This posting was inspired by the review last week of “The Rise of Nuclear Fear” and a commentary about radiation exposure from the Three Mile Island Accident. Spencer R. Weart, the author of the “Nuclear Fear” book, has a conclusion I consider worth repeating. “Much more electricity will be needed before the entire world reaches minimal prosperity. None of the ways to generate electricity is fully satisfactory. In terms of both my family’s health and the health of the environment, I would personally live near an existing nuclear reactor than near a plant fired by fossil fuels such as coal.”
Opponents of nuclear energy will quickly point to Three Mile Island, Chernobyl, and Fukushima to argue against that opinion. There has always been fear of an uncontrolled nuclear criticality such as happened in all three of the accidents and release of radioactive materials such as happened at Chernobyl and Fukushima. The World Nuclear Association (WNA) points out that those accidents are the only ones that “…have occurred in over 14,500 cumulative reactor-years of commercial nuclear power generation.” The risks “…are minimal compared to other commonly accepted risks.” Safety systems are robust and the lessons learned from the three accidents will undoubtedly make the systems even more robust.
Long term studies of the population around Three Mile Island found no indication of increased risks from radiation.Chernobyl was a different story. It was originally reported that thirty one people died there as a direct result of the accident, but that was increased to thirty six.Two people died immediately at Fukushima as the result of drowning from the Tsunami. The estimate for deaths in the general population from the radiation-induced cancer that would take decades to develop has recently been increased from 125 to 1,000. There were also predictions that the survivors of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings would suffer significantly increased death rates from radiation and that the children would be at the most risk. There were long-term studies of 77,000 recently born children in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. There were 10,000 children in the womb at the time of the bombings that were added to the studies. “Defying all expectations at the time…there was no evidence of increased stillbirths, malformations, or deaths.” There were 100,000 “atomic survivors” tracked by the studies, and there have been 853 cancerous tumors that were attributed to exposure to radiation from the bombs. Many outlived the scientists doing the studies.
The risks of death and disease must always be considered for any activity, and it is a fact that there is widespread fear of nuclear energy. It also generates waste that has become a political issue. However, as Doctor Petr Beckman wrote in “The Health Hazards of not Going Nuclear,” nuclear power “…is far safer than any other form of large-scale energy conversion yet invented.” He also observes that asking for any method of generating electricity on a large scale to be completely safe is “…like asking for nonflammable fuel.”