Thermal Pollution & Nuclear Hazards - Global Environmental Issues and Control Measures

Thermal Pollution & Nuclear Hazards - Global Environmental Issues and Control Measures


Thermal Pollution

Thermal pollution is also known as heat pollution and occurs when heat is released into water or air that produces undesirable effects. Sudden heat release usually due to forest fire or volcanoes or human induced activities. Thermal pollution is also the addition of excess undesirable heat to water that makes it harmful to human, animal or aquatic life.

Sources of Thermal Pollution

Various sources of thermal pollution include - Thermal Power Plants ; Nuclear Power Plants ; Petroleum Refineries; Steel Plants; Metallurgical industries; Paper Mills; Chemical Plants. Coal fired power plants constitute major sources of thermal pollution. Nuclear plants discharge much heat and also traces of toxic radioactive substances. Many industries use water for cooling purpose and thus the heat effluents are finally discharged into water. 

Temperature and its effects

Temperature plays an important role in determining the conditions in which living things can survive. Birds and mammals require a narrow range of body temp for survival whereas aquatic species can exist at a certain range of temperatures. Thermal pollution increases water temperature causing a change (lowering) of dissolved oxygen levels. This disrupts and causes decay of plant and animal species. For eg: The warmer water increases the metabolic rate of fish and other animals in the sea; this decreases the life expectancy of aquatic animals.

Management of Thermal Pollution

Thermal Pollution is controlled by the following methods:

1. Cooling Towers are designed to control the temperature of water which transfers some of the heat from the water to the surrounding atmosphere by evaporation. There are two types of cooling towers namely wet cooling towers and dry cooling towers.

2. Cooling ponds are employed for thermal discharges. Heated effluents on the surface of water in cooling ponds maximize dissipation of heat to the atmosphere.

3. Artificial lakes are manmade bodies of water which offer possible alternative. The heating effluents are discharged into lake at one end and the water for cooling purpose may be withdrawn from the other end.

Nuclear Hazards

Radioactivity is the phenomenon of emission of energy from radioactive isotopes (i.e., unstable isotopes), such as Carbon-14, Uranium-235, Uranium-238, Uranium-239, Radium-226, etc. The emission of energy from radioactive substances in the environment is often called as 'Radioactive Pollution'.

Sources/causes of nuclear hazards

The sources of radioactivity are both natural and man-made. The natural sources include:

a) Natural sources:

Emissions from radioactive materials from the Earth's crust. People have been exposed to low levels of radiation from these natural sources for several millennia. But it is the man-made sources which are posing a threat to mankind.

b) Man-Made Sources: 

The man-made sources of radioactivity are nuclear wastes (i.e., waste material that contains radioactive nuclei) produced during the:
1) Mining and processing of radioactive ores;
2) Use of radioactive material in nuclear power plants;
3) Use of radioactive isotopes in medical, industrial and research applications; and
4) Use of radioactive materials in nuclear weapons.
The greatest exposure to human beings comes from the diagnostic use of X-rays, radioactive isotopes used as tracers and treatment of cancer and other ailments.

Effects of nuclear hazards

The effects of radioactive pollutants depend upon half-life, energy releasing capacity, rate of diffusion and rate of deposition of the contaminant. Various atmospheric conditions and climatic conditions such as wind, temperature and rainfall also determine their effects.

The effects may be somatic (individual exposed is affected) or genetic (future generations) damage. The effects are cancer, shortening of life span and genetic effects or mutations. Some of the possible effects are listed as under:

1) Radiations may break chemical bonds, such as DNA in cells. This affects the genetic make-up and control mechanisms. The effects can be instantaneous, prolonged or delayed types. Even it could be carried to future generations.

2) Exposure at low doses of radiations (100-250 rads), men do not die but begin to suffer from fatigue, nausea, vomiting and loss of hair. But recovery is possible.

3) Exposure at higher doses (400-500 rads), the bone marrow is affected, blood cells are reduced, natural resistance and fighting capacity against germs is reduced, blood fails to clot, and the irradiated person soon dies of infection and bleeding.

4) Higher irradiation doses (10,000 rads) kill the organisms by damaging the tissues of heart, brain, etc.

5) Workers handling radioactive wastes get slow but continuous irradiation and in course of time develop cancer of different types.6) Through food chain also, radioactivity effects are experienced by man.

But the most significant effect of radioactivity is that it causes long range effects, affecting the future of man and hence the future of our civilization.

Control measures

On one hand, the peaceful uses of radioactive materials are so wide and effective that modern civilization cannot go without them; on the other hand, there is no cure for radiation damage. Thus the only option against nuclear hazards is to check and prevent radioactive pollution. For this:

1) Leakages from nuclear reactors, careless handling, transport and use of radioactive fuels, fission products and radioactive isotopes have to be totally stopped;

2) Safety measures should be enforced strictly;

3) Waste disposal must be careful, efficient and effective;

4) There should be regular monitoring and quantitative analysis through frequent sampling in the risk areas;

5) Preventive measures should be followed so that background radiation levels do not exceed the permissible limits;

6) Appropriate steps should be taken against occupational exposure; and

7) Safety measures should be strengthened against nuclear accidents.

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