Contrary to popular belief, nuclear energy is a smart, safe, and effective energy source and is not to be feared.
Nuclear energy is the safest, most efficient option to provide electricity within the US and abroad; however, the general public’s irrational fear of radiation is preventing its widespread use. A concerted education program should be introduced to inform the public of the facts about nuclear radiation, and only then can humanity gain the full benefit of this abundant and clean energy source.
There is considerable misinformation regarding the health impact of nuclear power, and the consequences of major accidents. Many people shutter at the mention of Three Mile Island, Chernobyl or Fukushima. At the root of this fear is incorrect reporting and the unbounded internet, which contains countless faux scientific articles that falsely claim that thousands to millions of people have been killed or gotten cancer via reactor radiation. The scientific fact is that radiation from Three Mile Island and Fukushima have caused zero deaths, and the overall number of nuclear power related deaths (either acutely or via radiation-induced cancer), is substantially lower than all other power sources. Even renewable energy sources have proved more deadly than nuclear energy, as more people have died (per unit energy created) by installing/maintaining wind and solar power than have died as a result of nuclear power (Worstall).
Nuclear radiation follows the same pattern as many other potential risks that humans face – it is safe in moderation and dangerous in excess. The problem is that the public has no knowledge of where the boundary between moderation and excess lies. The public is essentially unaware that millions of energetic particles (of the same type as those created by nuclear power) enter their body every day, but if you tell them that a nuclear accident might cause a mere thousand of these particles to enter their body they would probably freak out. The daily natural background dose to an average human is about 1 mRem/day (XKCD), which is a very moderate dose, whereas an acute dose of >500 Rem is usually fatal (Meister).
The highest levels of radiation ever absorbed by humans were from atomic bombs, where they were estimated in some cases to be around 1000 rem. At 1000 rems, thousands of cells are killed and the body tissues decompose, causing illness and damage to internal organs (Meister). At doses of 400 rem, the immune system is weakened, often causing other illnesses to take over the body (Meister). Nonetheless, “In everyday life, people are not exposed to radiation in doses high enough to cause [any] type of illness” (Meister).
At relatively high doses (e.g. >100 Rem) scientists have been able to determine a correlation between radiation and cancer, primarily by studying survivors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The Chernobyl accident is the only time that public was exposed enough radiation to expect significant cancer increases (IAEA). These affects, however small compared to other power sources, are indeed tragic; however, the Chernobyl reactors are not representative of any Western reactor ever operated nor any nuclear power plant currently in, or planned for operation; they were unthinkably designed without any hard radiation containment (IAEA).
So, indeed, radiation is harmful in excess, but all evidence supports that it is harmless in moderation. Regardless, there is yet to be any correlation found between cancer and modest dose rates of approximately 10 Rem/yr (XKCD).
Even in the case of the worst reactor accident, Chernobyl, the conclusion of experts at the World Health Organization was that “The mental health impact of Cherbobyl is the largest health problem caused by the accident to date” (WHO). Many survivors thought they were doomed by negative effects of the radiation, and were driven to deep-depression, severe-anxiety, alcoholism and drug use, and in many cases suicide. These mental health effects have caused far more deaths than the radiation. This public fear was largely caused by sensationalist media, as there was more media coverage of the “dangerous radiation” (WHO) than the actual facts.
In case you wanted to know how nuclear power actually works.
Nuclear energy is cheaper than the average energy source, thus it would make sense to utilize it more often. The U.S. could save tens of millions of dollars by increasing nuclear energy, plus, it uses less environmentally damaging resources than, say, crude oil (The Energy Collective). Moreover, there is a significant relationship between nuclear energy produced and its cost effectiveness.
The U.S. currently has over 100 nuclear reactors, which together produce approximately 821 billion kWh, accounting for over 19% of total electrical output in the country (World Nuclear Association). If the U.S. were to incorporate more nuclear energy into the power supply, the cost per Watt produced would drop. Most of the cost of building a nuclear power plant is not physical construction or fuel cost, it is the overly burdensome paperwork and bureaucracy created because of the public’s fear of radiation. A practical approach to licensing, perhaps similar to what other power sources must comply to, could make nuclear power plants much less expensive.
Education is needed for people to recognize that nuclear energy is relatively harmless and inexpensive, and that it can improve the lives of present and future generations across the world. Past nuclear reactor accidents have had significant, but relatively low consequences compared to other power sources, and power plants today are designed to substantially higher safety standards. Furthermore, nuclear energy is the only power source that can provide reliable, around-the-clock, large-scale power without releasing significant greenhouse gases. Humankind should throw away any nonsensical judgments and invest in nuclear energy as it will be needed to sustain the current and future populations of the Earth.
The Chernobyl Forum. (2003-2005) Chernobyl’s Legacy: Health, Environmental and Socio-Economic
Impacts. International Atomic Energy Agency. P. 10-18.
“Chernobyl: The True Scale of the Accident.” World Health Organization. 2013 Web. Dec 2 2013.
Meister, K. (Sept. 2005) The Health Effects of Low-Level Radiation. American Council on Science and
Ropiek, David. “Fear vs. Radiation – The Mismatch.” nytimes. 21 Oct. 2013. Web. 11 Nov. 2013.
“Nuclear Power in the USA.” World Nuclear Association. Nov 2013. Web. 11 Nov. 2013.
“Radiation Dose Chart” XKCD. http://xkcd.com/radiation/
“Renewables and Downward Cost Trends” The Energy Collective. 20 Sept. 2013. Web. 11 Nov. 2013.
Worstall, Tim. “Despite Fukushima Nuclear Power Really Is The Only Way To Beat Climate Change.”
Forbes. 4 Nov 2013. Web. 2 Dec 2013. http://www.who.int/mediacentre/news/releases/2005/pr38/en/
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