Irradiated landscapes, poisoned water supplies, the ubiquitous gas masks donned by radiation cleaners in the Chernobyl HBO series: these are the images that come to mind for many when hearing about nuclear power. Needless to say, this dramatized picture of Soviet infrastructure is a far cry from the true state of nuclear energy in America. The reality surrounding nuclear power is much less dramatic than any Hollywood production would lead the public to believe. In fact, in over 36 countries accumulating 18,500 reactor-years, the Fukushima and Chernobyl reactor malfunctions are the only major accidents to result in fatalities directly from radiation.
Safety and Security
Dramatizations and myths aside, U.S. nuclear power plants are held to some of the strictest and most comprehensive safety standards and regulations in the world. Nuclear power plants do not emit copious amounts of radiation, do not pose an explosive threat like that of a nuclear bomb, nor produce hazardous material that is dangerous for over 10,000 years. This is not to say nuclear power is a faultless form of energy, but it must be understood on the basis of reality, and policy debates must center on the facts.
U.S. nuclear plants employ a method of safety called “defense-in-depth.” This system in practice entails multiple layers of safety features, including steel-reinforced concrete barriers, steel vessels to contain fuel rods, and backup portable equipment on-site that can be used in the event of an emergency. On top of having multiple backup systems, the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) licenses all nuclear plant operators in the U.S. in addition requiring updated emergency response plans that must be approved by the NRC and Federal Emergency Management Agency every year.
As for the explosive threat, nuclear material is drawn from natural uranium in the earth. Before it is useable as fuel, it must be milled, converted, enriched, and compacted into fuel pellets. The enrichment process boosts Uranium 235 to three to five percent for nuclear fuel. For weapons grade uranium, enrichment exceeds 90 percent. Beyond enrichment, nuclear bombs are designed to explode, and nuclear reactors – obviously – are designed not to. The configurations within a reactor are optimized to set off a chain reaction of fission in order to generate a controlled amount of heat. Neither the material nor configuration allows for explosions within a nuclear plant, and the only major meltdown on U.S. soil was caused by a cooling malfunction and was fully contained, leading to no explosion or adverse human or environmental affects. In the entire history of American nuclear power, only 20 deaths have occurred at nuclear facilities – the overwhelming majority of which, if not all, were non-nuclear in nature (e.g. electrocution from live wires, worker falls, equipment falls, steam venting, etc).
The failures of Chernobyl and Fukushima are incompatible with U.S. nuclear practices and technology. The fundamentally flawed Soviet reactor design at Chernobyl utilized graphite-moderated channel tube reactor, with graphite acting as the moderator to slow the fusion reaction. However, graphite does not moderate fission; it actually promotes it. The accident at Fukushima was caused by a combination of natural disasters, not human error or a flawed reactor design. Neither are representative or similar to U.S. nuclear plants in design, practice, procedure, or regulation.
In terms of waste, only around three percent of waste is long-lived in need of permanent 1,000-year storage. The majority of waste is managed and stored on-site through a series of wet pools for cooling and radioactive decay and multi-level dry cask storage containers.
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Nuclear energy is a baseload energy source, meaning it is consistently reliable to meet fundamental demand. In comparison to other energy sources, nuclear power is much cleaner, safer, and more efficient. The process of fission emits no pollution or carbon dioxide emissions, and nuclear plants operate 93 percent of the time. Given the constant energy supply putting out zero emissions, nuclear power also serves to reduce pollution and respiratory health issues.
In 2018, an estimated 8 million people died from exposure to particulate matter from fossil fuels. A study conducted just after the Fukushima accident concluded that nuclear power prevented an average additional 1.84 million air pollution-related deaths between 1971 and 2009. The question then is not whether nuclear power is dangerous, but why policymakers and the public have not internalized its overall benefits. Given that the high fatality rate of fossil fuels is based in part by calculating respiratory and other pollution-related deaths, nuclear power not only does not cause these emissions, but actually displaces them by making up 20 percent of America’s energy mix that would otherwise be produced by more fossil fuels. Overall, nuclear energy is reported to have saved far more lives than it has taken.
It is true that nuclear leads to some emissions. In the same way that wind and solar power are “zero emission” because they only capture freely available wind and sun, but do not combust or pollute to generate electricity, nuclear puts out no emissions during operation. Yet all three of these sources require intense quantities of energy to mine, transport, process, and construct their infrastructure. In many cases, this means reliance on fossil fuels upstream in the supply chain or in building the power plant, as well as considerations for decommissioning and managing waste. Even considering these life-cycle emissions from mine to generation to waste disposal, nuclear’s annual emission level is only an estimated 12 grams of carbon dioxide per kilowatt hour of electricity. In contrast to coal, which emits around 820 g CO2/kWh, nuclear’s lifetime footprint is miniscule.
Role of Technology
Continuous innovation in the size, cost, and safety features of nuclear reactors will only make them safer to operate, more efficient to build, and less expensive to maintain. Two recent proposals selected by the U.S. Department of Energy for demonstrations utilize sodium and helium instead of water to cool the reactors. Substituting sodium and helium for water would reduce the costs and space that the reactor would need to take up, while reducing the complexity and inherent dangers of trying to contain a liquid coolant in the event of a meltdown. For the helium-cooled reactor, pebbles of graphite infused with ceramic kernels containing uranium would heat helium in a secondary circuit. This means that the pebbles containing the uranium cannot melt down, effectively eliminating the chances of a reactor meltdown. Innovations in waste management and disposal for current nuclear technology is also making an impact.
Nuclear power consistently makes up for weaknesses of other renewable energy sources, while also being exponentially safer than fossil fuels. Whereas solar panels and wind turbines are unable to produce adequate amounts of energy when the skies are cloudy or there is no wind, nuclear power provides a safer way to account for those dips in production with continuous baseload production. Increasing nuclear power’s share of U.S. energy generation can also allow for more renewable energy development in the short term.
Ultimately, nuclear power’s massive upsides outweigh its largely dramatized downsides, with the main barrier to its further utilization in the U.S.’s decarbonization process being misperceptions and myths. Ensuring U.S. citizens are educated around these misconceptions about nuclear power must be a high priority for both sides of the political aisle.
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Written by Roy Mathews, Public Policy Associate
The Alliance for Innovation and Infrastructure (Aii) is an independent, national research and educational organization. An innovative think tank, Aii explores the intersection of economics, law, and public policy in the areas of climate, damage prevention, energy, infrastructure, innovation, technology, and transportation.