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Powering the Nation By: Vasko Kohlmayer
FrontPageMagazine.com | Tuesday, September 02, 2008


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 generation.

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 proportions. 

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:

Nuclear 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 country.


Born and raised in former communist Czechoslovakia. the author is a naturalized American citizen. He is a regular columnist for Frontpagemag.com and his work has also appeared in The Baltimore Sun, The Washington Times, The American Thinker, The Jewish Press, RealClearPolitics, and other publications.


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