3 Nuclear Energy Monsters You Need Not Fear
Often when discussing sustainable clean energy options “nuclear power” is regarded as a dirty word. The mention of it conjures images of mutated super-villains, piles of glowing radioactive waste, and mushroom clouds. There’s a long list of misconceptions when it comes to this source of widespread energy, but there are 3 major culprits that strike terror in the hearts of Americans from sea to shining sea. The following three “Nuclear Monsters” are about as misunderstood as Frankenstein, Quazi Motto, and King Kong.
1 . Nuclear Meltdowns
It is a commonly held belief that supporting nuclear energy means potentially exposing communities all over the world to the risk of nuclear radiation as the inevitable result of nuclear plant meltdowns. The reality is that even if nuclear plant accidents occurred frequently (which they don’t) the impact of these “disasters” has been vastly exaggerated, fabricated and misrepresented.
Let’s take three real world examples of times when humans were exposed to radiation due to an accident at a nuclear plant:
This 1979 incident, described as “the worst commercial nuclear accident in U.S. history,” happened as the result of a failure in the reactor’s system that affected the cooling of the radioactive fuel. This lead to the reactor core melting, and the release of radioactive gas into the surrounding area. How much radiation was released onto this innocent community in Pennsylvania that spring morning? About ⅙ that of an X-Ray, and about ¼ of the average American’s yearly dose.
Meanwhile, as a result of this malfunction there was widespread regulation reform set in place as well as a tightening of federal safety requirements and emergency response planning. Despite all of this, due to the misguided change of public opinion following the 3-Mile Island incident, not a single new plant has been built in the US since this date.
The Great East Japan Earthquake took place in March 2011. Amongst various other tragedies that resulted from this natural event, reactors on two Japanese nuclear plants were compromised when a subsequent tsunami surged into the cities, exposing nearby communities to radiation. However, despite what is often said, according to the official UN scientific committee’s report on Atomic Radiation, there was NO measurable increase of radiation-related health effects to those exposed, and no projected radiation-related health effects for their descendants.
This is not to say the effects at the nuclear plants at Fukushima were not devastating. They were. They were, however, not unpredicted. Nearly two decades prior to the earthquake, general scientific findings regarding seismic patterns, predicted the high probability of such an event happening in the region of these plants. This ideally would have lead to measures to prevent this catastrophe from happening. In fact, a report from the Japanese Earthquake Research Committee was set to be released June 2011. Unfortunately, despite established guidelines set by the International Atomic Energy Agency years prior to the event at Fukushima detailing this exact situation, the Japanese Government and the Nuclear Industrial Safety Agency (NISA) decided to disregard this information. This ultimately lead to the adoption of a brand new regulatory structure in 2012.
Lastly, the infamous 1986 Chernobyl incident was the result of actions by plant operators in violation of the plant’s established safety regulations. Operators were running the plant at dangerously low power levels which rendered it unstable, leading to a series of explosions that exposed the reactor core and creating a fire that burned for over a week.
Unlike most nuclear plants Chernobyl did not have a containment structure to protect the surrounding environment, between 25 and 57 metric tons of radioactive fuel and products of nuclear fission was released into the surrounding area. Initially there were some measures not taken by the Soviet government that allowed further contamination to spread beyond the initial impact. This has lead to prevalence of certain kinds of cancers amongst those exposed to the radiation from the explosions.
Clearly, this is the most extreme example of direct effects on a human population due nuclear meltdown so far. Just under 350,000 people were relocated away from areas contaminated by the events at Chernobyl. Out of these individuals 2.6% or 9,000 people are expected to die prematurely due to cancer directly related to this historic event. Although this is a devastating statistic, it warrants a bit of perspective. Here’s another shocking statistic to take into account, over 7,000,000 people are expected to die prematurely EVERY YEAR due to air pollution resulting from the burning of fossil fuels (ambient exposure and indoor exposure). In fact 95% of all deaths relating to energy production as a whole are the result of pollution.
2. Nuclear Waste
Claims about the “Frightening” nuclear waste situation in the US seem to be fueled by comic books and a loss of faith in science. While the media gains ratings with headlines that demand attention such as the reference to “Radioactive Alligators” they succeed in creating fear based on what the average american does not know about nuclear and the misleading conflation of Nuclear Energy Waste and Waste from Nuclear Warheads.
The Alligators in question are named Tritagator and Dioxinator they live in a pond that is the result of the disposal of contaminated soil, nuclear waste that was the product of a bomber that collided with a refueling tanker. The result, a showering of nuclear waste over a village called Palomares off the coast of Spain, and a clean-up effort by American troops resulting in the aforementioned nuclear pond in South Carolina. The waste at this site is diluted and handled in a way that causes no discernible environmental effect.
Even when dealing with actual waste from nuclear energy plants, information is often presented in ways that distort the scope and significance of the waste. Although it is true that nuclear waste can take “tens to hundreds of thousands of years” to decay, it is also true that there are efforts, backed by Bill Gates and his peers, to develop more sustainable reactors that not only produce less waste but also find ways to utilize the spent uranium itself to create more energy. This would find a solution to that waste, turning it back into a usable resource.
Let’s completely disregard these innovative efforts and say, waste is waste and will always be. Even so, the sheer volume of waste produced by nuclear is small. So small in fact, that all current spent nuclear fuel assemblies could fit in a space smaller than 5 story building the size of a football field. Meanwhile waste made by producing solar power is 300x more in volume for the same quantity of energy.
3. Nuclear War
The third fear that is often held is that nuclear energy is a stepping stone to nuclear war. However, the exact opposite is true. When it comes to the adoption of nuclear energy, countries are required to sign and abide by the Non-Proliferation Treaty. They are then held accountable to this treaty by the UN. This regulation in turn makes developing nuclear weapons more difficult with the adoption of nuclear energy. Alternately, until recently as much as 50% of nuclear power in the US had been derived from resources taken from decommissioned warheads from the Cold War.
If there was any doubt before regarding the upside of nuclear power, that surely has been at the very least challenged by these claims. Much of the fear American’s feel regarding nuclear power is based in fallacious and deceitful rhetoric that perpetuates ignorance. Without nuclear power the world would have no choice but to rely on the same unsustainable methods of assessing energy that have brought us to our current environmental crisis, or become over reliant on other “clean energy” sources such as wind and solar that are not yet developed enough to sustain current global energy needs. Fortunately, monsters aren’t real and nuclear power lives on.