Executive Summary: Advanced nuclear advocates often tout the benefits of nuclear projects to local communities: zero-emissions electricity with plenty of high-paying jobs and tax revenue. But our analysis finds an inequitable spread in the benefits and risks of historical nuclear power projects in the United States. The benefits from hosting a nuclear power plant tend to go to whiter and wealthier communities, whereas the riskier activities like uranium mining and milling have been concentrated in poorer communities, less educated communities and communities of color. The nuclear industry and policymakers need to understand the distributional and historical environmental injustices to identify and take steps that would spread the positives and negatives of nuclear energy justly.
Good energy policies ensure that communities share in the benefits of technologies like nuclear energy equitably and that no specific groups or regions bear most of their risks —especially not communities already disadvantaged by environmental injustice. Like other energy sources, nuclear energy comes with pros and cons. Unfortunately, the data show that whiter, wealthier areas have historically accrued more of the benefits of nuclear energy, while socioeconomically disadvantaged groups have felt more of its risks.
We know that nuclear power plants offer significant economic benefits for communities that host reactors.1 Home values are higher around nuclear power plants, especially when compared to fossil-fueled power plants: the mean disparity in home value between properties near nuclear plants as compared to coal facilities is $39,161.2 In their respective counties, nuclear plants typically support 20–30% of employment and up to 35% of total income, and they can fund half of their respective county and school budgets through taxes and fees. These local contributions may help explain why these communities tend to support nuclear energy in polling much more than the general population.3 A 2015 survey conducted by the Nuclear Energy Institute concluded that 89% of residents within 10 miles of a reactor view nuclear energy favorably.4
Identifying the exact causes for these benefits requires more intensive research, but prior studies are instructive. Nuclear power plants are often constructed in rural, less diverse areas near major water sources. These areas are attractive to wealthier home buyers, as sparsely populated waterfront properties tend to fetch higher prices. More consequential are the specific regulatory constraints that nuclear power plants face: Their rigorous requirements for safety and workforce education create higher-paying jobs and require higher levels of education. This combination of desirable locale and higher-paying employment has contributed significant community-level benefits.
This is not to say that proximity to a nuclear power plant is risk-free. Many studies looking at environmental justice and nuclear energy show that some areas may face greater risk in the event of high-profile nuclear accidents. An article published in the International Journal of Disaster Risk Science in 2015 noted that the populations of areas within 50 miles of nuclear power plants tend to be more demographically vulnerable, including communities of color and lower-income residents, implying that the risks of meltdown are inequitably distributed.5 But meltdowns are incredibly rare, and studies continue to show that a nuclear reactor’s operating record and low lifecycle emissions make it one of the safest methods of electricity generation.6 7 However, this same study also finds that 3 in 10 Americans live within a 50-mile radius of a nuclear power plant, and that populations do get whiter and have less poverty and less unemployment the closer you get to the nuclear power plant.8
Looking closer at populations surrounding nuclear power facilities show that employment, safety, and climate benefits are going primarily to whiter and wealthier communities. The following figures show metrics of socioeconomic status as they change based on the proximity to various types of power plant.
The requirements placed on nuclear plants play a decisive factor in determining the demographic and economic status of a particular community.9 Spatial analytics reflect this trend: A recent study from Carnegie Mellon University found that, within 5 miles of a nuclear power plant, counties have a mean percentage of black residents 5.7% lower than in the surrounding counties.10 Within this same boundary, average incomes are almost $9,000 higher and education levels are 6.4% higher than surrounding areas (Figures 3, 4, and 5). A related study also looked at how demographics changed over time after a power plant is situated. At the time of construction, reactor facilities often had higher Black populations relative to surrounding counties, but these percentages can decline over time as the reactors continue to operate.11 This implies that racial inequality we see in reactor host communities has tended to increase over time.
We clearly see a pattern of unequal distribution of nuclear power plant benefits. Yet the uranium fuel cycle that supports their operation deepens the story of distributional inequities within nuclear power. The risks most common to nuclear energy are not actually experienced at the power plant. Rather, radiation exposure has historically occurred earlier in the nuclear fuel cycle, when miners and millers obtain uranium to make fuel and process the uranium for use in power plants. In addition, while risks of spent fuel storage are low, there are some equity concerns regarding the storage of radiotoxic waste.
One analysis from researchers at the University of Michigan looked at the demographics around nuclear fuel cycle facilities. They found that counties with extraction facilities have significantly higher Native American, Latino, and Hispanic populations when they are constructed. Furthermore, minority populations continue to make up higher percentages of these communities in subsequent decades. Counties that host fuel cycle facilities also have higher rates of poverty than neighboring areas. While it appears that communities with nuclear power generation get whiter and more affluent after facilities are constructed, the opposite is true in fuel cycle facilities: White populations around extraction facilities drop substantially in the decades after siting, and incomes decrease as well.12
Contemporary radiation exposure is well-regulated, but studies have yet to quantify the historical preventable exposures of workers and communities in U.S. uranium mines. Affected communities often lack adequate compensation for impacted families, and the government and private sector have failed to remediate much of the contaminated land and water surrounding mining and milling sites. The injustices on Navajo lands are the most prominent example of this: the EPA estimates that at least 500 mines are still awaiting cleanup, potentially exposing tribal communities to high levels of radiation after decades of misleading and gross endangerment of Navajo workers in these mines.13 However, justice issues in the fuel cycle are not solely limited to legacy mining issues.
Most spent nuclear fuel is stored safely at reactor facilities around the country. However, it is well understood that this is only a temporary solution, and that the United States must move forward with a permanent storage solution for nuclear waste.14 Lacking a permanent waste repository, the U.S. Department of Energy seeks to identify interim storage of radioactive waste outside of reactor facilities, rightly considering compensation to communities willing to accept the risk. However, some of the burdens of nuclear waste storage have fallen upon Indigenous communities, which may have few other opportunities for economic prosperity. A case study from Noriko Ishiyama at Rutgers University calls attention to the Skull Valley Band of Goshute Indians, who pursued storage of these radioactive wastes as “the only choice left for the tribe to survive” after White settlers subjugated them to relocation and changed their ecological landscape.17 Before Utah’s state government levied political pressure against the effort and environmental groups shut down the tribe’s plans to store the waste, the Goshutes asserted that their ability to store this waste was an exercise of sovereignty.
In other cases, nuclear waste is continuously stored on Indigenous land as a result of what was supposed to be a temporary agreement to store waste from a nearby power plant. The federal government promised to remove waste from the Prairie Island Indian Community in Southeastern Minnesota 30 years ago, but the repository has since tripled in size.16 Tribal members live only 600 yards from the waste, unable to relocate due to flooding from a prior federal dam project. The experiences of both the Prairie Island Indian Community and the Skull Valley Band of Goshute Indians offer a more complex understanding of the unequal distribution of benefits and risks in the nuclear fuel cycle as legacy injustices collide with contemporary inequities.
These disparities in outcome exemplify how the nuclear industry has contributed to — and benefitted from — historical and structural inequities. These differences underline the need for a more complex understanding not only of distributive justice, but also structural injustice as relates to nuclear. To date, the federal government and the nuclear industry have not succeeded in distributing the risks and benefits of nuclear technology fairly. High-reward and lower-risk facilities are centralized in whiter and more educated communities, while low-reward and higher-risk facilities are often found in poorer and less educated communities and communities of color. Going forward, policymakers should identify ways to expand access to nuclear’s benefits and more equitably distribute its risks, while also taking action to unravel prior injustices.
1) Roger H. Bezdek and Robert M. Wendling, “The Impacts of Nuclear Facilities on Property Values and Other Factors in the Surrounding Communities,” International Journal of Nuclear Governance, Economy and Ecology 1, no. 1 (2006): 122, https://doi.org/10.1504/IJNGEE.2006.008708.
2) Travis Seargeoh Emile Carless, “Framing a New Nuclear Renaissance Through Environmental Competitiveness, Community Characteristics, and Cost Mitigation Through Passive Safety” (Carnegie Mellon University, May 2018), https://doi.org/10.1184/R1/6717320.v1.
3) “POLL: Strong Local and Statewide Support for Diablo Canyon Nuclear Power Plant.” Carbon Free California, 19 May 2022.
4) Nuclear Power Plant Neighbors Dispel NIMBY.” Nuclear Energy Institute via GlobeNewswire, 24 June 2015.
5) Kyne, D. Public Exposure to U.S. Commercial Nuclear Power Plants Induced Disasters. Int J Disaster Risk Sci 6, 238–249 (2015), https://doi.org/10.1007/s13753-015-0064-3.
6) Kharecha, Pushker A., and James E. Hansen. “Prevented Mortality and Greenhouse GasEmissions from Historical and Projected Nuclear Power.” Environmental Science & Technology, vol. 47, no. 9, May 2013, pp. 4889–95. DOI.org (Crossref), https://doi.org/10.1021/es3051197.
7) Ritchie, Hannah. “What Are the Safest and Cleanest Sources of Energy?” Our World in Data, 10 Feb. 2020, https://ourworldindata.org/safest-sources-of-energy.
8) Kyne, D. Public Exposure to U.S. Commercial Nuclear Power Plants Induced Disasters. Int J Disaster Risk Sci 6, 238–249 (2015). https://doi.org/10.1007/s13753-015-0064-3.
9) Travis Seargeoh Emile Carless, “Framing a New Nuclear Renaissance Through Environmental Competitiveness, Community Characteristics, and Cost Mitigation Through Passive Safety” (Carnegie Mellon University, May 2018), https://doi.org/10.1184/R1/6717320.v1.
11) Nuclear Fuel Cycle Demographic Analysis (Fastest Path to Zero).
12) Nuclear Fuel Cycle Demographic Analysis (Fastest Path to Zero).
13) Morales, Laurel. “For The Navajo Nation, Uranium Mining's Deadly LegacyLingers.” NPR, 10 April 2016. https://www.npr.org/sections/health-shots/2016/04/10/473547227/for-the-navajo-nation-uranium-minings-deadly-legacy-lingers.
14) Larson,Lance. “Nuclear Waste Storage Sites in the United States.” Congressional Research Service, Apr. 2020, https://sgp.fas.org/crs/nuke/IF11201.pdf.
15) Morales, Laurel. “For The Navajo Nation, Uranium Mining's Deadly Legacy Lingers.” NPR, 10 April 2016. https://www.npr.org/sections/health-shots/2016/04/10/473547227/for-the-navajo-nation-uranium-minings-deadly-legacy-lingers.
16) Larson, Lance. “Nuclear Waste Storage Sites in the United States.” Congressional Research Service, Apr. 2020, https://sgp.fas.org/crs/nuke/IF11201.pdf.
17) Ishiyama, Noriko. “Environmental Justice and American Indian Tribal Sovereignty: Case Study of a Land–Use Conflict in Skull Valley, Utah.” Antipode, vol. 35, no. 1, Jan. 2003, pp. 119–39. DOI.org (Crossref), https://doi.org/10.1111/1467-8330.00305.
18) Walker, Mark. “Flooding and Nuclear Waste Eat Away at a Tribe’s Ancestral Home.” The New York Times, 13 Nov. 2021. https://www.nytimes.com/2021/11/13/us/politics/tribal-lands-flooding-nuclear-waste.html.