Opinion Blog: Nuclear Energy: Worth the Risk?

February 24, 2010  

Posted by Laura Ratliff

Does the word “Chernobyl” mean anything to anyone anymore? Apparently not, considering that, last Tuesday, President Obama announced that the Energy Department will be financing two $8.3 billion nuclear reactors in Burke County, Ga.

These reactors will be the first nuclear project in the U.S. since the 1970s—and with good reason.

In the 1986 Chernobyl disaster, only 50 people died, but another 800,000 were exposed to harmful radiation, meaning that thousands may later be diagnosed, and die from, cancer.

On U.S. soil, the 1976 Three Mile Island incident is likely the most notable disaster related to nuclear power. Even though no one died—an argument frequently posited by those in support of nuclear energy—nearly half of the reactor core melted and the remaining overheated hydrogen gas left the town of Harrisburg, Pa. fearful of another explosion.

According to the Nuclear Regulatory Council, leaks have occurred in at least 27 different reactors at 65 different sites throughout the country. Is that a risk we should be willing to take?

If nuclear disasters aren’t enough to deter someone away from nuclear power, the plethora of problems associated with the disposal of nuclear waste should be.

When dealing with uranium, plutonium, and other radioactive elements—some of which have half lives of over 100,000 years—special care must be taken during disposal. Where, exactly, are we going to dispose of these tons of toxic chemicals?

Yucca Mountain, about 90 miles northwest of Las Vegas, was one such place, until Obama pulled the plug on the project earlier this year. The project was set to be the largest repository of U.S. nuclear waste.

In his proposal, Obama fumbled regarding questions of waste disposal. It all seems very contradictory, considering that the Yucca Mountain project was defunded.

By contrast to nuclear energy, U.S. wind energy produced a record of 10 gigawatts of generating capacity in 2009. Wind energy also produces no waste and poses virtually no risk to those who are employed in the industry or to those who live near one of the many behemoth wind farms that are cropping up throughout the country.

It’s really a simple equation: two nuclear reactors, hundreds of tons of toxic waste, and no place to put it? Pass.

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Comments

2 Responses to “Opinion Blog: Nuclear Energy: Worth the Risk?”

  1. Frank K on February 25th, 2010 12:24 pm

    Ms. Ratliff has some very valid points. Nuclear power does have its flaws.
    But it has an unfair stigma for being the “boogie man.” While reading her opinion, I couldn’t help but chuckle.
    Yup, Three Mile Island and Chernobyl are a black eye to the nuclear industry. But, she failed to point out that there has not been a single U.S. fatality attributed to nuclear power since 1957. The safety record in the nuclear industry is more than impressive. It is exemplary.
    Chernobyl cannot be compared to any U.S. facility. That facility’s reactor did not even have a containment building! The Soviet government wanted to build these reactors fast with little thought into the safety of the general public. One cannot blame the industry as a whole for a terrible and negligent design.
    But, here are some interesting numbers I pulled up from differnt websites.
    Your typical nuclear plant produces 800-1200 MWh totaling around 780.1 terawatt-hours per year. Nukes are considered baseline loads and are reliable. Your typical wind turbine produces on average 1-1.5 MWh totaling 10 gigwatt-hours per year. And this is only when the wind blows. Someone help me with the math.
    Your average nuclear power plant requires around 200 acres of space for the plant, parking, logistics. etc. It may or may not have a cooling tower. Each wind turbine needs a minimum of four acres of space to operate and stand around 20 stories tall. Key word used by Ms. Ratliff, “behemoth”. Again, someone help me with the math.
    And to correct Ms. Ratliff, it is the “Nuclear Regulatory COMMISSION” not the “Nuclear Regulatory Council”. Tsk, tsk. I would really like to see where Ms. Ratliff gets her information from.
    Lastly, former president Ronald Reagan is quoted as saying “All the waste in a year from a nuclear power plant can be stored under a desk.”

  2. Jeff S on February 27th, 2010 5:55 pm

    I would like to add a couple of thoughts:

    * “According to the Nuclear Regulatory Council, leaks have occurred in at least 27 different reactors at 65 different sites throughout the country.”

    Our understanding of engineering, designs, and technology, continually evolves. Compare the technologogy of 1950s, ’60s and ’70s automobiles, televisions, computers (or just about any other sort of technology you care to think of) to the same technologies of today. They are *dramatically different*, and improved in just about every possible way. Do we not consider that the same would be true of modern nuclear power plant designs, compared to the designs of earlier decades?

    I’m sure someone will point to the recent, highly publicized Toyota safety recalls, as an example that even with the progress that’s been made, there are still risks. To that, I say, I would still classify a 2009 Toyota as very safe, even if it isn’t perfect. In engineering, you can neither reach a point of perfection, nor do you *need to* – you need to make designs ‘safe enough’.

    With regards to Nuclear plants, this means essentially eliminating the risk of meltdown or explosion, and making sure that any leaks can be contained, and detected, so that *unsafe levels* do not enter the environment.

    * ” Is that a risk we should be willing to take?”

    You have provided no analysis of what the actual public health/safety, and environmental impact of those leaks are. You scare people with the ‘risk’ of leaks, without actually answering the question of “are minor leaks, in fact, dangerous”?

    While we should be ever vigilant against leaks (because a large leak truly could be a problem), very small leaks are not a true health or environmental problem.

    One thing to be mindful of is that low levels of radiation are part of natural existence – radiation from the Sun, from other stars in space, and from natural radioactive decay of elements in the soil, water, and air. Life is able to cope (mostly – although cancers still do happen, and would even if no nuclear plants had ever been built) with very low levels of radiation.

    Another little known fact is that coal plants, over the course of their lifetime, produce a lot of radioactive waste. For more info, see:

    http://www.scientificamerican.com/article.cfm?id=coal-ash-is-more-radioactive-than-nuclear-waste

    A final note on risks: we live with risk every day. Every time you get in a vehicle to go somewhere, you take a risk that you could be in a car accident that would result in sever injury or death. Yet, almost everyone has decided we can live with that risk.

    While I agree that we can’t allow any nuclear plants to ever be built again with designs which would allow for a contamination on the scale of Chernobyl, engineers have figured out effective safety strategies for preventing such a disaster in any current designs.

    * Finally, I would like to point out that ‘nuclear waste’ is potentially ‘nuclear fuel’. The ultimate disposition for ‘nuclear waste’ should not be to bury it in the ground for 100,000+ years. Nuclear reactor designs exist which can reprocess the waste from ‘conventional’ nuclear reactors, and re-use it many times, potentially extracting 100 times the power from the fuel than we currently use in our current ‘once-through’ reactors, all while burning away those long-lived elements, so that the final ‘waste product’ only needs to be contained for about 1000 years (a technological feat which we probably can achieve safely).

    For more information about one such design (the Integral Fast Reactor), see:

    http://skirsch.com/politics/globalwarming/ifr.htm