Nuclear Power: Our Misunderstood Source of Electricity


by Max W Carbon


[Note: This article was copied from "Reactions" a publications of the American Nuclear Society, volume 14 September 1998. I thought it complimented another article I read a few years ago which stated that the amount of radiation released into the environment by fossle fuel powerplants is actually more than that released by nuclear plants. This is because of the trace amounts of natuarlly occuring radioisotopes present in all substances and the volume of gases released. When you think of shere quantity of fossle fuels burned each day, this seems to make sense.]


The use of nuclear energy to generate electricity is widely misunderstood, and this presents a problem for our society. For example, that misunderstanding inhibits the growth of nuclear power, but there is little hope that the United States can meet the clean-air goals established at the recent Kyoto conference without increased reliance on it.


Much of the carbon dioxide released into the atmosphere today comes from coal-burning power plants, and even a natural gas plant emits over half as much as a coal plant does; the situation will worsen as our use of electricity increases. Nuclear power, of course, emits no CO2 nor sulfur and nitrogen gases to cause acid rain. It is also important for our health as discussed below, for jobs, and for many other reasons.


This lack of understanding comes in part because the public receives grossly-misleading information. For example, at the time of the Chernobyl nuclear power plant accident in Ukraine in 1986, one newspaper reported "over 20,000 dead:" although the number of known deaths had reached only 34 by 1995. An antinuclear activist has said that one pound of plutonium could kill eight billion people, although 10,000 pounds have been released into the atmosphere from weapons tests in the last 50 years enough by his estimate to kill everyone on earth several thousand times. Thus, it is important to bring facts about nuclear power to the public's attention, and this article is one effort to do so.


Facts about health effects:

Nuclear power results from fissioning uranium and plutonium, and radiation is released in the process. Many people believe radiations "new" and do not realize that each of us receives "background radiation" every second of our lives from the sun, the earth, inside our bodies, and elsewhere. Large quantities of radiation such as come from atomic bombs are lethal (although 80% of the deaths at Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Japan in 1945 resulted from fire and blast, not radiation).

However, the levels of radiation the public receives from nuclear plants are thousands of times below those associated with bombs. During normal operation, the amount of radiation leaving a plant site is so small it is almost unmeasurable. Releases during accidents are also minimized; it is doubtful that any member of the public will die from radiation released in the Three Mile Island accident in 1979 - the only major accident in the United States in nuclear power's 37-year history. Further, there is a serious argument in scientific circles about whether low levels of radiation are even harmful; scientists on one side believe they are modestly so, while those on the other side believe that low levels are not only not harmful but actually beneficial.


It is also worth noting that scientists have found no evidence of genetic effects in 30,000 children born to parents who were exposed to radiation in the atomic-bomb blasts.

Incidentally, plutonium is not "the most deadly material in the world' as some times stated. In fact, it is about as dangerous as the radium formerly used on our watch dials. We have considerable knowledge about radium; between 1915 and 1925, about 4,000 women were hired in factories to paint radium solutions on dials, and they did this with tiny paintbrushes. Unfortunately, they sharpened the tips of the tips of the brushes by touching the brushes to their tongues, and


relatively large quantities of radium entered their bodies. About 2% of the painters eventually died

from bone cancer. After 1925, it was forbidden to touch brushes to tongues, and no further radium caused cancer deaths resulted. We have less evidence about plutonium; however, many people in laboratories and hospitals (around 50 to 75) have gotten plutonium into their bodies, and apparently no deaths have resulted from its presence there. Professor Bernard Cohen of the University of Pittsburgh has offered to eat a gram of plutonium to demonstrate that eating it is no more dangerous than eating a gram of caffeine.


Facts about safety:

Although not widely realized, the safety record of nuclear power has been phenomenal. There has been only one nuclear plant accident in the world in which radiation affected public health - that at Chemobyl. Here, three children had died by 1995 from thyroid cancer. (28 plant personnel died from radiation and three from explosion and burns.) However, studies by the International 'Atomic Energy Agency in 1991 and by the Organization for Economic Co-Operation and

Development in 1995 concluded there had been no other health effects attributable to radiation among the public anywhere.


We do not know how many more radiation induced deaths will result from the accident. There will likely be more thyroid-cancer deaths, but beyond that, there is uncertainty. The 800,000 cleanup workers received average radiation exposures of 10 Rem (a unit of exposure), but scientists have no data or experimental evidence showing any health effects of 10-Rem doses. For that and other reasons, many scientists believe the total number of deaths will not exceed a few hundred. In contrast, more-pessimistic scientists theorize that the number could be as high as several hundred per year for a few decades. These numbers should be viewed in the context of producing electricity by other methods. For example, 15,000 people died from a dam failure in India in 1979. In another example, the Natural Resources Defense Council has estimated (based on studies at the Harvard School of Public Health and at the American Cancer Society) that approximately 64,000 people die prematurely every year in 239 American metropolitan areas from tiny particulates released to the atmosphere from the burning of fossil fuels. This number extrapolates to about 100,000 deaths per year for the entire country. Coal-fired power plants are leading offenders, and one-third of these deaths (33,000 per year) are estimated to result from discharges from electricity-generating plants. For the entire world, the number would be much higher. Since nuclear plants emit no particulates, they probably save thousands of lives yearly by replacing coal plants.

Incidentally, Chernobyl-type plants have not been and cannot be built in the U.S.


Facts about wastes:

Nuclear wastes from used (or spent) fuel are intensely radioactive and must be isolated from contact with people for a long time period. Antinuclear groups and some political leaders state repeatedly that the waste disposal problem is unsolved, and the public comes to believe this. However, most of our scientific and engineering societies believe the waste can readily be disposed of by deep underground burial - where it will be harmless. This problem should also be viewed in the context of producing electricity by other methods. The spent fuel from a nuclear plant able to supply electricity for a city of about 550,000 people will amount to about 40 tons per year of solid material with a melting point of about 5,000 degrees F. This volume is the size of a couple of automobiles and is small enough that it can readily be put back into the crust of the earth from which the uranium originally came.


In contrast, a coal plant of equivalent size will generate about 7,000,000 tons of carbon dioxide, 5,000 tons of nitrogen oxides, 1,400 tons of particulates, 1,000 tons of sulfur dioxide, and up to 1 ,000,000 tons of ashes. These quantities are so voluminous that we have no acceptable solution for handling them. We can only discharge the gases to the atmosphere which we breathe and where they contribute to global climate change and acid rain. The particulates, too, go

into the atmosphere as discussed earlier. We dispose of the ashes (sometimes containing hundreds of tons of toxic arsenic, cadmium, lead, and mercury) on the surface of the earth. Thus, a strong argument exists that electricity from nuclear plants should be preferred over that from fossil plants because of our ability to handle the wastes. In fact, it seems ironic

that some states ban the building of new nuclear plants "until the waste problem is solved", whereas no such limit is placed on fossil plants where no solution to handling the CO2 is even contemplated.


Facts about theft and diversion:

The public wonders if nuclear fuel could be stolen by terrorist groups and used to make explosives. The practical answer is "No". Fresh fuel normally consists of uranium composed of about 96% U-238 and 4% U-235; such material cannot be made to explode. Spent fuel contains both uranium and plutonium (which is made during power plant operation from the U-238), but it would be almost impossible for a group in the U.S. to steal spent fuel and then design and construct a successful bomb.

Such groups in other countries would have great difficulty, also. Of course, nations develop nuclear weapons, but no nation in the world developed its weapons from its commercial nuclear power program (except possibly India); all built weapons before they built power plants.


Facts about costs:

Many first-generation plants have not been economical for various reasons.

However, standardized plants have been designed

and are being approved by the U. S. Nuclear

Regulatory Commission. They will be built at preapproved sites. These second-generation plants are expected to be competitive with coal plants and to provide electricity at no more than 10% to 15% above the cost of electricity from natural gas plants.

The costs of large quantities of electricity from uranium, coal, and natural gas are well below those generated from any other source such as solar or wind energy. France exports electricity from nuclear plants for a profit.


In summary, the public's perceptions about nuclear power are frequently in error.

Electricity from nuclear energy offers many benefits to society and warrants serious consideration as the preferred method for generating electricity.

Questions? Comments??