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  • Writer's pictureSoren Miles Fesel

Don't Be Worried About Nuclear Energy

Over the past few decades, nuclear energy has been demonized and portrayed as a dangerous technology. Some academics, members of the scientific community, and large portions of the general public view nuclear energy as outdated, and extremely risky. Anti-nuclear proponents often point to infamous power plant meltdowns to demonstrate the dangers of nuclear energy. 

Although it has its faults, nuclear energy has been treated unfairly by the media and various experts. 

Atomic energy continues to have one of the lowest death rates for any energy source, does not emit CO2 into the atmosphere, and can output an incredible amount of energy compared to other green sources. 

The disasters and deaths caused by nuclear energy in the past have been exaggerated, and have a low likelihood of happening again to the same magnitude due to safety advancements.

Three disasters - the Three Mile Island disaster, Chernobyl, and the Fukushima nuclear accident, are cited most often as proof of the unacceptable dangers of nuclear energy.

The Three Mile Island accident took place in 1979 and was a partial meltdown of a nuclear plant in Pennsylvania. The accident is considered the worst American nuclear disaster in history. 

Despite this dramatic categorization, there has not been a single confirmed death. Nor has there been a confirmed instance of severe disease (such as cancer resulting from radiation poisoning). 

Immediately following the meltdown, authorities conducted extensive readings of radiation levels in the air, ground, and water of the area surrounding Three Mile Island. 

The results were insubstantial, as the United States Nuclear Regulatory Commission reported that, “The approximately 2 million people around TMI-2 during the accident are estimated to have received an average radiation dose of only about 1 millirem above the usual background dose. To put this into context, exposure from a chest X-ray is about 6 millirem and the area’s natural radioactive background dose is about 100-125 millirem per year for the area.” 

The Chernobyl disaster occurred in northern Ukraine in 1986. The meltdown immediately killed two workers, along with twenty-eight emergency response personnel soon afterward. 

After the initial disaster, radioactive materials began to distribute themselves in the surrounding area, which included parts of Ukraine, Russia, and Belarus. 

But how many deaths did these radioactive materials really cause? An investigation by the United Nations Scientific Committee on the Effects of Atomic Radiation (UNSCEAR) identified the only clear cause of radiation-related deaths to be thyroid cancers in children. This finding is still awful, but not catastrophic or widespread as some sources allege. 

These thyroid cancers were caused by the consumption of Iodine-133, which is a radioactive isotope that Chornobyl released. Unsurprisingly, cases of thyroid cancer shot up in the affected area. 

However, it is difficult to establish a clear causation between the meltdown, and every excess thyroid cancer case. This is because screening rates for thyroid cancer massively went up after the incident, revealing more cases that would have been there anyway. 

In total, the UNSCEAR report finds that 6,500 cases of thyroid cancer in children, and 15 deaths could plausibly be attributed to Chernobyl, bringing the total death count up to 45. The actual number may somewhat be higher (in the hundreds) but is not docked onto this official death toll because they cannot be verified. 

While this casualty number is still unacceptable, it is far lower and more realistic than some older estimates claiming the death toll to be fifty or sixty-thousand. 

The UNSCEAR report also finds no remaining long-term health effects in the millions of people living near Chernobyl, nor have they ever identified any increase in severe disease in adults. 

Overall, the effects of the worst nuclear accident in human history pale in comparison to the harm caused by fossil fuels and other energy sources every year.

Finally, the Fukushima nuclear accident occurred in northeastern Japan in 2011 after a tsunami broke through the seawall and damaged the plant. Around one hundred sixty-four thousand nearby residents had to be evacuated. 

The physical and psychological disruption to people’s lives the evacuation caused eventually led to around 2,200 extra deaths. However, in terms of the casualties caused by nuclear radiation itself, only one confirmed death exists and health consequences for local populations are not substantive.

Today, the area surrounding the abandoned Fukushima nuclear plant has an ordinary amount of background radiation.

Even when pessimistic death counts are added up for these disasters, they pale in comparison to fatalities from virtually every other energy sector. In terms of overall death rate, nuclear energy is 820 times safer than coal, 613 times safer than oil, 93 times better than natural gas, 43 times safer than hydroelectricity, and about 30% safer than wind turbines, according to Our World in Data

The only major energy sector that has a lower death rate is solar, which kills one person for 50 terawatt hour production, compared with nuclear energy’s one person to 33 terawatt hour ratio. 

These figures are unsurprising in retrospect. Thousands, possibly even millions, of people die each year from fossil-fuel-related lung diseases, and countless worker accidents happen due to the carelessness of fossil-fuel industries. 

Additionally, dams generating hydroelectric power have been responsible for massive flooding, causing many fatalities. For example, the 1975 Banqiao Dam failure in China killed roughly 150,000 people and destroyed millions of homes. 

Some anti-nuclear proponents acknowledge these statistics, but point to the possibility of a future, theoretical nuclear accident that will be catastrophic. 

This concern is likely unwarranted since new nuclear technology is already making fission reactions safer. Modern reactors employ less volatile reaction materials with uranium, causing a meltdown to be far less likely. 

Russia and China are already moving forward with these modernizations, and there is a push in the US and Western European countries to modernize their nuclear facilities with these new reactants, instead of shutting them down. 

According to Scientific American, “Manufacturers such as Westinghouse Electric Company and Framatome are hastening development of so-called accident-tolerant fuels that are less likely to overheat—and if they do, will produce very little or no hydrogen.” 

Not only is the chance of another catastrophic meltdown very low and ever decreasing, but there are serious harms associated with decommissioning reactors. The demand previously filled by a nuclear reactor must be filled with another energy source. Unfortunately, that energy source is often fossil fuel. 

An example of this trade-off taking place is in Germany. Over the past couple of decades, the country has been gradually decommissioning its nuclear power plants and replacing the energy demand with oil imports from Russia. Following sanctions on Russian oil in 2022, Germany had to begin strip-mining coal, tearing apart fields and hills and causing great environmental harm.

Atomic power has more benefits than just its safety compared with other energy sources. On average, nuclear power has a 90 percent capacity. This means that the average nuclear power plant can run fully operationally 90 percent of the time. 

Comparatively, most fossil fuels are only able to crack 50 percent capacity, and renewable sources are even lower - typically below 40 percent. This increases efficiency and boosts the amount of energy that can be produced in a given time. 

Nuclear energy also does not release any CO2 or toxic fumes like fossil fuels do. 

In the end, if we wish to effectively and pragmatically combat climate change, a combination of both renewable and nuclear energy must be used. 

Renewable sources are great, but will need an additional boost to replace fossil fuels because of their inherent shortcomings. Wind, solar, and water energies cannot run all day and are sometimes unreliable due to environmental factors. 

A safe, modern, and heavily regulated nuclear energy industry can mitigate these issues and provide a glowing path toward the future.

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