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Don’t Mini-mize the Dangers of Nuclear Power

The radiation from Japan’s crippled Fukushima Daiichi reactors poisoned farmlands, contaminated the sea, and sent invisible mists of radiation wafting around the world. The latest – and it’s just the latest – atomic accident has raised new concerns about the risks of nuclear energy. But still the question remains: Are we wise enough to finally understand that nuclear reactors are a fool’s technology?

Earth Island Institute founder David Brower initially believed that “atomic energy could be a safe alternative to damming all our rivers for power.” But Dave soon realized – earlier than most – that “the risk presented by these lethal wastes is like no other risk, and we should not be expected to accept it.” Despite the industry’s glib assurances, nuclear power has never been a safe or foolproof technology. For evidence of that fact, let’s review a few of the major nuclear accidents of the Atomic Age.

  • United Kingdom (1957): Windscale reactor fire contaminates 35 workers. Radioactive cloud covers Northern Europe and causes at least 200 cases of cancer.
  • Soviet Union (1957): Radioactive explosion at Mayak reprocessing site forces evacuation of 10,000 people. Radiation contributes to deaths of 200.
  • USA (1975): Alabama’s Browns Ferry plant catches fire and burns for seven hours with two reactors running. Meltdown feared as fire destroys controls.
  • USA (1979): Partial core meltdown at Three Mile Island. Radiation released. Thousands evacuated.
  • USA (1981): California’s San Onofre plant closed for 14 months to repair 6,000 leaking steam tubes. During restart, plant catches fire, knocking out one of two back-up generators.
  • United Kingdom (1983): Beaches near Sellafield (formerly Windscale) nuclear processing plant closed due to radiation contamination.
  • Soviet Union (1986): Chernobyl explosion. World’s worst nuclear accident – so far. Estimates of associated deaths run from 9,000 to nearly one million people.
  • Japan (1997): Chain reaction at Tokaimura reprocessing plant exposes 37 workers and surrounding neighborhoods to radiation.
  • Japan (1999): Two workers killed at Tokaimura during unplanned chain reaction.
  • Japan (2004): Steam explosion kills four at Mihama reactor.
  • Sweden (2006): Short circuit disables emergency power at Forsmark reactor. Catastrophic core meltdown barely averted.
  • France (2008): Tricastin nuclear facility accidentally releases 18,000 liters of irradiated water.

And that’s just a partial list. The problem with nuclear power is simple: It’s too complex. When things go wrong – as they inevitably do, because humans are fallible – the consequences can be deadly.

The Fukushima disaster has severely hobbled the atomic industry’s hopes for a big-ticket nuclear renaissance. So the American Nuclear Society has proposed a mini-renaissance based on “Small Modular Reactors,” or SMRs. Cheaper, quicker to build, and small enough to fit in a garage, SMRs could power homes, factories, and military bases. South Carolina’s Savannah River National Laboratory hopes to start building SMRs at a New Mexico plant and is taking a lead role in a GE-Hitachi demonstration project.

Even as Japanese engineers were working to contain the radiation risks at Fukushima, an international SMR conference in South Carolina in April attracted representatives from Westinghouse, AREVA, GE, the International Atomic Energy Agency, China National Nuclear Corp., Iraq Energy Institute, the US Army, and many US utilities.

But SMRs still depend on designs that generate intense heat, employ dangerous materials (highly reactive sodium coolant), and generate nuclear waste. SMRs also retain all the risks associated with supplying, maintaining, safeguarding, and dismantling large nuclear reactors – only now those risks would be multiplied and decentralized.

The planet can’t afford nuclear energy – be it mega or mini. As Dave Brower observed 30 years ago: “Is the minor convenience of allowing the present generation the luxury of doubling its energy consumption every 10 years worth the major hazard of exposing the next 20,000 generations to this lethal waste?

“We are at the edge of an abyss and we’re close to being irrevocably lost,” Dave warned. “As the Welshman Allen Reese puts it: ‘At the edge of the abyss, the only progressive move you can make is to step back.’”

Gar Smith is the Journal’s Editor Emeritus and author of the forthcoming report, “Nuclear Roulette,” from the International Forum on Globalization.


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Take the long view; is using a 1970’s era design built in the most seismically active zone on the planet really the best way to weigh the risks and benefits of nuclear power as a whole?  I would submit that it is not.  Any environmentalist serious about reducing greenhouse emissions on a macro scale should be embracing the latest generation of small scale, much safer nuclear reactors.  Power has to come from somewhere and at a scale that can support the massive demands of modern society (for the foreseeable future, renewable energy cannot).  There have been a few isolated accidents at nuclear plants, but when put against the guaranteed pollution and health hazards created by coal power plants, nuclear (even the ancient designs that we should be replacing) comes out far ahead.  Even with Germany’s massive investments in renewables (the scale of which the US has no real appetite for), their decision to abandon nuclear has simply led to an increase in its fossil fuel consumption. 

An argument against nuclear without presenting a VIABLE alternative is just an argument for the coal and natural gas industry (and unlike the anti-global warming “experts,” I’m guessing you’re not even getting a check for your troubles).

By Alex on Sun, February 26, 2012 at 11:22 am

Is that all? In half of a century of this horrible nuclear energy? More people die daily in traffic accidents. So if you want to save lives, try to stop all the cars in the world for a day – it’s surely feasible – and leave nuclear power alone. It’s simply not worth of such much humanitarian trouble. Well, but there is something else… Each kWh of nuclear power is one kWh less for fossil-fuel companies. Each kWh of wind is 3 kWh more for Enron and Gazprom. Sapienti sat!

By praos on Wed, August 17, 2011 at 9:52 am

Interesting,  the exposure of people in Japan to the dangerous hazardous, terrible worst ever radiation release has killed no one so far.  The contamination of the areas leaves a background radiation less than many areas of natural radiation. 

As I have studied this topic I found that the more dangerous radiation is, the more quickly it goes away.  I am now understanding that Nuclear power is one of the safest ways to generate power, far safer than hydro, or coal.  I notice that in your list above, the number of deaths associated with Nuclear in any way are fairly small.  In the last year, deaths from Natural Gas explosions, coal mine collapses, and exploding oil rigs are about equal to the 55 year total you have given for Nuclear, excepting Chernobyl.  I challenge your death toll numbers for that.  The estimates do range from about 50 to more than a million.  Why the vast difference?  Because one source (a group of UN research teams) is counting actual deaths, while the other projects the “possible” deaths in an area using who knows what methods.

When a hospital can use radiation to cure a patient, why are we frightened by a much much lower level of radiation from Nuclear power? 

The areas around Fukushima could be resettled quickly without harm to the people.  There might be a few areas of more intense radiation but these are easily identified and avoided.  Within 30 days most of the radiation was gone (I-131).  What remains is minor and fading - as is the nature of radiation, it is what MAKES it radiation - it fades away. 

I have lived in areas without electricity.  I have struggled to carry water up 6 flights of stairs when the power was off in my apartment.  I have helped build wells in areas without water and know how difficult it is to move water without electricity.  I have friends who are doctors in a hospital where power interruptions come any time and are sometimes fatal during an operation. 

Nuclear power provides the safest and most reliable electricity in the world.  We need more of it and Small Medium Reactors would be a blessing to the world. 

Here is a link to a Nasa Engineer who has a Master’s in Nuclear Engineering talking about the “waste” of nuclear fuel.  What it is, how long it lasts and how valuable it is.

By David on Sat, July 30, 2011 at 3:28 pm

Let’s make a deal. If you will stop trying to maximize fear of nuclear by spreading imaginary, “worst case” scenarios, perhaps us nuclear advocates will stop offending you by minimizing fears by spreading factual, real world numbers about our documented experiences in handing radiation and radioactive materials.

After all, humans have been working with radiation and radioactive materials for more than 100 years and we have done an incredible amount of study. We know pretty well what happens when humans are exposed to various levels of radiation - we know when it is very dangerous, when it is not so dangerous and when the risk sinks to levels below being worth worrying about.

Some of us also know that, like aspirin, arsenic and niacin, radiation is a natural component of our environment that is actually healthy in tiny doses because it stimulated adaptive responses.

Rod Adams
Publisher, Atomic Insights

By Rod Adams on Sat, July 30, 2011 at 3:03 am

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