Nuclear Power: fear and reality

I was so hoping that if I waited a few days, I’d see a piece about nuclear power like the one that Will Saletan had in Slate yesterday.  Does a terrific job of putting things in perspective.  Yes, the situation is very serious, but every time I logged in the Post over the weekend there was an ever-more alarming headline with the words “nuclear meltdown” in it.  One scary-sounding headline I clicked through to read revealed that this dreaded partial “meltdown” had resulted in release of cesium atoms.  Oh, no!  Yet, it turns out that although this is most definitetly something you don’t want your reactor doing and a sign of potential further trouble, in itself, it’s basically harmless.  Sure didn’t get that from the headline.  Anyway, here’s Saletan:

Less than a year ago, a drilling rig exploded off the coast of the United States, killing 11 workers and pouring 4 million barrels of oil into the Gulf of Mexico. No natural disaster caused this tragedy. It was entirely man-made. President Obama halted deep-water drilling but lifted the moratorium less than six months later. On Friday, while fielding questions about Japan’s nuclear reactors, he proudly noted that his administration, under new, stricter rules, had “approved more than 35 new offshore drilling permits.”

That’s how we deal with tragedies in the oil business. Accidents happen. People die. Pollution spreads. We don’t abandon oil. We study what went wrong, try to fix it, and move on.

Contrast this with the panic over Japan’s reactors. For 40 years, they’ve quietly done their work. Three days ago, they were hit almost simultaneously by Japan’s worst earthquake and one of its worst tsunamis. Not one reactor container has failed. The only employee who has died at a Japanese nuclear facility since the quake was killed by a crane. Despite this, voices are rising in Europe and the United States to abandon nuclear power. Industry analysts predict that the Japan scare, like Chernobyl, will freeze plant construction

In advanced countries like Japan and the United States, nuclear plants are built to standards no drilling rig can touch. If a sensor, cable, or power source fails, another sensor, cable, or power source is available. Containers of steel or concrete envelop the reactors to prevent massive radiation leaks. Chernobyl didn’t have such a container. Three Mile Island did. That’s why Three Mile Island produced no uncontrolled leakage or injuries.

Not to mention, it turns out, that fossil fuel use is actually much more dangerous:

If Japan, the United States, or Europe retreats from nuclear power in the face of the current panic, the most likely alternative energy source is fossil fuel. And by any measure, fossil fuel is more dangerous. The sole fatal nuclear power accident of the last 40 years, Chernobyl, directly killed 31 people. By comparison, Switzerland’s Paul Scherrer Institutecalculates that from 1969 to 2000, more than 20,000 people died in severe accidents in the oil supply chain. More than 15,000 people died in severe accidents in the coal supply chain—11,000 in China alone. The rate of direct fatalities per unit of energy production is 18 times worse for oil than it is for nuclear power.

This is not to say the nuclear power is the solution to our energy problems or that it does not have significant drawbacks of its own, but let’s please keep things in perspective.


About Steve Greene
Professor of Political Science at NC State

One Response to Nuclear Power: fear and reality

  1. John says:

    Nuclear power is fraught with problems. Yes, reactors can sit for 40 quiet years and the probability of problems is low (unless of course you build it within the ring of fire, in a known tsumami zone). The problem is what happens when that low probability event does occur – Chernobyl is uninhabitable. What if Tokyo is rendered so? It doesn’t matter what the actual state of radiation disbursement is, the psychological impacts are significant and undeniable.

    On the filp side of rationality, nuclear power is hugely expensive, takes a decade to complete a plant, is a finite power source and has some of the same problems as oil in terms of country sourcing (eg. Kazakhstan). The other major problem is the environmental damage and carbon usage in mining uranium ore ( When the enviro-impacts and costs are taken into account there’s not much benefit of nuclear power compared to renewables.

    Btw, you do know you’re sitting on a nuclear reactor down there at State? Not Harris but on campus.

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