The ongoing energy crisis – with
skyrocketing prices, short supplies and growing environmental concerns – has
again brought to the fore the advantages of nuclear power. With zero carbon
footprint and abundant fuel supply, nuclear energy is not only relatively
inexpensive but also the most environmentally friendly means of electricity
Many advanced countries have long
structured their energy policy around this fact. Leading the way is France
which derives nearly 80% of its electricity from nuclear power. It is followed
by Lithuania (72%), Belgium (54%) and Sweden (52%). Other developed nations
that get a substantial portion of their electricity from this source include
Switzerland (40%), Germany (32%), Czech Republic (31%), Japan (30%), Finland
(27%) and North Korea (26%).
Not content to lag behind, many
developing nations are now also taking the atomic road to address their energy
needs. New reactors are being constructed in China, Russia, India, Brazil,
Romania, Bulgaria and Kazakhstan among others.
But while the world is increasingly
going nuclear, the United States is falling behind. Today nuclear energy
accounts for only 18% of our electricity production, a decline from the early
1990s when the figure was well over 20%. The explanation is simple: No new
reactor has been built in this country in nearly 30 years.
For many years now it has been
impossible to build a nuclear plant in America, as every such project is
opposed – often hysterically – on safety grounds. Not surprisingly, since after
many years of relentless propaganda many people believe that a nuclear reactor
is a ticking bomb which can potentially set off a disaster of catastrophic
Nothing could be further from the
truth. Contrary to popular perception, nuclear power is the safest method of
electricity generation. And even though the possibility of disaster is
routinely given as the reason for not building, accidents are extremely rare.
In fact, there have been only two notable ones since the inception of the
atomic age. Their impact, however, has been enormous, for they have been passed
off as “evidence” of nuclear power’s unsafeness. This is truly unfortunate,
since any honest evaluation leads to the opposite conclusion.
The most serious accident on record
took place in the nuclear facility near the Ukrainian city of Chernobyl, then
part of the former Soviet Union. On April 26, 1986 an explosion took place in
the plant’s number four reactor and was followed by a massive release of
radioactive material. The initial flare-up claimed 54 lives. Four thousand more
died in subsequent years as a result of exposure, mostly from thyroid cancer.
Though Chernobyl is often given as
evidence of dangers of nuclear energy, there is virtually no chance that a
similar event could take place in the western context. Built in what was
essentially an impoverished third-world country which had little respect for
human life, the reactor was designed with scant regard for safety and most
rudimentary safeguards were omitted in order to save money and meet deadlines.
During construction, paperwork was falsified to show that non-existent safety
devices were in place. To give an idea of the carelessness involved, bitumen –
a combustible material – was used in the construction of the reactor building
and the turbine hall.
To make things worse, in the
mid-eighties the Soviet Union was teetering on the brink of collapse and lacked
the financial resources to conduct proper maintenance. Finally, the unsafe
situation was further exacerbated by the kind of overt negligence that is
endemic in state-run enterprises.
Contrary to what most people think,
the Chernobyl disaster was not caused by an explosion of nuclear material. The
initial event was a steam explosion which tore the roof from the reactor and
exposed its nuclear core. Because of the gross heedlessness in design and
construction, the reactor had no containment vessels to capture the escaping
radioactivity. Containment vessels have always been a standard feature of
reactor designs, but the cash-strapped Soviet regime did not consider them
necessary. Had they been in place, the amount of radioactive material released
would have been significantly smaller.
Of the subsequent 4000 deaths most
could have been prevented had the Soviet government promptly evacuated the
nearby communities. The communist leadership, however, refused to notify its
citizens of the danger and for days denied that anything happened at all. It thus
needlessly and criminally exposed hundreds of thousands of its own citizens to
excessive levels of radiation.
Rather than an indictment of nuclear
power, Chernobyl was from beginning to end a classic case of communist
incompetence and malfeasance. As such this event is irrelevant to safety
considerations in a western setting.
The only serious accident in a
western nuclear facility occurred in the United States. In March 1979, one of
two reactors at the Three Mile Island Generation Station in Pennsylvania
experienced a partial core meltdown. The chain of events began so
inconspicuously that it took operators many hours before they realized that
anything had gone amiss, but once the incident became known the coverage
bordered on hysteria.
A number of “experts” came forth
evoking cataclysmic scenarios. Environmental and peace activists joined hands
to demonize nuclear power as dangerous and destructive. The frenzied coverage
combined with fantastic claims made a deep impression. In the months and years
that followed books, movies and songs were written about the incident. Bruce
Springsteen put out a tune called “Roulette” and Jimmy Buffett sang "I don't want to land on no Three Mile Island/Don't
want to see my skin a-glow."
But amidst all the hysteria and
alarmism, one important fact seemed to escape general notice: No one was killed
as a result of this supposedly catastrophic event. Not only there were zero
fatalities, there was not one injury. Jimmy Buffet’s reference to glowing skin
notwithstanding, not a single person was exposed to a dangerous degree of
radiation. Among some 25,000 people who lived in the close vicinity of the site
no one was harmed in any way. A government study found that “there will either be no case of cancer or the number of
cases will be so small that it will never be possible to detect them. The same
conclusion applies to the other possible health effects.”
The absence of injuries should not
surprise given the limited extent of the initial explosion and the fact that
only a small amount of dangerous radioactive substances escaped. Because of
this, the damage was almost wholly confined to the plant site.
It is a lasting testament to the
mendacity of foes of atomic energy that the frenzy they whipped up was a major
factor in stopping its development in the United States. Thanks to their
hysterical claims public support for nuclear power dropped from 70% before the
accident to 50% afterwards.
The World Nuclear Association
describes the devastating impact this event had on America’s nuclear industry:
developments in the USA suffered a major setback after the 1979 Three Mile
Island accident, though that actually validated the very conservative design
principles of western reactors, and no one was injured or exposed to harmful
radiation. Many orders and projects were cancelled or suspended, and the
nuclear construction industry went into the doldrums for two decades.
That even with no fatalities, no
injuries and no great environmental damage the Three Miles Island accident is
the most serious event involving a nuclear plant in the West is a
powerful testimony to the extraordinary safeness of atomic power. In the course
of more than 40 years of civilian nuclear power generation by more than 400
western-built reactors no one was ever killed or even injured by a radiation
leak. Those isolated casualties that did take place were invariably a result of
general occupational hazards common to all industries.
Statistics and studies consistently
show that nuclear power is the safest method of electricity generation both for
those directly involved and the general public. One of the most in-depth and
comprehensive surveys on this subject was conducted by the University of East
Anglia in the early 90s. It studied fatalities in the United States and Great
Britain which occurred as a result of primary energy production in the period
between 1970 and 1992. The record shows that fatalities were highest in the
coal industry (6400) followed by hydro power (4000) and natural gas (1200). At
31 deaths the nuclear industry posted the lowest figure by far. The number was
in fact 40 times lower than that of the next safest method. All 31 were workers
on facilities and – it bears repeating – not one died as a result of radiation.
This means that not a single member of the general public was ever killed or
harmed by civilian nuclear energy.
This phenomenal safety record is due
to the extreme care with which nuclear plants are constructed and operated.
Western type reactors are built to the highest standards based on stringent
safety requirements, advanced designs, careful workmanship and best materials.
They invariably incorporate multiple levels of safety redundancies and utilize
diverse systems for fault detection. Each safety system usually has more than
one backup and is designed to accommodate human errors. Today’s reactors are
built in such a way that even the most serious type of accident – the meltdown
of the nuclear core – is to be contained wholly within the plant site without
the need for evacuating nearby residents. Such is the care exercised in the
construction of an average nuclear reactor that safety systems account for
about one quarter of its capital cost.
Despite the industry’s superb record,
nuclear power is still seen by many people as inherently dangerous. This
perception runs completely contrary to reality and is a result of the lies and
distortions that have been spread about this subject.
It is one of the great ironies of
our time as well as a masterstroke of political demagoguery that safety
concerns have been used to stop the development of the safest source of energy
in the United States. It is time to rationally assess the facts and reverse
this situation. It is time to resume the development of nuclear energy in this