Op-ed: Let’s dispel the myths about nuclear energy

By Tatiana Siaraferas, MEng ’20 (NE)

This op-ed is part of a series from E295: Communications for Engineering Leaders. In this course, Master of Engineering students were challenged to communicate a topic they found interesting to a broad audience of technical and non-technical readers.

The 2019 HBO mini-series, Chernobyl, managed to do two major things: first, to make the Chernobyl nuclear accident known to a vast majority of people and depict some of the technical mistakes of the event from a Hollywood style point of view, and second, to give some background about how involved the Soviet Union was in releasing or, more correctly, covering up important information (Fountain 2019). However, another distressing result of the series is that it was effective in rekindling a paranoia about nuclear power and negatively influencing public opinion of nuclear energy. When it comes to nuclear energy, people are so scared and so little informed of it that they can be easily driven against it, especially after an accident such as that at Chernobyl or similar accidents at Three Mile Island and Fukushima Daiichi, all of which became targets of negative press. This media amplification has had a lasting negative effect on the industry. Is the negative publicity on nuclear energy justified?

Climate change is a real problem of the 21st century and people have to deal with it as soon as possible in order to make sure that future generations have a place to live on Earth.

Nuclear energy is a proven carbon-neutral energy source. Climate change is a real problem of the 21st century and people have to deal with it as soon as possible in order to make sure that future generations have a place to live on Earth. If CO2 emissions do not drop and continue to rise in the next decade, climate change may become an irreversible condition. “Beyond decarbonizing today’s electric grid, we must use clean electricity to replace fossil fuels in transportation, industry and heating,” (Goldstein J. S. 2019). Nuclear energy has proven to minimize CO2 emissions since it produces energy by nuclear fission and not chemical burning, but unlike other low-carbon methods, it can also create great amounts of energy. Studies show that “if coal or natural gas power had replaced nuclear energy from 1971 to 2009, the equivalent of an additional 64 gigatons of carbon would have reached the atmosphere. Looking forward, switching out nuclear for coal or natural gas power would lead to the release of 80 to 240 gigatons of additional carbon by 2050” (Schrope 2013) (Kharecha and Hansen 2013).

Figure 1: Greenhouse gas emissions produced by different forms of electricity generation (Source: World Nuclear Association)

In addition, the energy produced by nuclear reactors is not dependent on the weather conditions like renewables are, and they can help meet rising energy demands with the huge amounts of energy they can produce from a very small amount of uranium fuel. Therefore, nuclear energy presents itself as a clean and efficient form of energy production that can replace fossil fuels and serve as a main energy source and a backup for renewables.

Nuclear energy presents itself as a clean and efficient form of energy production that can replace fossil fuels and serve as a main energy source and a backup for renewables.

Other benefits of nuclear energy as a safe energy production source are becoming evident as developments and research in nuclear engineering propose even more efficient and safe nuclear reactors. These promising new technologies such as fusion and Generation IV nuclear reactors focus on being safer and more efficient, and on limiting their size, cost and waste — fusion actually creates no waste at all. Also, these new reactors do not lead to a risk of nuclear weapons materials production because of their design, fuel cycle and the strict regulations imposed upon them by governments and the International Atomic Energy Agency. In addition to technological advancements that have improved equipment within the industry, advances in nuclear engineering have also led to breakthroughs in various other fields ranging from medicine, with cancer treatment to medical diagnosis equipment like MRIs, to food production and industry applications (Lucas 2014).

Figure 2: Death rates from energy production (Source: Our World in Data)

Despite the benefits of nuclear energy, one might continue to argue that nuclear energy is not safe. We cannot ignore the scale of destruction that resulted from the three accidents of Three Mile Island, Chernobyl and Fukushima Daiichi. But when relating these accidents to nuclear energy, people do not realize that in a time frame of ~65 years of nuclear reactors, there were only three accidents, with two of them having no fatalities related to nuclear radiation and Chernobyl having fewer than 50 fatalities immediately related to nuclear radiation (WHO/IAEA/UNDP 2005). Although a further 4,000 fatalities resulted from cancer that are thought to be related to the Chernobyl accident, the overall fatality rate remains lower than that which might be attributed to other forms of energy production. “The death toll from nuclear energy is 442 times fewer relative to brown coal per unit of energy, even with radioactive exposure deaths included” (Ritchie 2017). Furthermore, the numbers of fatalities from nuclear power is actually minimal if one considers the number of fatalities nuclear energy has prevented through its low CO2 emissions between 1971 and 2009. While coal, oil and natural gas are projected to have contributed to about 1.8 million deaths worldwide, nuclear energy’s low carbon footprint has contributed to virtually none (Fig. 3) (Kharecha and Hansen 2013). Because nuclear power accidents and deaths are so rare, the ones that do occur are covered with much greater media coverage than accidents and deaths from other conventional energy sources (Rummens 2019). “The key distinction here is that nuclear risk is generally focused within low-probability, high-impact single events in contrast to air pollution impacts which provide a persistent background health risk” (Ritchie 2017).

Figure 3 (left): Hypothetical number of deaths from energy production / Figure 4 (right): Health effects of energy production, 2014. (Source: Our World in Data)

Some might add that besides the accidents, what is dangerous about nuclear energy is nuclear waste. However, in all the years that nuclear power plants have operated, there has not been a major accident related to the transportation of this nuclear waste, or leakage that would affect the environment and population.

Figure 5: Public opposition to nuclear energy production (Source: Our World in Data )

The real problem starts because people are not well informed about nuclear energy. From its early years of development, because it was part of military planning, governments chose to release very limited information for national security purposes. That created a mysticism around nuclear, and, together with the destructive incidents including the nuclear bombing of Japan in WWII and nuclear accidents, this misconception about nuclear energy continues to rise. Furthermore, the lack of information provided to people in the area around the Chernobyl nuclear power plant, as well as the lies spread by the Soviet government and the lack of information they provided in the world community, which was also affected, made public opinion towards nuclear energy even more negative. The HBO Chernobyl mini-series makes sure to remind people about this government corruption, increasing the disbelief of people. In fact, studies report that “Alongside radiation-induced deaths and diseases, the mental health impact of Chernobyl is the largest public health problem created by the accident” (WHO/IAEA/UNDP 2005). The study states that this damaging psychological impact is because of lack of accurate information. “These problems manifest as negative self-assessments of health, belief in a shortened life expectancy, lack of initiative, and dependency on assistance from the state” (WHO/IAEA/UNDP 2005).

Figure 6: Public Opinion about Nuclear Power in the U.S. from 1995 to 2019 (Source: GALLUP)

The facts about the climate benefits that nuclear energy can provide suggest that we need to use more, not less, nuclear energy, and UN researchers confirm this (Phillips 2019). Private companies, universities, researchers and governments are working hard to make further advances in new reactors and go from concept to building stage in the next few years. They aim to make nuclear energy safer, financially competitive to fossil fuels, and limit accidents, nuclear waste and nuclear proliferation. However, greater public support is needed.

Governments and the scientific community have to be open about nuclear energy, build trust with the public and provide accurate and complete information about the technology used, as well as the benefits and the risks involved.

Unless people actively become informed and the media provides objective publicity on the subject, nuclear energy will not be perceived as a safe, clean form of energy, and it will be viewed with skepticism by consumers as a choice for use of power. This will make the realization of new nuclear technology even slower, and climate change will be a problem that will not be dealt with. People who are concerned about climate change and the negative effects related to it should make it their priority to become objectively informed about nuclear energy and finally support it.

About the author:

Tatiana Siaraferas is a current Master of Engineering student in Nuclear Engineering at University of California, Berkeley. Prior to Berkeley, she earned a Bachelor of Science Degree in Physics from Aristotle University of Thessaloniki (AUTH). She is interested in Radioactive Waste Management, Fuel Cycles & Advanced Reactors Design. Connect with Tatiana.

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