Contrary to claims by opponents of nuclear energy that it is “unsafe,” “unclean,” and thus “unacceptable,” nuclear energy is the safest, cleanest, and among the most practical forms of power generation today. Unfortunately, opponents of this wonderful source of power are succeeding in their efforts to deceive people about it; and the deceived, in turn, are fueling legislation and regulations that shackle the nuclear industry. It is time to set the record straight and to defend this life-serving industry. Let us begin with a summary of the nature of nuclear energy.
Nuclear power is generated by a controlled chain reaction involving the splitting of atoms. A modern nuclear power plant uses the intense heat created by this reaction to heat water and create steam, which turns a turbine and generates electricity. Whereas a coal-fired plant heats water by burning coal, a nuclear plant heats it by splitting atoms. This process is called nuclear fission.
Nuclear fission, in simple terms, occurs when an atom splits in two, releasing a massive amount of energy and several subatomic particles called neutrons. These neutrons, in turn, hit and split other atoms, beginning and sustaining the chain reaction. Reactor operators control this reaction in a variety of ways and thus regulate the amount of heat generated and energy produced.
The raw fuel for this process is the metal uranium, which must be enriched before it can be used for producing energy in commercial reactors. Enrichment is necessary because mined uranium ore is around 99.3 percent uranium-238, which, in today’s commercial power plants, does not readily split upon exposure to neutrons from the fission chain reaction, and thus makes poor fuel. The other 0.7 percent of mined uranium is uranium-235, which makes excellent fuel. The number refers to the atomic mass, or the total mass of protons and neutrons that make up the atomic nucleus. This difference in mass of the same element makes them two different isotopes of uranium. The enrichment process consists essentially of increasing the percentage of uranium-235 by decreasing the percentage (via removal) of uranium-238.
The fuel manufacturing process ultimately yields black, pinky-sized pellets of usable nuclear fuel. These pellets are stacked in tubes of a special metal alloy, and thousands of these fuel rods are placed in a reactor core. The rods are arranged in a very specific geometric configuration to enable a sustained nuclear reaction to occur. The nuclear fission reaction is controlled by inserting or removing a separate set of rods made of neutron-absorbing metal or by adding neutron-absorbing chemicals to the water that cools the reactor.
All methods of producing energy involve risk, and nuclear fission is no exception. Historically, however, nuclear power has been by far the safest form of energy production among reliable and scalable energy sources.
Nuclear power is safer than other forms of energy for several reasons. To begin with, multiple layers of safety mechanisms and precautions are built into nuclear power plants. For instance, if a nuclear power plant is completely cut off from the electrical grid during an accident, backup generators automatically start to power safety systems that continue to cool the reactor. If the generators fail, secondary backups such as battery banks are deployed. In case of an earthquake or a seismic event beyond a certain magnitude, nuclear plants automatically shut down. New plant designs currently under construction use circulating air and water moved by the heat of the core itself to cool the shut-down reactor, which means the safety system does not require human intervention or even power to operate for sustained periods.1 And massive, immensely fortified containment domes are hallmarks of nuclear power plants. In the extremely rare event that radioactive material leaks from the core of a modern power plant, a dome serves to contain it.
During a severe accident scenario or natural disaster involving a nuclear reactor, the event typically unfolds over hours or even days, enabling engineers and operators to react as necessary and mitigate damage. Few types of industrial accidents enable such long periods for corrective action, containment, or, in the rare case it is necessary, evacuation. If a construction crew accidentally ruptures an underground natural gas line with a backhoe and it explodes, the whole event occurs in a fraction of a second. If a coal mine caves in, the whole event might take several seconds, perhaps a minute. Likewise if a hydroelectric dam breaks.
Of course, the production of energy by any means can be dangerous, and like any toxic or combustible materials, radioactive materials must be handled with care. But the technology and advanced reactor designs scientists and engineers have developed in recent decades render catastrophes practically impossible. And, of course, reactors get safer and safer as technology advances and designs improve. Currently, it is beyond doubt that modern nuclear reactors are far and away the safest of the energy alternatives.
The chart below compares the number of fatalities from various forms of energy production. Accurate comparison is made possible by viewing the number of deaths per terawatt-year (TWy).2
Comparison of Accident Statistics in Energy Production, 1970–19923
|Fuel||Immediate Fatalities 1970–92||Demographic||Normalized to Deaths per TWy Electricity|
|Natural Gas||1,200||Workers & Public||85|
Nuclear power plants also create very little waste compared to other forms of energy generation and emit no air pollution. Because nothing is burned or leaves the core during the nuclear fission process, the only emission from a nuclear plant is steam or hot water. When the fuel is removed, it comes out of the core looking identical to when it was put in: a metal assembly containing nuclear fuel pellets—not some glowing, green ooze, as works of fiction would have us believe. The only difference is that about 5 percent of the uranium-235 has been spent, and the fuel no longer contains enough of it to sustain the nuclear chain reaction. Used fuel assemblies are stored and cooled in pools of water outside of the core (but still in the plant) to let highly radioactive materials decay. Later the used fuel assemblies are removed from the pools and stored in steel-lined concrete casks.
All of the nuclear waste produced in the past forty years by commercial nuclear power plants in the United States can be stacked in the space of a football field and only seven yards high.4 If these nuclear plants were solar plants of comparable electrical output, the volume of waste would be some sixty-three thousand times greater,5 as solar panels contain glass and toxic metals that need to be safely disposed of after their operational life.
The waste generated by nuclear power is extremely compact because of the energy density of nuclear fuel. A small volume of purified uranium packs enormous potential energy: A one-gram pellet has potential energy equal to 2.8 tons of coal or six hundred gallons of oil.6 This is why, in addition to creating a relatively miniscule amount of waste, nuclear reactors can run continuously for up to eighteen months without refueling.
The amount of usable uranium accessible by today’s standard technology could power the industrial world for thousands of years. With technological advances, nuclear power easily could provide the world’s energy needs for millions of years. By finding more and better ways to extract uranium (e.g., extracting it from seawater), by recycling used fuel, and by building special reactors to use and reuse nuclear waste, the power this technology can provide has no end. And that does not even account for the potential involved in developing reactors that use non-uranium nuclear fuels, such as thorium, which is many times more abundant than uranium.
Despite the advancements in nuclear power over the past sixty years, a number of falsehoods about the technology persist. So let us address and dispel some of these here.
Because nuclear power involves highly complex physics and engineering, people with little or no understanding of these fields can be and often are confused or misled about it. For example, without an understanding of the nature and process of radioactive decay, one might be led to believe that all radioactive materials are equally and forever toxic. But this is not the case. Although some components of nuclear waste are radioactive for thousands of years, these materials are not very radioactive, and they are much less toxic than radioactive materials that decay quickly. As a rule, radioactive materials that take a long time to decay are by that fact not highly radioactive.
People are also frequently misled to the effect that “there is no safe dose of radiation” or “an explosion at a nuclear power plant can kill thousands of people.” (Such claims are sometimes accompanied by pictures of people who have been poisoned by radiation or mushroom clouds from nuclear bombs.) Environmentalist groups such as Greenpeace, Sierra Club, and the Natural Resource Defense Council (NRDC) have a long track record of spreading such falsehoods while campaigning against nuclear power. (They use the same tactics to campaign against fossil fuels.)
Greenpeace, for example, released a “fact sheet” on radiation that, far from clarifying matters or enlightening people about nuclear power, muddles the issues with the obvious aim of terrifying people. Concerning radiation exposure, Greenpeace says:
There is no safe dose of radiation. Radiation doses need to be kept as low as possible. Internationally accepted limits are set for members of the public for doses that are in addition to background or natural radiation. The limit is set at one millisievert a year. For nuclear workers, this limit is 20 millisieverts a year. To compare, the global average for natural radiation doses is 2.4 millisieverts a year.7
This is a scare tactic. The so-called “internationally accepted limit” of one millisievert per year is about the same amount of radiation that Grand Central Station employees receive each year from the granite walls of the station. Even the rules of the Nuclear Regularity Commission (NRC) concerning professions involving radiation—such as nuclear power plant workers and medical staff who handle radioactive medicine or operate radiation-producing equipment—permit workers to receive up to fifty millisieverts of radiation per year. (Workers, however, rarely receive anything near that.)
We all get around three to four millisieverts of radiation per year by such means as traveling in planes, living in brick houses, or residing at higher elevations (such as Denver, Colorado). Our sun is a giant nuclear fusion reactor, so, naturally, being closer to it or being exposed to sunlight more often exposes a person to more radiation. So does receiving an X-ray or using a tanning lamp. So does eating Brazil nuts or bananas. We regularly receive “background” doses of radiation because radiation is practically everywhere. If, as Greenpeace claims, “there is no safe dose of radiation,” then there is no safe place to be.
Modern scientific observations show that doses of radiation under a certain threshold have no discernible negative health effects. In parts of the world—such as Ramsar, Iran, and Guarapari, Brazil—where people receive larger annual doses of background radiation than most nuclear plant technicians receive, cancer rates have shown no statistical increase.8 But such facts have no effect on the likes of Greenpeace.
Next, consider the ridiculous implications that a nuclear power plant can explode like a nuclear bomb. This is physically impossible. To begin with, in order to explode, nuclear material must be enriched to more than 95 percent uranium-235, and fuel is only around 3 percent uranium-235. Further, in order to explode, the uranium would have to be shaped in a very specific way—and then intentionally triggered. No one with even a smidgen of understanding of the nature of nuclear energy can honestly suggest or imply that a nuclear reactor core can explode like a nuclear bomb. But that doesn’t stop antinuclear zealots from pretending otherwise and terrifying people in the process.
The Sierra Club has a “fact sheet” similar to that of Greenpeace. The Sierra Club’s fiction begins: “As the disasters at Chernobyl, Three Mile Island and Fukushima have shown, nuclear power can cause catastrophic damage to land, human health, and our food supply.”9 That is an intentional grouping of wildly dissimilar things. The Chernobyl accident—which occurred under the Soviet political regime and could never be repeated with modern plants in the West—was a disaster and did result in immediate fatalities to many plant workers. It also appears to have caused a large increase in thyroid cancer due to people unknowingly ingesting food contaminated by the radiation.10 (Fortunately, the vast majority of these cases were treatable.)
The events at Three Mile Island and Fukushima, however, were different matters altogether. These incidents were testaments not to the danger but to the safety of nuclear power plants. Zero people died as a result of the problems at these plants.
The Three Mile Island accident originated when a valve became stuck open and began to drain coolant from one of the reactors. This situation, combined with the fact that plant operators mistakenly thought too much coolant was flowing in, led operators to remove even more coolant. Eventually, the reactor core became too hot, and the fuel melted but did not leak from the steel pressure vessel that contains the core. However, during the initial confusion, operators intentionally released a very small quantity of radioactive steam. Even so, the accident did not (significantly) contaminate surrounding land, nor did it have any impact on human health.11 The power plant continues to operate to this day with its other reactor core, and valuable information was gleaned from the incident on how a reactor handles a meltdown, the “worst-case scenario.”
The incident at the Fukushima-Daiichi power plant was caused by an immense natural disaster involving a massive earthquake and a huge tsunami. The power plant is located on the coast, where it used ocean water to cool its reactors. When the earthquake occurred, it triggered the automatic shutdown of the reactors, but the tsunami that followed destroyed most of the electrical equipment in the plant as well as infrastructure as far as several miles inland. The plant’s backup generators were flooded with water, and the plant was cut off from the electrical grid. A third backup battery system kicked in but eventually ran out of power. With no power to pump water to remove the remaining heat, some of the reactor cores melted.
The meltdown at Fukushima released some radioactive material, mostly in the form of contaminated vented steam or dust, but the released material was and is monitored and tracked (the current status can be checked on interactive maps online).12 The meltdown at Fukushima did not kill anyone or destroy large swaths of land. Some people died from the stress of the disaster, and others from being abandoned in nearby hospitals or retirement homes when their staff fled the buildings unnecessarily.13 But no one died from radiation exposure.
Some land around the plant and downwind from it was contaminated, and the cleanup will be costly. Some seawater around the plant was contaminated as well. However, much of the area in the evacuation zone around the plant is safe, and people are already returning to their homes.
Another important difference between the Chernobyl plant in the socialist Ukraine and modern plants in relatively civilized countries is the surrounding legal and political context. Civilized countries such as the United States and Japan have legal structures in place that protect rights and punish negligence. In the United States, if a person or a company or the government contaminates your land or property, you can sue him or it for damages. In the socialist Ukraine, there were no such provisions—certainly not with respect to the government. The Chernobyl power plant was an inherently unstable design, and negligent and unaccountable government operators pushed it beyond its limits.
In short, the legal, economic, and technical environments pertaining to the problems at Three Mile Island and Fukushima were completely different than those pertaining to the disaster at Chernobyl. But this doesn’t stop antinuclear zealots from pretending otherwise.
Some of the same groups that dishonestly demonize nuclear power also litigate against it. Organizations such as the Natural Resource Defense Council use litigation to thwart progress and distort facts concerning nuclear energy.14 For example, the NRDC and sundry environmentalist groups file mendacious lawsuits against utilities and thus delay licensing and construction of those facilities.15 Because nuclear plants are extremely capital-intensive projects—especially given all the safety precautions involved—delays in construction incur (among other expenses) huge interest penalties on loans utilities have taken out to finance construction. After delaying construction by such means, the NRDC has the audacity to claim on its “fact sheet” that nuclear power entails high construction costs and is uneconomical. The fact is that existing nuclear plants deliver energy at prices competitive with every source of reliable energy.16 The big difference is that nuclear power is much safer and cleaner than the alternatives. But the facts don’t make the NRDC’s “fact sheet.”
The NRDC’s fiction continues, claiming “New nuclear power plants are unlikely to provide a significant fraction of future U.S. needs for low-carbon energy.”17 This claim is made in full light of the fact that existing nuclear plants provide about 20 percent of the electricity used in the United States today.18
Despite the demonstrable cleanliness, safety, and efficiency of nuclear power—and despite the fact that the fuel for it is virtually unlimited—opposition to this life-serving technology rages on; consequently, myriad regulations are stifling the industry. Much of this opposition and many of these regulations are inspired and perpetuated by the false claims of antinuclear and environmentalist groups.
Compliance with regulations is extremely expensive, and the number of controls on the nuclear industry is only increasing, raising the cost of nuclear power far beyond what it would be in a substantially freer market.19
Partly due to the scientifically absurd notion that nuclear power is an existential threat to mankind, the government has created a dedicated regulatory body, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, to police the industry. The NRC is involved in every step of the process of conceiving, building, and operating a nuclear power plant—requiring myriad licenses, permissions, inspections, and the like. These controls and regulations can cost a utility several hundred million dollars just to get a nuclear power plant up and running.20
In some cases, local and state governments are actively trying to shut down nuclear plants, even when it means economic suicide for the region. In Vermont, for instance, where the Vermont Yankee Nuclear Plant provides 70 percent of the state’s electricity, the utility that owns Vermont Yankee had to fight a protracted legal battle with the Vermont state government in order to continue producing electricity for the region.21
When environmentalist groups don’t get their way through legislation or litigation, many resort to more brutish tactics. Environmentalist groups have a long history of using direct physical force to throttle or thwart industry, from chaining themselves to equipment,22 to climbing cooling towers, to creating human blockades at a plant’s front gate or a construction site,23 to laying their (mindless) bodies across railroad tracks.24
Nuclear power is one of the greatest, most life-serving advancements since the control of fire. Yet the nuclear industry and the men and women who deliver or attempt to deliver nuclear energy are attacked and shackled for their efforts. Those who advocate and would tighten the shackles either do not understand what nuclear power is and how it works—or they do understand but intentionally misrepresent it. Either way, they are engaging in a gross injustice against the heroic scientists, engineers, and businessmen who seek to deliver and advance nuclear power, and against everyone on the planet who benefits or could benefit from the technology—which means everyone on the planet.
It is time to unshackle this industry, its minds, its businesses, and its potential to enhance human life. It is time to recognize nuclear power as the clean, safe, economical source of energy that it is. It is time to recognize this good for being good.
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2 A terawatt-year is 8.76 x 1012 kilowatt-hours. For a further description, see “Energy Units,” American Physical Society, 2013, http://www.aps.org/policy/reports/popa-reports/energy/units.cfm.
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