How Safe Is Nuclear?

Nuclear bombs are not safe. We don’t support the use of nuclear weapons of any kind. On the other hand, nuclear energy is incredibly safe.

Let’s put this into perspective. There is really nothing that has been created by mankind that is 100% safe.  The number of deaths caused by poorly designed cribs exceeds the death caused by nuclear power.  When nuclear energy’s safety record is compared fairly to that of other energy technologies, nuclear is clearly one of the safest. The number of people who have fallen off of roofs installing solar panels exceeds that of the total direct fatalities caused by nuclear energy.  The folks at Our World in Data have created the below graphic to compare the safety performance of different types of energy generation along with their carbon emissions, which is a health and safety threat of another kind. Nuclear power is shown as the third safest, after wind and solar, but in this case, data from mining-related deaths was included for nuclear power but not the mining-related deaths for wind or solar, which may distort these findings (since the materials for wind and solar far exceed that of nuclear).

Let’s focus on Nuclear Disasters: Aren’t those a major threat?

Let’s look at the data.  There have been three major nuclear disasters in over 60 years of commercial operation. Two of those disasters, Three Mile Island and Fukushima, caused zero deaths from the actual accident, which was the over-heating of the core and a partial or total meltdown. When a nuclear core melts down, if can damage the core but it cannot cause a nuclear bomb-type explosion. (This is due to fuel design. Power plant fuel is physically limited to slow fissioning with level heat output. In contrast, a bomb is designed for explosive heat output, with all fission happening virtually simultaneously.) People don’t know how safe nuclear is, so they can panic as a result. The panicked evacuation from around Fukushima caused heart-attacks, road accidents and premature deaths for patients who were taken off of life-supporting equipment unnecessarily.

When a nuclear reactor core melts down, there can be a dangerous accumulation of hydrogen, which is explosive. In the case of Fukushima, there were hydrogen-caused explosions as a result of improper venting procedures. Those explosions released radioactive material over a wide area. Fortunately, there was minimal radiologic harm as this was very dispersed and dilute. Yet people’s fear of radiation was again worse than the actual danger.

In the case of Chernobyl in the Ukraine, this was an illegally-designed plant the purpose of which was plutonium production. The USSR built this plant without the requisite containment dome. When operators executed a poorly-planned test, they caused the melt-down to happen and the resulting explosion killed about 30 people who remained in the plant and a few others who rushed to the scene.  In this case, the hydrogen explosion that occurred sent plumes of plutonium and other transuranics in the atmosphere. USSRs denials and attempts to hide the accident prevented them from taking proper precautions to treat those potentially exposed with iodine. The World Health Organization has estimated that as many as 4,000 people will have died prematurely as a result of their exposure to radiologic materials from the accident. This was a terrible tragedy but the actual impact of this wholely unnecessary accident was well below the “millions” that many “firebrand” anti-nuclear activists have long claimed.

In the Management of Nuclear Risk Issues: Environmental, Financial and Safety review (the  NREFS project), researchers found that, “nearly three quarters of the 116,000 members of the public relocated after the Chernobyl accident would have lost less than 9 months’ life expectancy per person if they had remained in place, and only 6% would have lost more than 3 years of life expectancy.” These are both comparable life expectancy drops from air pollution in the United Kingdom. However, relocating and overpopulating causes much more serious health concerns and it also dramatically effects the well-being and the economy of that community or even potentially that country.

Relocation after a disaster is all fear generated and pointless because most people are worse off just breathing. The maximum radiation someone would obtain by living in a “uninhabitable” is about 100 mSv, which translates to an average loss of nine months of expected lifetime. That is someone living there for an entire lifetime. In comparison, air pollution kills 4.2 million people every year. In fact, the human population has lost an average of 1.8 years of life expectancy due to breathing polluted air. 93% of the world’s children breath polluted air and as a result 600,000 a year die.

With Chernobyl being the worst accident from nuclear industry (since this wasn’t technically a power plant), the resulting studies have shown the following:

  • Existing resources and procedures can stop an accident, slow it down or reduce its impact before it can affect public health.
  • Even if accidents proceed uncontrolled, they take much longer to happen and release much less radioactive material than earlier analyses suggested.
  • The analyzed accidents would cause essentially zero immediate deaths and only a very, very small increase in the risk of long-term cancer deaths.

Given that nuclear energy—wherever it has replaced coal—has been found to have saved vastly more lives than it has ever taken by reducing pollution that would have killed many people, this is excellent performance.

Dramatic plane crashes create such a visceral fear that many people refuse to fly. They don’t refuse to drive even though the chances of being in an aviation accident are about 11 million to 1 and the chances of being in a car accident is about 700 to 1. The same laws of human response apply to nuclear.  Dramatic media coverage of nuclear events makes people fear them almost irrationally, even when the number of deaths is almost negligible. Yet, millions of people die every year from the ill-effects of burning of coal, gas, oil, garbage and wood and most people don’t have a fear of these types of energy.

The bottom line: Nuclear energy is a lot safer than nearly every other type of commonly-used fossil fuel energy and is on a par with wind and solar. 

What’s myth and what’s reality?

Below are the myths, the truths and the sources that will help you get to the underlying facts of why you (and many others) have such knee-jerk antipathy towards an important source of clean energy that we need to save our planet.

What you’ve heard

The actual truth

Supporting resources

Nuclear accidents like Fukushima and Chernobyl have killed lots of people.

People have a disturbing, if vague, sense that nuclear accidents have been extremely lethal.  In fact, not one person has died from a nuclear meltdown accident in the U.S. or Europe and total direct deaths from all nuclear accidents in the whole world is about 50 people.  There were zero direct deaths from the severe meltdown in Fukushima and the calculation of deaths associated with the Chernobyl accident, range from 38 people (Wikipedia, which includes 4 killed in a helicopter crash while trying to get video footage) to 62 people (Our World in Data).

In addition to those deaths, nuclear accidents have released radiation that has caused lots of premature deaths.

Although there were initially extremely high estimates of the impacts of released radiation, the reality showed surprisingly little impact.  For Chernobyl’s general public, the U.N found: “there is no scientific evidence of increases in overall cancer incidence or mortality rates or in rates of non-malignant disorders that could be related to radiation exposure.”  For Fukushima:  “the values of inferred risk are so small that in general no discernible radiation-related increase of overall cancer incidence would be expected among exposed members of the general public.”

Radiation seeps out of nuclear plants and makes people sick

Just as with radiation from the sun, there are healthy levels and levels known to be unhealthy.  Standing in the Sahara at midday provides too much radiation — but no one is ever worried about getting too much radiation from moonshine.  Everyone is exposed to radiation every day for an average yearly background dose of 4.0 mSv and it is not deemed unhealthy. Compared to that, here are other average dosages:

  • 0.25 mSv:  Nuclear Power: EPA yearly allowable release limit
  • 0.0001 mSv:  Dose from eating one banana
  • 0.0003 mSv:  Coal Plant: Annual dose within 50 miles
  • 0.00009 mSv:  Nuclear Plant: Annual dose within 50 miles

TEDEd Talk by Matt Anticole: “Is radiation dangerous?”

Radiation Dose Chart

Health Physics Society: Background Radiation Fact Sheet

Contamination from nuclear accidents has caused immeasurable environmental damage

Because Russia built Chernobyl without any containment shielding, this was by far the worst nuclear power plant accident. It was like driving a car with no brakes: it should not have been built. Yet more than 95% of the 2 million people estimated to have been exposed, received doses under 1 mSv per year — less than the average background dose worldwide.  And, the exclusion zone is now a thriving wildlife preserve and a tourist attraction. While touted as evidence that nuclear power is a catastrophe, the actual impacts of the Chernobyl accident were minimal. It might be argued that the worst impacts from the Chernobyl and Fukuskima accidents have been the way anti-nuclear advocates have exploited exaggerations to augment unrealistic fears to force discontinuation of nuclear power — to the benefit of fossil fuels.

No amount of radiation is healthy for humans

Yes, this is what people have long thought, as it was based on the LNT theory (Linear No-Threshold), proposed in 1946. This “theory” has never been validated by experimentation or by empirical observations, and it has lately been largely invalidated.  We understand from recent findings of molecular biology that our cells have repair mechanisms that protect us from low to moderate exposure levels.  100 mSv per year would appear to be a conservative upper limit below which no biological effects are observed.  Safety regulations have not kept up with findings of radiation health physics.

Nuclear waste is a huge concern and there is no solution.

Nuclear waste has been used as a political football but the waste itself is fully contained. Many would like a permanent solution but, in the absence of this, the waste is not causing any damage to the environment or to human health.  In contrast, waste from our use of fossil fuels has been released into the atmosphere and is causing climate change, which is threatening all life on the planet.

Nuclear plants can explode and will be just like a nuclear bomb

While nuclear bombs and power plants both utilize the fission process, there are fundamental differences.  For weapons, the design, materials and enrichment level are intended to create massive neutron production and a runaway fission reaction.  In power reactors, the intent is to create precisely controlled fission with only slightly enriched fuel (3-5%); so, there is no possibility of a nuclear explosion.

“Radiation and Reason,” by Wade Allison; Chapter 8, Nuclear Energy.

World Nuclear Organization: Safety of Nuclear Power. 

Nuclear power operators are corrupt, incompetent and can’t be trusted to keep local populations safe

Nuclear power operators are highly trained.  The industry is tightly regulated and strongly safety-conscious.  Surveys show that nuclear plants are good neighbors and are highly accepted in their communities.  Nuclear has by far the lowest “deathprint” of all major power sources.

Nuclear power is dirty energy

Nuclear power has near-zero emissions during operation, meaning no toxic elements (like mercury or arsenic, which are coal emissions) and no carbon dioxide.  Fuel is fully accounted for, from mining to processing to usage to storage/disposal.  In addition, quantities of fuel are minuscule per unit of power produced, compared to fossil fuels.  Because of the extremely high energy density of nuclear, the material throughput is vastly smaller than for renewables such as solar and wind, which must use large amounts of equipment to harvest dilute energy.

Nuclear power is too expensive for society to build any more plants

This is not true but anti-nuclear voices do claim this and would like this to be true.  In the U.S., with more nuclear plants beginning to be retired than being renewed or replaced, it may even appear to be true.  However, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s (IPCC) climate assessment listed nuclear alongside renewables and carbon capture and storage as the technologies necessary to successfully mitigate climate change, with roughly between 270 and 410 new, large-scale nuclear reactors needed by 2035 to mitigate climate change and meet growing energy demand.  As the Third Way article details, even though the U.S. is no longer leading the world in nuclear power exports, other countries including China, France, Russia and Canada are competing to fill the demand for new nuclear.  Currently, there are 440 nuclear power reactors worldwide; 60 new plants are under construction, and 160 more are planned.

We don’t need nuclear power because we can power the world with 100% renewables

This is perhaps the single-most damaging fiction perpetrated by those who advocate for renewables. It shows quite emphatically that those who claim this don’t really have a clear concept of the urgency of climate and how critical it is that we eliminate emissions rapidly, not at our leisure. Renewables are and always will be dilute and intermittent, so it makes sense to pair renewables with a complementary source of reliable, baseload energy, which can be hydro power, where that is abundant but needs to be nuclear, where other baseload is not available. Denying a role to our most powerful source of reliable clean energy makes no sense, unless there are other motivates at work—and typically these are simply helping to keep natural gas being needed, since without nuclear, natural gas is the least damaging of the fossil options.  When we could use nuclear power in combination with renewables, we make progress against emissions.  Where nuclear has been avoided, emissions have risen even with increasing amounts of renewables, because they require so much back-up from coal or natural gas, the emissions benefits get erased.

The Light Water Reactor is flawed technology

Actually, the light water reactor was a great design for a nuclear powered submarine, which was what it was designed for. But, because it requires reliable water cooling, it was not a design optimized for use as a terrestrial energy source.  While this design weakness has been adequately accounted for, the problems at Chernobly and Fukushima were a function of this specific weakness.  Many in the advanced nuclear world believe that we can do a lot better than the light water reactor for future reactors.

Please enjoy this video, Thorium 2017, which provides a more technical overview of the issues, through a lecture by Kirk Sorenson.  He explains how light water reactors work and why molten salt-based reactors, as a basic design alternative in combination with common elements like thorium, are a much better alternative way to generate terrestrial power.

Transporting Nuclear Waste Is Dangerous

Actually, transporting nuclear waste isn’t dangerous at all. Waste is stored in metal containers that go through standard precautions and experimentation such as,

“Falls and punctures

  • Containers are cooled to -20°F.
  • They are dropped (in multiple orientations) from 30 feet onto an unyielding reinforced steel plate.
  • They are dropped multiple times onto 30 feet steel puncture bars.

Fire and pressure

  • Containers are burned for 30 minutes in a pool of jet fuel at a temperature of 1425°F.
  • They are submerged in 50 feet of water (21 psi).
  • The container itself, as well as its contents, are tested to ensure that they are “leak-tight” according to criteria developed by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.”

On the Lighter Side, a Critique of Anti-Nuclear Claims

One of the most well-known anti-nuclear voices is Helen Caldicott.  Here is a video which captures many of the problematic things that Ms. Caldicott believes in.  This video was produced by Gordon McDowell and posted on March 22, 2017 is called “Penn & Teller vs Dr. Helen Caldicott, Candles & Anti-Nuclear Fearmongering – TR2016c 4h54m39s20f”