Is nuclear power safe?

April 1, 2011

Dear Cecil:

In my office, I am exposed on a daily basis to the ramblings of one individual about how nuclear power is safer than fossil fuels, wind power, and just about anything else you can name. Amongst his claims: Age-adjusted cancer rates in countries with nuclear facilities are not any higher; in fact they are notably lower. Ukraine and Belarus, which received the majority of the Chernobyl contamination, have higher life expectancies than the other former Soviet republics. Wind emits three times the amount of greenhouse gases that nuclear power does. Decommissioning a wind-power site is as least as expensive as decommissioning a nuclear plant and disposing of the waste. I realize this is an atomic-sized request, but I would love to get to the bottom of this.

Cecil replies:

Someday the nuclear power industry is going to wise up and hire me as their spokesperson, because I've got the attitude of cheerful realism the job demands. Vague assurances, pleas to remain calm — that's not going to cut it after what Japan's been through. Next time meltdown is imminent, I'll walk to the podium and state confidently, "Folks, quit worrying. If history's any guide, not that many people are going to get killed."

It's true. Nuclear power basically has a bad PR problem stemming from the unfortunate multiple uses of fission technology. No nation has searing memories of the devastation caused by a coal bomb. Nukes, on the other hand … 'nuff said. But even in the worst-case scenario, you're never going to get war-scale casualties from a reactor accident.

Let's talk about that worst case — Chernobyl. People today remember the 1986 meltdown of Reactor 4 in what was then the Ukrainian SSR as an unmitigated calamity. Bah. Had the thing been spun properly, the nuclear power industry would have come out smelling like a rose.

Chernobyl's planners and operators did almost every possible thing wrong, combining poor design with outrageous human error. The plant had no containment building to prevent radiation release in the event of an accident. The reactor design was inherently unstable — in most reactors, when the cooling water overheats and turns to steam, power output drops; at Chernobyl, overheating water meant power rose. Not good, but not yet disastrous. Then, one fateful April day, technicians purposely disabled the backup cooling system, removed most of the control rods, and switched off the power to the main cooling pumps to see what would happen.

What happened was that (duh) the reactor overheated, power output shot up to a hundred times normal, and the lid blew off the core, which then exploded again and caught fire. The exposed core burned for ten days, spewing radioactive dust and smoke. Radioactive materials equal to 200 times Hiroshima and Nagasaki were released. Fallout spread around the northern hemisphere, settling most heavily on parts of Ukraine, Belarus, and Russia inhabited by five million people.

So, after this carnival of incompetence, what happened? Thirty-one people died soon after the accident, most of acute radiation exposure, with perhaps a few more in the years since. More than 100 others suffered radiation injuries. Some 6,000 cases of thyroid cancer have been diagnosed in Ukrainians, Belarusians, and Russians who were under 18 at the time, many likely stemming from radiation exposure via milk contaminated with radioactive iodine. However, only 15 deaths had been reported as of 2005 — thyroid cancer is readily treated.

There's evidence of increased leukemia and cataracts among recovery workers who received higher doses, but no health effects otherwise. (Experts project an eventual 4,000 additional cancer deaths among the 600,000 people most exposed — i.e., an increase of a few percent beyond the 100,000 cancer deaths you'd expect for this group.) An irregularly shaped "exclusion zone" of about 1,700 square miles around the plant remains off-limits to human habitation, 220,000 people had to be permanently relocated, and agriculture is restricted, but vegetation and wildlife for the most part have thrived.

That's about it. Talk about blown opportunities. An astute nuke spokesperson might have said: "Look, here was a five-star fiasco and the confirmed death toll is about the same as from 12 hours of U.S. traffic accidents. Is that an outstanding safety record or what?"

OK, your columnist is being sarcastic. Still, while I don't have space for the complete comparison of nukes vs. everything else you're looking for, consider a few more numbers. Each year, on average, 35 U.S. coal miners are killed and 4,000 are injured. In China, 2,600 coal miners were killed in 2009, following 3,200 dead in 2008. (Recent U.S. uranium mining deaths: zero.) Coal-burning power plants release close to three times as much radioactivity as nuclear plants. I focus on coal because it's the one other energy source we can count on to deliver a big piece of predicted rising demand, but even solar cell manufacture involves toxic waste production.

Point is, there's no risk-free way to do this. Is radiation sickness or cancer a horrible way to die? Yeah. So is black lung.

(Read my followup column.)

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References

Brugge, Doug et al. "Exposure Pathways and Health Effects Associated with Chemical and Radiological Toxicity of Natural Uranium: A Review" Reviews on Environmental Health 20.3 (2005): 177-193.

"Chernobyl Notebook" by Grigoriy Medvedev, published in Novy Mir in Russian, June 1989, JPRS-UEA-034-89, 23 October 1989. 

DeLemos, Jamie L. et al. "Development of risk maps to minimize uranium exposures in the Navajo Churchrock mining district" Environmental Health 8 (2009): 29-44.

Fetter, Steve "How long will the world's uranium supplies last?" Scientific American January 26, 2009. 

Fthenakis, Vasilis M. et al. "Emissions from Photovoltaic Life Cycles" Environ. Sci. Technology 42 (2008): 2168–2174.

Gies, Erica "Are solar panels the next e-waste?" The Guardian: Earth Journal Friday 3 September, 2010. 

Kreuzer, Michaela et al. "Cohort Profile: The German uranium miners cohort study (WISMUT cohort), 1946–2003" International Journal of Epidemiology (2009): 1–8. 

Vakil, Cathy and Harvey, Linda. Human Health Implications of Uranium Mining and Nuclear Power Generation May, 2009.

Vrijheid, W. et al. "Mortality from diseases other than cancer following low doses of ionizing radiation: results from the 15-Country Study of nuclear industry workers" International Journal of Epidemiology (2007): 1-10.

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