I think it’s fairly safe to say that we all know about fossil fuels being bad for our environment and health. The most common fossil fuels are natural gas, coal, and oil, which account for about 70% of energy being used on earth.

We also know that mankind is in desperate need of alternative energy sources to both save our earth’s atmosphere (global warming) and simply because fossil fuels are non-sustainable and will deplete within the next 100 years. Oil being the first to go, expected to last only about 40 more years, natural gas to deplete in the 2070s and coal to last us into the first few decades of the 22nd century.

So, what are our options? What have scientists come up with in the past few decades? Will we be in time to find a solid, sustainable energy source before earth explodes and we all perish? Or maybe we have already found the solution, only it is being suppressed by a general misconception of it being incredibly unsafe, environmentally destructive and deadly?

This list is an attempt to bring some awareness about the real pros and cons of nuclear energy, compared fossil fuels and to the “clean” energy we are all being taught about: electricity generated from solar, wind and hydro (water) energy. Of course this is part of my personal perception, but also based on information gathered from around the internet. The sources aren’t dodgy conspiracy theorists, but fairly trustworthy entities like the World Health Organization and the UN (or rather UNSCEAR, more information later on).

Below I will cover a couple of major misconceptions that seem to have slipped into our mostly negative perception about nuclear power plants, the energy that it generates and the nuclear pollution that it supposedly brings. I think it’s important for people to know the real facts about this energy source, which is undoubtedly safer than any other energy source we know of today.

I won’t go too much into the other common natural energy sources and this is why:

  • Solar panels cannot continuously generate energy, simply because of night and day cycles and weather conditions. On top of that, most solar cells in use today have left so much pollution (heavy metals) in parts of China (where it’s built) that it would be easy to see its counter-productiveness. Of course the technology keeps advancing so maybe in the future it will be more reliable and less polluting. But still: at night there’s no sun.
  • Wind mills (or wind turbines) are even less reliable because it is not always windy enough to keep them running so there’s not a consistent energy stream. Not to mention the eye-sore of a wind farm with a few dozen mills, that only generate power for a few thousand homes. It’s even said that our health could be suffering from these bigger wind farms by what is called the “wind-turbine syndrome“.
  • Hydro (water) energy is generated by making water fall from a height, which spins huge turbine blades which in turn generate electricity. The space that is needed for water reservoirs and their dams is enormous and makes for ecosystem damage and loss of land, which doesn’t make it very efficient to power an entire nation (let alone a lot of countries are too flat to even consider dropping water from higher than a few meters). The biggest problem with water reservoirs is the still water: because vegetation in and directly around the water reservoir rots it emits fairly large amounts of carbon dioxide and methane (mostly with hydro plants in tropical regions). So even though these hydro plants don’t burn any fuel, there is still pollution to take into consideration.

Some quick facts about nuclear power before we move on:

  1. Nuclear power is simply the generation of useful heat and electricity
  2. The only direct emission from nuclear power plants is water vapor
  3. Technically this water vapor is considered a “greenhouse gas”, but the emission of this high heat gas is comparable to the emission rates of wind turbines
  4. Nuclear power is not entirely eco-friendly, because a lot of energy (fossil fuel) is used in the mining and enrichment of uranium, the source for nuclear power. However, this indirect pollution is far less than for example the oil industry and with a much higher yield than any other energy source.

So let’s continue with the 6 general misconceptions about nuclear power:

1 Nuclear power plants are dangerous

In a way this is true. Holding a bare cilinder of plutonium is indeed much more deadly than washing your hands in a barrel of oil. And of course we know about terrible nuclear accidents like Chernobyl and, more recently, Fukushima, but how dangerous are nuclear plants?

Actually, they aren’t, or at least shouldn’t be. The examples we all know of and are imprinted in our brain are either totally unsafe or simply built on out-dated safety protocols. The Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant in eastern Ukraine (then Soviet Union, or more specifically the the Ukrainian SSR) was not only incredibly unsafe, it was initially built for the wrong purposes: production of weapon-grade plutonium for nuclear weapons. The fact that there was a major accident (caused by a design-flaw and negligent operation by under-trained personnel) is one thing, but there wasn’t even a containment structure to keep the radiation from spreading beyond the complex. No wonder the entire surrounding area got infected with radiation.

A radiation warning sign in Pripyat, the town next to the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant

A radiation warning sign in Pripyat, the town next to the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant

Fukushima suffered from the results of an earthquake and tsunami, but the actual cause of the reactor meltdown was simply because of a power failure as it was an older “Generation II” reactor, which cannot handle power-failure (the same Generator II type reactors as on Three Mile Island). Current Generation III reactor types can cool themselves down without any additional safety features or human interference. Generation IV reactors, which are even safer, more efficient and clean are currently being developed for commercial use within the next 20 years or so.

So let’s compare these accidents to something like the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in 2010: 4.9 million barrels of “BP” oil spilled into the Gulf of Mexico, which doesn’t need much explanation of what this did for the environment. Present-day safety protocols in nuclear power plants are incredibly efficient because of people’s awe for the dangers of radiation. Maybe if you compare this to how oil is being dug up and in what kind of conditions the workers do this you can see the difference.

In effect, this makes nuclear power plants actually less dangerous than most other sources of energy.

2 Nuclear power plants kill people

Hiroshima anyone? Yeah, nuclear power can kill on a massive scale. I think weaponized nuclear power is one of the main reasons that most of us (including Greenpeace) are so hell-bent on getting rid of anything that has something to do with nuclear energy. Seeing the destruction in Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945, the fear of life-ending warfare in the Cold War and well over 2,000 worldwide tests of atomic bombs certainly haven’t helped shedding a positive light on the word “nuclear”.

Just think of it this way: people kill people and accidents happen. I don’t mean that in a bad way, of course any accidental tragedy is terrible, but let’s dissect these accidents a bit, shall we?

  • People killed due to radiation caused by Chernobyl disaster: less than 50 (wait, what?)
  • People killed due to radiation caused by Fukushima disaster: 0

You read it right. Chernobyl didn’t cause hundreds of thousands deaths. There isn’t even an increased number of cancer-related illnesses or deaths according to both the World Health Organization and the United Nations Scientific Committee on the Effects of Atomic Radiation (or UNSCEAR). Sure, the entire area surrounding the plant is irradiated and it’s not very wise to enter the complex, but you know, accidents happen and I like to think that “we” (the scientists who develop these plants) learn from the mistakes made.

As of mid-2005, however, fewer than 50 deaths had been directly attributed to radiation from the disaster, almost all being highly exposed rescue workers, many who died within months of the accident but others who died as late as 2004. –WHO, 2005

And:

There is no evidence of a major public health impact attributable to radiation exposure two decades after the (Chernobyl) accident. There is no scientific evidence of increases in overall cancer incidence or mortality rates or in rates of non-malignant disorders that could be related to radiation exposure. –UNSCEAR

Let’s make the fossil fuel comparison again by stating that yearly around 7,000,000 people die from air pollution caused by fossil fuels. It kind of strikes me as odd that this is swallowed better than a scary Fukushima situation, which panics the whole world, afraid of radiation drifting from Japan to the US and so on.

 

3 Nuclear power plants generate a lot of nuclear waste

Well, no. Without going too far into detail (because it’s not all too important and mostly because I simply don’t know 🙂 ) there are a couple of types of nuclear reactors, light-water reactors and breeder reactors being the most important.

To give you an idea about nuclear waste, here’s a comparison made by What Is Nuclear? between nuclear waste and emissions of coal and natural gas per person, per year.

If all the electricity use of the USA was distributed evenly among its population, and all of it came from nuclear power, then the amount of nuclear waste each person would generate per year would be 39.5 grams. That’s the weight of 7 U. S. quarters of waste, per year! […] If we got all our electricity from coal and natural gas, expect to have over 10,000 kilograms of CO2/yr attributed to each person. –What Is Nuclear?

Now, it’s important to know that the “breeder reactor” type is able to burn (recycle) most of the plutonium waste it produced to regenerate additional energy, thus minimizing the amount of waste that will need to be stored in shielded conditions. Even though the more common type, the “light-water reactor” generates quite a bit more waste, it still is not the immense amount you would expect. Keeping it in shielded conditions is necessary, because it actually is incredibly deadly to hold a stick of radioactive waste, but luckily it’s all relatively easy to process. In fact, most modern nuclear power plants simply store the waste on-site in highly shielded conditions.

By the way, just a quick note:

Over the past four decades, the entire (nuclear) industry has produced 71,780 metric tons of used nuclear fuel. If used fuel assemblies were stacked end-to-end and side-by-side, this would cover a football field about seven yards deep. –NEI.com

And for some more perspective:

The total volume of nuclear waste material, including all military related nuclear waste, accumulated over 60 years is less than .01% (one hundredth of one percent) of the total volume of coal burned every year in the USA—every year! –AmericanEnergyIndependence.com

And even better: this single football field is not even polluting our environment because it is so highly contained and safely stored. Perhaps in later generation reactors (Generation V+) this very waste can even be recycled again.

4 All nuclear waste is highly dangerous for many thousands of years

Even though some nuclear waste remains highly radiated for 1,000 to 10,000 years, it still means it will decay over time. The same cannot be said for other types of industrial waste like heavy metals, which remain hazardous forever. For example: heavy metal waste is a major byproduct in the production of both solar cells and magnets for wind turbines. The Chinese seem to carry the weight.

Apart from the fact that there is decay, it is also worth mentioning that this type of highly radiated nuclear waste only makes up for about 3% of the total nuclear waste (which wasn’t much to begin with, as we see in #4 of this list). The remaining 90%+ is “only” hazardous for a few dozen years and it is even possible that at some point in the near future this will all be recyclable.

Even with these materials being very dangerous, it is safe to say that the nuclear industry has this waste situation under control as most of their own waste is stored and isolated on-site without any hazard to themselves or future generations.

So, which of these two seems like a more responsible approach:

  • To produce environmentally clean and sustainable energy at the cost of a very small amount of highly toxic waste that remains toxic for many thousands of years, but can be safely contained.
  • To produce environmentally polluting fossil fuels at the cost of 7,000,000 yearly deaths while depleting natural resources at a massive rate.

5 Nuclear power is primarily used to make weapons

This seemed like the truth in the Cold War (and obviously the end of World War II). The technology around nuclear power has really been abused to do a lot of harm or at least pose the threat with a huge arsenal.

But that part history is almost behind us and did you know that the U.S. is buying “old” Russian nuclear warheads to re-use them in the production of civic fuel? That’s right, not even military grade stuff, energy for you and me.

This does not mean that there aren’t nations around the world that are either still holding on to old warheads for evil or defensive intent, or are currently in the process of building new weapons, but in general good things are happening.

Weapons-grade uranium is highly enriched […] and can be used, like reactor-grade plutonium, in fuel for electricity production. –World Nuclear Association

So it’s no longer the question of nuclear power being used in weapons: it’s the other way around. Good stuff, I’d say.

6 Nuclear power plants are not yet sophisticated enough to rely on

Wrong! 75% of France is powered by electricity generated in their 59 nuclear power plants. That means electricity for street lights, home appliances and not to forget their awesomely fast trains. France has been actively promoting the production of nuclear power plants since the 1970s and can even count nuclear power as one of their main export products. Actually, they’re the single largest exporter of electricity in the world because of this strategy. Energy-independent and making about 3 billion Euro per year with it. Smart.

Cattenom Nuclear Power Plant in France: About 75% of French electricity is generated by nuclear power plants

Cattenom Nuclear Power Plant in France: About 75% of French electricity is generated by nuclear power plants

Conclusion

In my opinion it’s fair to say that nuclear power is far less eerie than it is led to believe. A nuclear power plant may not be a pretty sight, but neither is a wind farm and when it comes to simple numbers (in terms of pollution, deaths and efficiency) then I’d rather have a nuclear plant in my backyard to power my refrigerator.

What do you think? Is nuclear power the future or should we keep looking for other alternatives to fossil fuel? Share your thoughts in the comments below!

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