The primary element needed for nuclear energy is uranium, which needs to be mined in order to be utilized for nuclear power.  Mining, in general, has been known to cause damaging effects on our environment, but how does uranium mining affect our water specifically?

The mining of radioactive elements such as uranium can pose serious risks to humans, the surrounding environment, and all of the natural resources in the area- including water.  The problem with mining uranium is that containing this material can be extremely challenging and virtually never happens without some form of environmental harm.

These mines create an enormous amount of radioactive waste, which can be challenging to dispose of.  This leads to most organizations simply dumping the material in a designated location or leave it on site.  The radioactive waste from the mine can, however, be carried by wind to neighboring communities and ecosystems, which results in radioactive water pollution.

In addition, mining organizations are prone to making mistakes when conducting geological surveys and may underestimate what the surroundings of the mine actually are.  In this situation drilling too deep into bedrock that has radioactive elements could release uranium and other harmful materials directly into water sources or indirectly through soil contamination.

Effects: Radioactive Water Pollution

When radioactive waste enters our water, the effects are not one-sided but rather a global impact, which can affect the entire planet and all of its inhabitants.  

In fact, the reach of radioactive water pollution can spread so far and wide that radiation has been found in places like Greenland - where there has never been nuclear activity.  Let’s take a look at the effects of radioactive water pollution.

Human Impact

The effects that high amounts of radioactive water pollution can have on human health are horrific and generally end in death or death-related illnesses.  We first saw these effects after the initial nuclear bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in Japan, where people endured the short-term and long-term effects of nuclear war.

The people affected by these explosions continued to feel the repercussions of the nuclear blasts for decades, as the people impacted were not merely those who were affected by the blast.  The radioactivity from the bombs entered vital natural resources such as the water supply, which at this point had been subject to radioactive pollution.

Many people continued to drink this water for years, which resulted in a massive increase in cancer rates.  Radioactive water pollution continues to be a direct link to cancer around the entire planet.  In addition, exposure to radioactive water has been linked to birth defects such as mental disabilities and even stillbirths.

Marine Ecosystems

The testing of nuclear weaponry, as well as the mismanagement of radioactive waste, has led to a decline in fish species and marine ecosystems in areas affected by the pollution.  This is especially the case in areas that are near the epicenter of the exposure, however, given the reach of radioactive water pollution, experts speculate that effects can be felt further away.

This sort of exposure to nuclear radiation will affect all marine life within the area (big and small) and can result in immediate destruction or long-term effects.  

Marine species that have been subject to radioactive water pollution have been known to have defects, which have altered their very DNA.  This can make it harder for the affected animals and organisms to evolve, which can put the entire species at risk.

Wildlife & Habitat

While we often think of radioactive water pollution primarily occurring in our oceans, fresh water on land can also have traces of radiation.

This generally happens when an inland radiation plant experiences issues or a uranium mine mismanages materials.  This results in harmful radioactive materials entering our freshwater channels, which countless plant and animal species depend on.

Rivers, streams, and lakes have all been contaminated through radioactive water pollution, which is then utilized by land animals for drinking water.  Furthermore, it is common for radiation to contaminate soil, which can eventually find its way into freshwater from runoff or erosion.

This can also be problematic for animals that consume plants linked to these contaminated water sources, as they end up getting radiation from both their water and their food.

Resource Contamination

A major problem with radioactive water pollution is that it not only affects the health of humans, marine species, and wildlife/habitat on land, it also destroys many of our vital natural resources, which we depend on.

Radioactive water pollution has led to a lot of our rivers, streams, and lakes being unusable for generations to come.  This contamination prevents us from using these freshwater resources for drinking water, agriculture, fishing, and even recreation.

This is a major problem for ocean fish, as much of the seafood that we consume comes from a global pool of different marine species, which implies that someone could potentially be a victim of radiation from a country that they had nothing to do with.

Radioactive water pollution continues to affect our resources by directly sabotaging forests for logging, as well as our soil, which jeopardizes food production.


James Parker

James Parker

James Parker has a Masters degree in Sustainability with a focus on land management, permaculture and regenerative agriculture. He also has experience managing sustainability projects, and is passionate about conservation and sustainability.

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