Although some people assert that nuclear power plants pose, at worst, a mostly-manageable threat to our drinking water, many environmental groups strongly disagree. Despite the disagreements, some important facts cannot be disputed. Firstly, nuclear power plants, in spite of disasters like the one in Japan, will continue to be built and operated. Secondly, since the purpose of such plants is to produce boiled water with which to power huge electricity generators, water will continue to be consumed by such plants in huge quantities. Thirdly, a substantial amount of the water thus used will continue to be dangerously contaminated since we do not yet have the capacity to completely control radiation.
The nuclear crisis in Japan is good example of the dangers of nuclear power. A week after the partial meltdown of their nuclear plants, high levels of radionuclides were found in the surrounding water sources. Seawater collected 330 meters from the crippled plants showed levels of iodine-131 were 126 times higher than the maximum limit set by the Japanese government. This radioactive iodine can accumulate in the thyroid and as it decays, it will cause damage to the gland. It is among the family of radionuclides that can cause increased thyroid cancer and disease risk for human beings. It was so bad, that Japan's health ministry even advised residents in five towns in Fukushima Prefecture to avoid using tap water for making formula milk for babies due to abnormally high radiation levels detected in the water.
One can reason that what is happening in Japan is an 'Act of God', a natural disaster that cannot be controlled. Also, additional safety measures could have prevented the overheating of the reactors. However, what about the radioactive pollution caused by functioning nuclear power plants? While it is true that these facilities are closely monitored and regulated, the fact remains that they cannot, at present, be operated without the production of dangerous radioactive by-products. These by-products () have to eventually be accounted for. Even when buried at special sites, leaks occur after a while. This situation is worsened through accidents (damage of earthquakes, decaying pipes leaking radioactive fluids, etc.), irresponsible acts by employees, and by, possibly, terrorist attacks.
One good reason for drinking water concerns is the reality that our underground water cycle is one of the most likely ways for radiation to be spread on earth. Once radioactive materials dissolve in or bond with water, it is impossible to clean up the damage. The radiation is conveyed to plants, animals, and even the air, through condensation and rain--ultimately, to human beings, through the food and water we consume.
In spite of better nuclear power plants supposedly being built, the fact remains that radioactive pollution has a cumulative effect--i.e., it can only get worse incrementally. This reality is made worse by the fact that more nuclear power plants are likely to be built, that more accidents are likely to occur, that terrorists will eventually find a way to sabotage a power plant somewhere, and that, as fossil fuels are depleted, more reliance will be placed on nuclear energy.
Is our drinking water safe? As more radioactive effluents (liquids coming out of nuclear power plants) enter our environment, our water supply will be more and more compromised, and, because these plants are now operating virtually everywhere, this goes for the whole globe. The recent accident involving 19,000 gallons of radioactive water being unexpectedly dumped into Lake Ontario is only further proof we are in trouble. Clearly, we are going to have to make a difficult choice in the next few decades: surrender our unending demand for cheap, affordable energy, or hang on to what is left of our environment, including safe-to-drink water.