Nuclear Power Is Safe

With the recent events in Japan regarding the explosions at nuclear reactors it has become truly shocking just how much mis-information there is out there regarding nuclear power.

The fact is that nuclear power is the safest method of generating power – when looking at it’s historical track record of the number of people killed. And if there’s anything making it less safe it’s the lack of new reactors being built to replace four decade old designs. More people have died from each of Coal (black lung, mining accidents, air pollution related, etc), natural gas (extraction accidents, fuel spills, explosions, air pollution related, etc) or even Hydro power (construction accidents, dam breaks) than have died from nuclear reactor accidents

Can you imagine how much worse things would be if instead of a nuclear reactor there had been a hydro dam capable of producing the same amount of electricity. You would have a relatively fragile concrete dam being torqued between to oscillating mountains and being pushed by an inconceivable amount of water weight on one side. If something cracked it would be far more disastrous – unleashing a massive amount of water pushing in its way everything out to sea.

The number of intelligent people out there that are seemingly ignorant of the laws of physics when it comes to radiation, fission reactions, and nuclear plant design shocks me. Especially given that nuclear power makes up about 14% of the worlds electricity production. People need to be educated on what it is and how it works. I have yet to read a news article about the situation in Japan without finding factually incorrect statements in just about every paragraph.

The nuclear plants in Japan were designed to withstand a 8.0 earthquake. Instead they experienced something nearly 10x more violent. These plants were built in the 70s – before computer aided design, before the internet, before we had big particle accelerators and everything we’ve learned from them. They are antiquated Boiling Water Reactor (BWR) designs that use rods to regulate the fission reaction and require active cooling systems. It’s a design that’s about four generations away from current state of the art.

I find the lack of background information provided in the news to be totally inadequate and a testament to the low quality of information that the news provides. In not one CNN article have they talked about the design of the plants, the types of fuels, or the kinds of radiation that are detected and from what sources at what half-lifes – the basic facts. For instance I could safely hold a ball of radioactive Plutonium-238 in my hand without risking any ill effects since it emits alpha radiation. They spend no time looking at the burning and exploding oil refineries – which are actually killing people and probably releasing massive amounts of cancer causing benzenes into the area.

Really the scary thing about nuclear power is that most people don’t understand it. But fundamentally there is nothing magical going on that isn’t easily controlled. Even forty year old nuclear reactors have had an excellent safety record. Nuclear power from Uranium has 1,000,000 times more power density than coal – that means they need to mine 1 millionth of the amount to power our cities. It emits no radiation, no air pollution and the spent fuel (now being stockpiled) could be used for medical procedures and equipment, and will be re-used as fuels in future reactors. In fact there is enough power in the uranium we have already mined and stockpiled to power the entire world for decades.

Coal and Oil on the other hand are truly dangerous and highly unregulated. Oil companies regularly vent benzenes into the atmosphere – chemicals that will immediately give you cancer. They are systematically un-sequestering carbon from the earth and releasing it into the atmosphere. Disasters like Exon Valdes, and the spill in the gulf resulted in the destruction of vast amounts of ecosystems, destroyed livelihoods, food supplies and will shorten the life of countless people who were exposed to the toxic chemicals. Coal mining companies remove entire mountains and the areas near coal plants are actually more radioactive than near nuclear plants. Areas near coal plants also see massive spikes in cancer rates.

Mostly I wish that people would educate themselves on the facts rather than ranting on things they don’t understand – if you don’t know the different types of radiation particles involved, the isotopes used, the safety mechanism and control systems used by a particular nuclear plant design then you don’t know enough basic information to have an opinion. I wish the news agencies could actually report facts rather than have “balanced” debates of opinion whether nuclear power (in general) is safe or not. I believe fear uncertainty and doubt about nuclear power due to mis-information and an un-educated public is destroying the planet by allowing far more dangerous alternatives to continue.