Nuclear Energy: What You’ve Heard, and What You Haven’t

What crosses your mind when you see the image above? Two-headed, glow-in-the-dark animals? Hiroshima and Nagasaki? The ghost town of Pripyat after the meltdown of Chernobyl? Fukushima? Yeah, me too. Our impression that nuclear energy is always dangerous is false. Our fear is perpetuated through our conception of the events in nuclear energy’s history. None of the events were unprovoked reactions that released big mushroom clouds and shockwaves that vaporized entire buildings. They have reasonable causes that we seem to overlook due to nuclear energy’s stigma. To completely disregard nuclear energy as a means of producing power based on a few blemishes on nuclear’s record is closed-minded and naive. Nuclear power plants are extremely efficient systems capable of producing vast amounts of energy using very little fuel with no carbon dioxide emissions.

The most infamous example used to criticize nuclear energy is the incident that occurred at Chernobyl. However, Chernobyl is not a legitimate representation of nuclear energy, and it would be absurd to assume that it is. You always hear about the aftermath, but nothing before. What nobody talks about is the type of reactor used at Chernobyl was flawed from its very design, the staff operating the reactor was extremely negligent of safety precautions, and that same staff was running an experiment that intentionally put the reactor under stress. Even a Baskin Robbins would have an accident if they had this many factors working against them.

Chernobyl: Humans’ Fault

Chernobyl had a total of four reactors; Chernobyl 4 is where the meltdown occurred. On April 26, 1986, Chernobyl 4’s steam pressure exceeded the system’s capacity, causing it to explode sending radioactive gas into the atmosphere. This incident resulted in the deaths of 30 people caused by acute radiation poisoning from immediate exposure and, allegedly, thousands of civilians were affected. The city of Pripyat was evacuated along with another 100,000 people within the affected zone. Today, Pripyat is a deserted city…and also a tourist attraction.

Tourists in Pripyat, being all touristy

The day before the incident, Chernobyl 4 was going to be shut down for standard maintenance. The staff decided to capitalize on this to run an experiment on Chernobyl 4 to test the reactor’s cooling abilities in the event of a loss of power. However, nobody in the staff worked in the nuclear portion of the facility, and they ran this experiment without telling reactor safety personnel. To prepare the experiment, the untrained staff disengaged the reactor’s emergency core cooling system. A very large, first mistake.

Reactor power for this experiment should have been around 800 MW, which was low power for Chernobyl 4, but the reactor’s power fell to 30 MW. The engineers designed the reactors at Chernobyl to quickly increase energy production if the core heated up. Based on this design, the reactor was put in an extremely unstable condition at low power because it was more susceptible to sudden and intense power surges. Second mistake.

To raise the power, Chernobyl staff decided it was a good idea to raise the control rods inside the reactor. These control rods are raised or lowered to manage the power production so that there isn’t a runaway reaction. The staff raised twice as many control rods as was permitted. This was a direct violation of safety procedures and design protocol. Third mistake.

When the test began, there was a rapid power increase, which was anticipated from the design specifications stated previously. An automatic system kept the power increase under control by moving the control rods that were even still inserted. To end the experiment, somebody in the control room pressed an emergency shutdown button that would drop every control rod. Fourth and final mistake. The power in the reactor skyrocketed causing a major increase in steam pressure leading to two explosions.

Present-day Chernobyl shown with concrete containment vessel under construction

The accident at Chernobyl was completely attributable to human error and should not determine our outlook on nuclear energy. Harnessing the power of the atom will free us from our coal, oil, and natural gas dependencies. Plus, nuclear energy is much safer when compared to all other energy sources.

Nuclear Is Number One

Globally, coal has the highest number of deaths per unit energy produced at 100,000 deaths per trillion kWh. Oil comes in second at 36,000 deaths per trillion kWh. Natural gas comes in fourth (biofuel is third) at 4,000 deaths. The list continues with wind power at 150 deaths, solar (on rooftops) at 440 deaths, and hydropower at 1,400 deaths. Coming in last place, or I guess it should be first place, is nuclear energy with just 90 deaths per trillion kWh produced. That figure includes Chernobyl and Fukushima. If you look at the United States’ statistics, coal causes 10,000 deaths per trillion kWh produced. Nuclear, in last place again, at 0.1 deaths per trillion kWh while still contributing to 20% of the electricity produced in the US with zero carbon dioxide emissions.

Renewables Have Negative Impacts

Some “environmentalists” will plead that nuclear energy is not a safe alternative to fossil fuels, and they preach renewables. However, renewables are not the angels you have them made out to be. Windmills kill hundreds of thousands birds in North America alone. Manufacturing solar panels requires mining for rare earth metals, which destroys ecosystems. When the solar panels are installed, there needs to be a lot of them to make it a viable source of power, and large solar farms damage habitats of plants and animals. Hydropower has the most significant impact on the environment. Damming up rivers to flood entire valleys drowns entire ecosystems, blocks fish from migrating, and changes the flow pattern of rivers, which harms all wildlife dependent on that river. While renewable energy sources are a step in the right direction, they won’t be able to meet our current energy demands without occupying huge swaths of land.

Hetch-Hetchy Valley before and after O’Shaughnessy Dam

It’s Not Just Chernobyl That Has A Bad Rap

Chernobyl is not the only event in nuclear energy’s history that is extremely high-profile, yet misconceived. The Three-Mile-Island incident posed very little threat to the public and environment, but still created fear (scroll down to the summary at the end, it’s pretty long). Nobody in the surrounding areas exhibited any signs of adverse effects after the incident. Fukushima Daiichi experienced unexpected, back-to-back events that caused the accident. A magnitude 9.0 earthquake hit and caused a power outage and a 33 foot tsunami flooded the backup diesel generators. Any building built right on the coastline would have experienced serious consequences in an event like this. However, this could have been avoided as it was poor planning on the design team’s end (such as having the diesel generators susceptible to water intrusion).

Go Nuclear!

Kirk Sorensen on Liquid Fluoride Thorium Reactors — the future of nuclear energy

It is unfortunate that most people hear “nuclear energy” and automatically have fearful thoughts. The stigma is maintained through a lack of understanding and a misrepresentation of this technology. Nuclear energy can solve the pressing environmental issues we face currently. There are even safer, more efficient methods to generate nuclear power that produce far less waste than the conventional uranium reactor, but we can’t move forward until we get past events like Chernobyl. This technology is still in its infancy, and with time, it will only get better. We can’t forsake nuclear energy. We can’t keep using fossil fuels. We can’t just continue to run in place. We can change that; we must go nuclear.