Anyone who has spent any time in the nuclear industry or supported nuclear energy has undoubtedly been met with common rebuttals which all spring from what is referred to as F.U.D. – Fear, Uncertainty, and Doubt.
The common rebuttals which arise generally are concerns around spent nuclear fuel, the major accidents (Three Mile Island, Chernobyl, and Fukushima), and radiation generally. Here I will look to address each in turn to discuss some facts on each, why fears are overblown, and how understanding each can lead to the rational conclusion that nuclear energy is safe and should be embraced for its many benefits which overwhelmingly outweigh these exaggerated concerns.
Spent Nuclear Fuel (SNF)
First, it is not “waste” as many will refer to it. It is only waste if you waste it because 90% of nuclear fuel’s energy capability remains after use. SNF can be recycled, and it can even be used as fuel for some of the advanced reactors being developed today. Fast-neutron reactors (molten salt and other liquid metal-cooled fast reactors, such as TerraPower’s Molten Chloride Fast Reactor) can recycle the majority of nuclear waste, leaving behind waste that only remains hazardous for about 1,000 years, which can be easily and safely stored.
SNF remains a physical solid after it is utilized in a nuclear reactor. It does not become a liquid or some radioactive sludge as some television shows or movies might have you believe. It remains made up of solid ceramic pellets contained in metal fuel rods. Since the beginning of its nuclear program in the late 1940’s, the United States has only produced approximately 83,000 tons of SNF – an amount that can be contained on a single football field at a depth of less than 10 yards – and the US nuclear fleet only produces about 2,000 tons of SNF per year. For comparison, it is estimated that between 110 - 140 million tons of coal ash are generated each year in the US. Nuclear energy also emits no carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. The nuclear lifecycle even emits the least amount of greenhouse gas emissions of any form of energy by a wide margin.
Once SNF is removed from a reactor it is stored in pools to allow it to be protected and cooled properly before it is transferred to dry casks. The pool storage is done under at least 20 feet of water to provide adequate shielding from the radiation for anyone near the pool. The dry casks SNF is moved to contains the SNF and fuel rods under multiple heavy lids, welded plates, multiple liners, and lots of heavy concrete. Once the casks are filled and closed, a person can approach the casks and even hug them with no concern of being exposed to harmful radiation. Some nations, such as the Netherlands, even place their SNF in buildings that can be visited and toured so people can learn and gain an understanding about SNF, and that openness and understanding allows the public to learn that they do not need to be afraid of SNF.
The United States has 76 storages sites where these casks are kept in 34 different states. Casks are also transported via road, rail, or waterway, and more than 2,500 SNF shipments have been transported around the country without any radiological incidents over the past 55 years. Globally, it is estimated that about 15 million packages of radioactive material are transported each year on public roads, railways, and ships. There has been no instance of radioactive release causing harm to people, property, or the environment in all those millions of transport miles.
In the world’s history of storing SNF, including the United States near 80 years of doing so, there has not been one single death associated with SNF, its storage or transportation, or radiation therefrom. This record is likely to continue as the highest safety standards are followed and met by the nuclear industry, and they are becoming even more safe. Finland is even opening the World’s first permanent deep repository for SNF. This facility, Onkalo, is 500 meters (1640.42 feet) deep. More final repositories like this can eliminate the F.U.D so many still have over SNF. Other countries are even looking into utilizing spent fuel rods and waste heat from reactors as a way to support district heating and heating whole cities. Some countries, such as the United Kingdom, the US, and France, have even found ways to extract much needed medical isotopes from spent nuclear fuel to utilize in promising cancer treatments and medical imaging as well. Again, its only waste if you waste it.
On March 28th, 1979, the accident at Three Mile Island nuclear power plant occurred in Pennsylvania and was the result of equipment failure and operator error which led to a partial meltdown of the power plant’s Unit 2 reactor. This partial meltdown, which was contained by the containment vessels of the facility, only led to the release of a small amount of radioactive material. The equipment failure was a stuck open relief valve which incorrectly indicated to plant operators that it was closed. This stuck open valve allowed a loss of coolant, and unfortunately operators were unaware of that loss and continued operations exacerbated the issue. This resulted in inadequate cooling water being circulated in the reactor core, causing overheating and a partial meltdown, and a small amount of radioactive material was released. Thankfully, the containment vessels and other safety measures required by the US nuclear industry confined the accident and limited the damage. Fortunately, there were no injuries, deaths, or direct health effects caused by the accident. As the Department of Energy has explained – “Experts determined that the approximately 2 million people in the nearby area during the accident were exposed to small amounts of radiation. The estimated average radiation dose was about 1 millirem above the area’s natural background of about 100-125 millirem per year. To put this into further context, exposure from a chest X-ray is about 6 millirem. The accident’s exposure had no detectable health effects on the plant workers or surrounding public.”
Additionally, there were no adverse effects to the surrounding environment, and following the accident. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission still implemented new stringent regulations to improve training, emergency response planning, and further upgrades to plant design and equipment. Ultimately, there were no measurable health effects from this accident. What many might not realize is that Three Mile Island’s Unit 1 reactor continued its safe, efficient, and reliable operation of providing 800 MWe and employing up to 675 people during this event and until the fall of 2019.
April 26, 1986, Chernobyl – The terrible events at Chernobyl, which claimed the lives of 31 people (the United Nations says it could be 50), were caused by grave design flaws, operator error, and many other factors. While the discussion of what really happened is extremely technical and political, I will try to discuss some key points as to why such an accident has not and could not occur in the US. First and foremost, the reactor which was utilized in reactor no. 4 at the Chernobyl power plant was an RBMK reactor (graphite-moderated channel tube reactor). The US has never used any such reactor, and no reactor in the US is moderated by graphite. The US commercial reactors are only light-water reactors moderated by water and any control rods used are made of boron, cadmium, or hafnium. The Soviet-era reactors also lacked proper containment structures around the reactors and did not utilize properly enriched fuel. The US requires and builds substantial containment vessels around all of its commercial reactors, and such a vessel protected and likely saved many lives at Three Mile Island. The safety test on the steam turbine being run overnight between April 25 and 26, 1986 at reactor no. 4 in Chernobyl, which included shutting down the coolant pumps, was being rushed to be completed, and that hastiness led to the rash and improper decision making which created the unimaginable and deadly circumstances in the reactor (including the complete removal of nearly every control rod and running the test with cold fuel in a reactor which required properly warmed fuel for a negative temperature coefficient to limit reactivity). To avoid such circumstances and improper decision making, the safety regulations and training in the US are of the highest standards in the nuclear industry.
What many might not know about the Chernobyl power plant is that it continued its operation of the other 3 reactors at the plant during this time and even into the future. In fact, every year following 1986, until 1990, the Chernobyl power plant provided more power to the grid than the previous year. The Chernobyl plant continued operation until its final reactor was shut down on December 15, 2000. The Chernobyl plant actually could have continued operations past 2000, but several European countries required that it be shut down as a condition of providing funding for Ukraine’s other nuclear plants.
On March 11, 2011, a magnitude 9.0 earthquake off the coast of Japan, one of the largest ever recorded, triggered a very large tsunami that destroyed 430 miles of coastline and killed nearly 19,000 people. The tsunami led to a total loss of power at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant, but the real issue was that the generators which were supposed to run when power was lost at the plant were under the unbelievable amount of water that had come on land. As such, the generators were flooded and incapable of running and keeping the power on, and with no power to pump coolant into the reactors, the reactors overheated and experienced meltdown which released radioactive materials into the environment. Fortunately, Fukushima residents suffered no harmful health effects after the Fukushima power plant accident. The Japanese government in 2018 did recognize the death of one Fukushima plant worker to be attributable to radiation exposure. This protection of workers, citizens, and the environment is again thanks to substantial containment vessels and the incredible work done by cleanup workers and other agencies in Japan.
Following Fukushima Daiichi, the international nuclear industry as a whole has undertaken great efforts to learn from this event and improve. Governments and private entities are working together to analyze data that came from the damaged reactors to see what we can learn and how to apply that knowledge to enhance nuclear safety. Some such efforts are assisting with the Severe Accident Interactive Learning program (an interactive computer-based training program for reactor operators, decision makers, and implementers of accident management guidance), updating operating guidance on Reactor Core Isolation Cooling (RCIC) to allow such systems to be operated more flexibly and operate during blackouts and other extreme events, and implementing this guidance in practice, as it was done in August 2020 when a Derecho damaged a local power grid in Iowa and the new procedures allowed operators to maintain natural circulation of water through the core as the reactor was shut down safely at the Duane Arnold Energy Center.
The concern around any nuclear accident revolves around radiation. I hate to scare you, but as you read this you are being exposed to radiation from your computer, phone, or tablet. Radiation happens to be all around us at all times, consumed and inhaled by us, and we are exposed to it for medical reasons. Radiation is measured in “rem” or a roentgen equivalent man, a unit of equivalent dose, effective dose, and committed dose, which are dose measures used to estimate potential health effects of low levels of ionizing radiation on the human body. On average, Americans receive a radiation dose of about 0.62 rem (620 millirem) each year. Half of this dose comes from natural background radiation. Most of this background exposure comes from radon in the air, with smaller amounts from cosmic rays and the Earth itself. The other half (0.31 rem or 310 mrem) comes from man-made sources of radiation, including medical, commercial, and industrial sources. In general, a yearly dose of 620 millirem from all radiation sources has not been shown to cause humans any harm.
If you live within 50 miles of a nuclear power plant, which I did for 22 years and which 1/3 of the US population does, you are exposed to 0.009 millirem/year. In comparison, if you live in a stone, brick or concrete building you are exposed to 7 millirem/year; if you watch television you are exposed to 1 millirem/year; if you travel on a plane you are exposed to 0.025 per security scan and 1 millirem per every 1,000 miles flown; if you get a dental X-ray you are exposed to 0.5 millirem per X-ray; if you use a natural gas stove then you are exposed to 10 millirem/year; if you eat food for 6 months you are exposed to 40 millirem (80/year); if you get an abdominal X-ray you are exposed to 700 millirem per X-ray; if you smoke one pack of cigarettes for a year you are exposed to 2,400 millirem; and even if you eat one banana you are exposed to 0.01 millirems per banana. So technically, eating one banana is worse for you radiologically than living next to a nuclear power plant for one year. Maybe nuclear energy isn’t so bad after all.
In response to the Fukushima Daiichi accident, Japan shut down its entire nuclear reactor fleet. However, Japan has recently shown the true safety and need for nuclear energy as they have moved for an emergency restart of their entire nuclear fleet due to its inability to import oil and gas from Russia and the need to power a strained and more electrified grid, and to ensure they are able to reach their decarbonization goals. Many countries are similarly moving toward embracing and advancing nuclear power as the geopolitical landscape shifts, energy prices rise, and countries are trying to meet their lofty decarbonization goals.
China has made plans to build 150 nuclear reactors in the next 15 years, and China is well on its way to doing just that; the United Kingdom is looking to build 8 nuclear reactors in the next 8 years; countries like Belgium and the Netherlands have postponed or outright cancelled their nuclear phaseout plans, and the Netherlands is even looking to build 2 new nuclear reactors; South Korea under its new President Yoon Suk-yeol is no longer phasing out nuclear power but instead building more nuclear reactors and pushing for more nuclear exports as well; Countries like Poland are looking to begin nuclear programs with Small Modular Reactors (SMRs) and become more energy-independent; and other countries like Romania are looking to expand their programs with SMRs as well. African nations such as Egypt are constructing nuclear reactors, and Uganda and Ghana are looking to build their first nuclear power plants as well.
This exuberance and belief in nuclear energy as a force for change, a way of creating clean energy, providing energy security, and bringing reliable energy to remote and difficult-to-reach areas is borne from the better understanding we have of the F.U.D many have been selling for years. The nuclear industry has long been plagued by F.U.D, but fortunately many people have sought to understand, spread the facts, and openly discuss the true safety and cleanliness of nuclear energy. As discussed previously, the new generation of reactors and fuels remove these concerns and provide that peace of mind many have desired from nuclear energy for so long.
I am extremely excited for the future this new nuclear can provide and for nuclear to be embraced more openly across the world. Nuclear energy can bring the most energy to the most people cleanly and safely one nuclear fuel pellet at a time. For additional information on our team and services, please check out our webpage and follow me on Twitter - @AtomicAttorney.