The global heating catastrophe being fostered by humanity’s proclivity to burn fossil fuels for energy is an emergency. An all-hands-on-deck emergency. An employ-every-tool-in-the-toolbox emergency. Despite that, a myth persists that blocks humankind’s use of the most powerful possible energy source that won’t add to the CO2 load.
The energy source being vastly underemployed is nuclear. And the myth that stands in the way, so widely accepted as truth, is that “nuclear power is dangerous.”
The acceptance of this four-word declarative statement as truth is pretty widespread. People’s fears about nuclear energy emerged in the 1970’s due to misinformation and media exacerbation of a small number of “nuclear incidents.” This misinformation manifests itself in two main topics of debate regarding nuclear energy: citing the “nuclear incidents” that have occurred and questioning the waste produced by nuclear power plants.
There have been three great “incidents” in nuclear history: Three Mile Island in Pennsylvania in 1979, Chernobyl in the Soviet Union in 1986, and Fukushima in Japan in 2011. Many people cite these three nuclear plant “failures” to “prove” that nuclear energy is harmful to people and the planet. As we will see by the end of this post, though, that is simply not the case.
The second large debate around nuclear energy is posed by the supposedly unanswerable question: “But what about the waste?” Many people think that nuclear plants create an enduring challenge to humankind’s well-being because the radioactivity of the nuclear fuel will, with today’s technology, outlive the plant it powers. And then, what will we do?
Neither of these rebuttals prove that nuclear power is dangerous. Indeed, the facts show pretty conclusively that nuclear power is safe, in absolute terms but particularly as compared with many other forms of producing energy. And, nuclear power is an incredibly reliable form of producing energy.
Let’s break down the three nuclear “failures” that have caused global panic around nuclear energy.
Three Mile Island. A mechanical or electrical failure caused a buildup of steam. Then a defective valve foiled the attempt to cool down the reactor core. As a result, half the reactor core “melted down.” But little radioactive material, mostly inert noble gases, were released into the environment and no lives were ever threatened, let alone lost. The exposure to radiation as a result was de minimis. The lasting damage of Three Mile Island was the panic it caused and the exaggerated anti-nuclear talking points it provided. But the important takeaway is this: whatever perceived danger there was, it took no human toll. None.
Chernobyl. This was a nuclear plant without a containment building in Soviet Ukraine, one that would never have been allowed in any western country due to inherent instabilities in operation. Design flaws and the overriding of safety protocols led to a power excursion and the resulting steam explosion ripped the reactor core to pieces. Graphite, not present inside Western reactors, was mixed with nuclear fuel in the debris and caught fire, releasing large amounts of biologically harmful radionuclides into the environment. Anti-nuclear groups offer estimates of Chernobyl’s death toll going into the hundreds of thousands over the decades that follow. But two large international scientific commissions estimated the effects on humans in the recent past: the World Health Organization (WHO) in 2006 and the United Nations Scientific Committee on the Effects of Atomic Radiation (UNSCEAR) in 2008. The latter counts thirty people (plant workers and fire fighters) that died within a few weeks from physical injuries and radiation disease. The number of victims from cancer is larger, but precise numbers are difficult to estimate. UNSCEAR counts 6,000 cases of thyroid cancer in the affected population, mostly among people who were children in 1986 and drank milk rich in radioactive iodine released from the burning reactor. Thyroid cancer is, fortunately, most often successfully treated and the death rate is low (<1%). Other cancers are more difficult to attribute to Chernobyl, but non-death harms, including cataracts among clean-up workers (“terminators”) and depression and alcoholism among workers and evacuees need to be acknowledged, as well as countless abortions performed all over Europe under (unwarranted) fear of radiation damage to the fetus. Now, some 36 years later, the area around the plant remains bereft of people but teeming with wildlife. Reactor units 1, 2, and 3 at this plant were restarted in October and November of 1986 and the summer of 1987 and continued operating until 1997, 1991, and 2000, respectively.
Fukushima. When an earthquake and tsunami hit Japan, all 11 reactors at four nuclear plants in the affected area shut down automatically. Due to widespread black-outs, the cooling of the shut-down reactors had to be powered by emergency generators on site. Unfortunately, the sea wall at Fukushima-Daiichi was too low for the incoming tsunami wave, and the low-lying generators drowned, causing “station black-out.” Steam-driven pumps and battery-powered pumps provided cooling for a little longer, but eventually failed to remove the ongoing decay heat from reactors 1, 2, and 3. In the end, the cores of these reactors melted down and released large amounts of radioactive matter, mostly iodine-131 and caesium-137. Fortunately, about 80% of it was deposited into the Pacific Ocean. The statistics dramatize the point about nuclear safety. No radiation death has been attributed to the disaster and the multiple core meltdowns. 154,000 people were evacuated and it is likely most of them didn’t need to be as the physical and psychological harm from evacuation far exceeds the potential harm from being exposed to elevated radiation. But it is really stunning that an earthquake that cost nearly 20,000 lives and several nuclear meltdowns caused zero radiation deaths.
So, in the history of nuclear power in the Western world, covering a combined 19,000 years of operation experience from some 442 reactors in about 28 countries plus about 200 reactors that have been shut down temporarily or permanently, we have had two “incidents” that caused zero deaths and almost no measurable personal or environmental injury from radiation. The only real catastrophe that was “caused” by nuclear power took place in blatant disregard of safety protocols and a reactor prone to instability and illegal to be built anywhere today and ever in the West. Stunningly, more people would have died from the additional fossil fuel pollution had the Chernobyl plant, with a total generation of 271,261 GWh, never been built: At 28.67 deaths per TWh of electricity from the alternative, coal, the total number of lives saved is 7,777. This is in about seven decades of nuclear power generation. Our three exceptions notwithstanding, nuclear energy has produced an immense amount of energy for us in a sustainable and efficient manner, with virtually no health risks to humans and to the environment. So, why is nuclear energy still classified by many as “dangerous”?
We will now turn to where nuclear waste goes and why people incorrectly perceive it as dangerous.
Let’s start with this. Throughout the history of nuclear power, waste has been stored at the site of the plant in a deep pool of water or in “dry casks.” This is true for hundreds of nuclear reactors across the globe. In that time, there have been no deaths, no injuries, and no disruptions of society caused by radiation leakage of any kind.
Nuclear skeptics have observed that this is not a “permanent” solution because the waste remains radioactive for many years. This is true. It is also true that:
- The radioactivity of spent nuclear fuel (SNF) drops continuously, making it, like all nuclear waste, less dangerous over time. Coming fresh out of a reactor, SNF is rich in fission products with a very short half-life. This means that much of the radioactivity happens in the first weeks, hours, or even seconds after a reactor has been shut off. Radioactive isotopes of Xenon and Iodine, for example, decay first, and give off quite a bit of radiation and heat. Caesium and Strontium isotopes dominate as radiation sources in the next phase, but after 300 years they are pretty much gone, too. (Note: each atom of a radioactive, or unstable, isotope can be “radioactive” only once, during its decay.) SNF contains other radioactive elements with half-lives of thousands of years, such as Plutonium and even heavier elements. But, due to their relative stability, they are also not very dangerous. Toxic, as heavy metals, yes, but not very radioactive. (Rule of thumb: Highly radioactive = gone quickly, and low radioactivity = sticking around for much longer.)
- The radiation itself is easily stopped by shielding, though some gamma rays make it past any shielding. However, their destructive energy, already quite harmless on the outside of spent nuclear fuel containers, drops by the inverse square of the distance until finally absorbed by matter. What that means is that the “danger zone” around spent nuclear fuel is very small, measured in feet or yards, not miles.
- All of the nuclear waste ever created by American reactors could fit in a container the size of the football field and about two stories high. And if exclusively provided by nuclear power, the entire energy needs of an average American person’s lifestyle would not create more nuclear waste than what fits into a soda can. Because nuclear power uses so little fuel it succeeds so well in containing all its waste.
- New nuclear technologies will likely be able to extract more energy with what is now regarded as “spent” fuel and eliminate long-term radiation toxicity concerns.
With all the waste and all the plants and all the different storage facilities in all the countries of the world over all the decades we have had nuclear power, the fact that we have not yet had one instance of death, destruction, or danger due to nuclear waste storage ought to count for something.
In the meantime, the number of deaths attributable to fossil pollution is thousands per day across the globe. The damage done to water and the environment by the detritus of coal, oil, and gas extraction every day is a massive multiple of the damage caused by nuclear power in its history.
Now that we have all the facts, it should be evident that nuclear power is a safe, sustainable, and efficient means of producing energy. Currently, 20% of energy in the US is produced by only 94 nuclear reactor generators. The equation should be obvious: nuclear has not harmed anyone, but fossil fuels and other non-renewable energy sources are exponentially more dangerous for both people and for the environment. Now it is time to change the narrative on nuclear energy to support our ecosystem and our consumer demands for energy.