Anti-nuclear activists are reviving their fight against nuclear
energy. On their Web site, NukeFree.org, the 2007 version of the
old No Nukes movement warns of the catastrophic potential of
nuclear reactors while advocating what they call safer, cleaner,
renewable fuels, such as wind, solar, geothermal, and biofuels.
However, they ignore the reality that nuclear technology is
a proven, safe, affordable, and environmentally friendly
energy source that can generate massive quantities of electricity
with almost no atmospheric emissions and can offset America's
growing dependence on foreign energy sources. The arguments
that they used three decades ago in their attempt to kill the
nuclear industry were wrong then, and they are even more wrong
today. A look at the facts shows that their information is either
incorrect or irrelevant.
power makes global warming worse.
FACT: Nuclear power plants produce
almost no atmospheric emissions.
Given that nuclear fission does not produce atmospheric
emissions, NukeFree's carbon dioxide (CO2) witch-hunt
focuses on other, emissions-producing activities surrounding
nuclear power, such as uranium mining and plant construction.
Finding fault with nuclear energy on the basis of these indirect
emissions simply holds no merit. Whether the activists like it or
not, the world runs on fossil fuel. Until the nation changes its
energy profile--which can be done with nuclear energy--almost any
activity, even building windmills, will result in CO2
The United States has not built a new commercial nuclear
reactor in over 30 years, but the 104 plants operating today
prevented the release of 681.9 million metric tons of
CO2 in 2005, which is comparable to taking 96 percent of
cars off the roads. If CO2 is the problem,
emissions-free nuclear power must be part of the solution.
What makes nuclear energy so exciting from an environmental
standpoint is not the pollution that it has prevented in the past,
but the potential for enormous savings in the future. Ground
transportation is a favorite target of the environmental
community, and the members of this community are correct
insofar as America's transportation choices are a primary source of
the nation's dependence on and demand for fossil fuels. Plug-in
electric hybrid cars, which require significant development to
achieve subsidy-free market viability, are looked upon as a
potential solution to the problem. Yet if the electricity comes
from a fossil-fuel power plant, the pollution is simply transferred
from a mobile energy source to a fixed one, while the problem is
solved if the electricity comes from an emissions-free nuclear
MYTH: There is no solution to the problem of
FACT: The nuclear industry solved the
nuclear waste problem decades ago.
Spent nuclear fuel can be removed from the reactor,
reprocessed to separate unused fuel, and then used again. The
remaining waste could then be placed in either interim or long-term
storage, such as in the Yucca Mountain repository. France and other
countries carry out some version of this process safely every
day. Furthermore, technology advances could yield greater
efficiencies and improve the process. The argument that there is no
solution to the waste problem is simply wrong.
"Closing the fuel cycle" by reprocessing or recycling spent fuel
would enable the U.S. to move away, finally, from relying so
heavily on the proposed Yucca Mountain repository for the
success of its nuclear program. This would allow for a more
reasonable mixed approach to nuclear waste, which would likely
include some combination of Yucca Mountain, interim storage,
recycling, and new technologies. Regrettably, the federal
government banned the recycling of spent fuel from commercial U.S.
reactors in 1977, and the nation has practiced a virtual moratorium
on the process ever since.
MYTH: Nuclear power releases dangerous
amounts of radiation into the atmosphere.
FACT: Nuclear power plants do emit
some radiation, but the amounts are environmentally insignificant
and pose no threat.
This myth relies on taking facts completely out of context. By
exploiting public fears of anything radioactive and not educating
the public about the true nature of radiation and radiation
exposure, anti-nuclear activists can easily portray any
radioactive emissions as a reason to stop nuclear power. However,
when radiation is put into the proper context, the safety of
nuclear power plants is clear.
Nuclear power plants do emit some radiation, but the amounts are
environmentally insignificant and pose no threat. These emissions
fall well below the legal safety limit sanctioned by the Nuclear
Regulatory Commission (NRC).
Indeed, less than 1 percent of the public's exposure to
radiation comes from nuclear power plants. The average American is
exposed to 360 millirem of radiation a year. About 83 percent
(300 millirem) of this annual radiation dose comes from natural
sources, such as cosmic rays, uranium in the Earth's crust,
and radon gas in the atmosphere. Most of the rest comes from
medical procedures such as X-rays, and about 3 percent (11
millirem) comes from consumer products.
The Department of Energy reports that living near a nuclear
power plant exposes a person to 1 millirem of radiation a year. By
comparison, an airline passenger who flies from New York to Los
Angeles receives 2.5 millirem. As Chart 1 illustrates,
radiation exposure is an unavoidable reality of everyday life,
and radiation exposure from living near a nuclear power plant is
MYTH: Nuclear reactors are vulnerable to a
FACT: Nuclear reactors are designed to
withstand the impact of airborne objects like passenger airplanes,
and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission has increased security at
U.S. nuclear power plants and has instituted other safeguards.
A successful terrorist attack against a nuclear power plant
could have severe consequences, as would attacks on schools,
chemical plants, or ports. However, fear of a terrorist attack is
not a sufficient reason to deny society access to any of these
The United States has 104 commercial nuclear power plants, and
there are 446 worldwide. Not one has fallen victim to a successful
terrorist attack. Certainly, history should not beget
complacency, especially when the stakes are so high. However,
the NRC has heightened security and increased safeguards on site to
deal with the threat of terrorism.
A deliberate or accidental airplane crash into a reactor is
often cited as a threat, but nuclear reactors are structurally
designed to withstand high-impact airborne threats, such as the
impact of a large passenger airplane. Furthermore, the Federal
Aviation Administration has instructed pilots to avoid circling or
loitering over nuclear or electrical power plants, warning them
that such actions will make them subject to interrogation by law
The right response to terrorist threats to nuclear plants--like
threats to anything else--is not to shut them down, but to secure
them, defend them, and prepare to manage the consequences in the
unlikely event that an incident occurs. Allowing the fear of
terrorism to obstruct the significant economic and societal gains
from nuclear power is both irrational and unwise.
MYTH: Nuclear power results in nuclear
FACT: This claim is irrelevant inside
the United States. Furthermore, manufacturing a nuclear weapon is
wholly different from using nuclear power to produce
This myth relies on creating an illusion of cause and effect.
This is why so much anti-nuclear propaganda focuses on trying
to equate nuclear weapons with civilian nuclear power. Once such a
spurious relationship is established, anti-nuclear activists can
mix and match causes and effects without regard for the facts.
Furthermore, this "argument" is clearly irrelevant inside
the United States. As a matter of policy, the United States already
has too many nuclear weapons and is disassembling them at a
historic pace, so arguing that expanding commercial nuclear
activity in the United States would somehow lead to weapons
proliferation is disingenuous. The same would hold true for
any other state with nuclear weapons.
As for states without nuclear weapons, the problem is more
complex than simply arguing that access to peaceful nuclear power
will lead to nuclear weapons proliferation. Nuclear weapons require
highly enriched uranium or plutonium, and producing either
material requires a sophisticated infrastructure. While most
countries could certainly develop the capabilities needed to
produce these materials, the vast majority clearly have no
intention of doing so.
For start-up nuclear powers, the preferred method of acquiring
weapons-grade material domestically is to enrich uranium, not to
separate plutonium from spent nuclear fuel. Uranium enrichment
is completely separate from nuclear power production. Furthermore,
nothing stops countries from developing a nuclear weapons
capability, as demonstrated by North Korea and Iran. If
proliferation is the concern, then proper oversight is the
answer, not stifling a distantly related industry.
MYTH: Transporting radioactive materials
exposes people to unacceptable risk.
FACT: The NRC and other regulatory
agencies around the world take the strictest precautions when
dealing with spent nuclear fuel. Since 1971, more than 20,000
shipments of spent fuel and high-level waste have been transported
more than 18 million miles worldwide without incident.
A staggering amount of evidence directly refutes this myth.
Nuclear waste has been transported on roads and railways worldwide
for years without a significant incident. Indeed, more than 20
million packages with radioactive materials are transported
globally each year--3 million of them in the United States. Since
1971, more than 20,000 shipments of spent fuel and high-level waste
have been transported more than 18 million miles without
incident. Transportation of radioactive materials is
just not a problem.
The NRC and other regulatory agencies around the world take the
strictest precautions when dealing with spent nuclear fuel.
The NRC outlines six key components for safeguarding nuclear
materials in transit:
- Use of NRC-certified, structurally rugged overpacks and
canisters. Fuel within canisters is dense and in a solid form, not
readily dispersible as respirable particles.
- Advance planning and coordination with local law enforcement
along approved routes.
- Protection of information about schedules.
- Regular communication between transports and control
- Armed escorts within heavily populated areas.
- Vehicle immobility measures to prevent movement of a
hijacked shipment before response forces arrive.
MYTH: Nuclear energy is not economically
FACT: Nuclear energy already provides
about 20 percent of America's electricity.
Investors are not averse to nuclear power. Utility companies
with nuclear experience have sought to purchase existing plants,
are upgrading their existing power plants, and are extending
their operating licenses so that they can produce more energy for a
longer time. Indeed, nuclear energy is so economically viable
that it provides about 20 percent of America's electricity despite
the incredibly high regulatory burden.
However, investors are averse to the regulatory risk associated
with building new plants. The regulatory burden is extreme and
potentially unpredictable. In the past, opponents of nuclear
power have successfully used the regulations to raise
construction costs by filing legal challenges, not based on
any underlying safety issue, but simply because they oppose nuclear
The incentives in the Energy Policy Act of 2005 are needed not
because the market has rejected nuclear power, but because the
market has rejected the excessive regulatory risk and costs imposed
by the government. When making investment decisions, investors
must consider the massive costs and losses caused by past
government intervention. Until new plants have been
constructed and are in operation, thereby proving that regulatory
obstacles have been mitigated both financially and legally, the
burden of proof will remain on government regulators.
MYTH: Incidents at Davis-Besse, Vermont
Yankee, and Kashiwazaki-Kariwa demonstrate that continued use of
nuclear power will lead to another Chernobyl.
FACT: The real consequences of these
three incidents demonstrate that nuclear power is safe.
Perhaps the greatest myths surrounding nuclear power concern the
consequences of past accidents and their association with current
risks. All of these myths depend on a basic construct of flawed
logic and misrepresentations that is riddled with logical and
First, the consequences of Chernobyl are overblown
to invoke general fear of nuclear power.
Next, the Three Mile Island accident is falsely equated
with Chernobyl to create the illusion of danger at home.
Finally, any accident, no matter how minor, is portrayed
as being ever so close to another nuclear catastrophe to
demonstrate the dangers of new nuclear power.
This myth can be dispelled outright simply by revisiting the
real consequences of Chernobyl and Three Mile Island in terms of
actual fatalities. Although any loss of life is a tragedy, a more
realistic presentation of the facts would use these accidents to
demonstrate the inherent safety of nuclear power.
Chernobyl was the result of human error and poor design. Of the
fewer than 50 fatalities, most were rescue workers who unknowingly
entered contaminated areas without being informed of the
The World Heath Organization says that up to 4,000 fatalities
could ultimately result from Chernobyl-related cancers, but
this has not yet happened. The primary health effect was a
spike in thyroid cancer among children, with 4,000-5,000 children
diagnosed with the cancer between 1992 and 2002. Of these, 15
children died, but 99 percent of cases were resolved
favorably. No clear evidence indicates any increase in other
cancers among the most heavily affected populations. Of course,
this does not mean that cancers could not increase at some future
Interestingly, the World Health Organization has also identified
a condition called "paralyzing fatalism," which is caused by
"persistent myths and misperceptions about the threat of
radiation." In other words, the propagation of
ignorance by anti-nuclear activists has caused more harm to the
affected populations than has the radioactive fallout from the
The most serious accident in U.S. history involved the
partial meltdown of a reactor core at Three Mile Island, but no
deaths or injuries resulted. The local population of 2 million
people received an average estimated dose of about 1
millirem--insignificant compared to the 100-125 millirems that
each person receives annually from naturally occurring
background radiation in the area.
Other incidents have occurred since then, and all have been
resolved safely. For example, safety inspections revealed a hole
forming in a vessel-head at the Davis-Besse plant in Ohio. Although
only an inch of steel cladding prevented the hole from opening, the
NRC found that the plant could have operated another 13 months and
that the steel cladding could have withstood pressures 125
percent above normal operations.
A partial cooling tower collapse at the Vermont Yankee plant was
far less serious than the Davis- Besse incident but is nonetheless
presented by activists as evidence of the potential risks
posed by power reactors. Non-radioactive water was spilled in the
collapse, but no radiation was released.
As for vulnerability to earthquakes, the NRC requires that each
nuclear plant meet a set of criteria to protect against
earthquakes. Earthquakes at the Kashiwazaki-Kariwa
site demonstrate the effectiveness of modern earthquake
precautions. In 2004, the site survived without incident an
earthquake measuring 6.9 on the Richter scale. A slightly weaker
earthquake in July 2007 caused the plant to suspend operations, but
inspectors have since concluded that the plant's safety
features performed properly. While some radiation was released, it
was well below dangerous levels and did not come close to
approaching Chernobyl-like levels.
Anti-nuclear activists successfully stopped the nuclear industry
once before, but nuclear energy is too important to America to
allow that to happen again. Despite the activists' attempts to
mislead the public, nuclear energy is a proven, viable,
economical, and environmentally sound solution to U.S. energy
needs and legislative carbon constraints.
Jack Spencer is Research Fellow
in Nuclear Energy and Nicolas Loris is a Research Assistant in the
Thomas A. Roe Institute for Economic Policy Studies at The Heritage
Department of Energy, "About Radiation."