Isn’t nuclear dangerous?

Answer:   Let’s be clear, we do not support nuclear bombs and want to see the control and safe decommissioning of atomic warheads and the full and responsible clean-up of the radioactive waste repositories leftover from the early weapons development programs.  These historic sites are sources of continuing environmental and health hazards.

Nevertheless, today’s nuclear energy and nuclear medicine are two of many safe and highly beneficial civilian applications of nuclear technology, which now span dozens of highly regulated industrial, agricultural and commercial purposes.  16 million people have some form of nuclear medicine treatment every year, including x-rays, cancer treatments and more which help millions of patients live longer and healthier lives.  Nuclear energy, which is the most dense and powerful source of clean energy that we have, has been commercially deployed for nearly 50 years, is also credited with saving millions of lives by virtue of having replaced other forms of toxic energy production, primarily coal.  Now, nuclear’s dense, reliable and highly scaleable clean energy generation is being viewed as critical to our ability to end our massive dependence on fossil fuels.  This is what we are concerned with here: comparing our chances of eliminating carbon emissions fast enough to prevent climate change with or without the use of clean nuclear power.

Although many continue to have an enormous distaste for and distrust of the nuclear power industry, in fact nuclear power generation has killed no one in the U.S.  Much of the antipathy people feel for nuclear weapons oozes over into their feelings about nuclear power, possibly for historical reasons, possibly due to mistrust of the “military-industrial-complex” in general, and also possibly because of deliberate campaigns to mis-characterize the danger of nuclear power.  Such efforts are designed to make nearly all discussion of nuclear energy taboo — and support for this comes from nuclear’s biggest foe: fossil fuels.  Fortunately, increasingly environmentalists trying to address climate change are figuring out that the anti-nuclear campaigns are perpetuating myths which serve primarily to help preserve fossil fuels.

Q: But isn’t nuclear power also really dangerous?

Answer:  No.  Nuclear is vastly less dangerous to humans than fossil fuels.  Nuclear’s safety as an energy source is on a par with that of wind and solar.

But we get it! Whenever you hear the word “nuclear,” you immediately think about Fukushima, Chernobyl and Three Mile Island. You believe these were such horrific disasters, you just can’t bear the thought of nuclear.  The urge you feel to click away from pro-nuclear information has been messaging that tells you not to trust anyone who speaks supportively of nuclear.  Yet, leading climate heroes like Dr. James Hansen, Ken Caldeira, Corey Bradshaw, Bill Gates, Michael Bloomberg, Stephen Chu and Ernie Moniz believe we cannot solve the climate crisis without nuclear and renewables working together.  We urge you to consider that possibility that some of things you think are superstitions, and some of the anti-nuclear messages you’ve gotten have been reinforced because the truth is nothing threatens fossil fuels dominance as much as nuclear energy!

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.

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”


About the Author:

Gary Kahanak

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