Our Nuclear Power Decline Will Leave Americans Hungry and Freezing

by | Aug 31, 2021 |

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Twelve Days after the 1979 release of The China Syndrome, the blockbuster film about the fictional meltdown of a nuclear power plant, the real-life Three Mile Island (TMI) nuclear accident occurred in Dauphin County, Pennsylvania. Even though the TMI accident resulted in not a single radiation casualty, the combination of these events fueled unjustified public concerns about nuclear safety. Fears have been amplified by anti-nuclear power groups such as Friends of the Earth International, Greenpeace International, and Natural Resources Defense Council and nuclear power plant construction slowed to a crawl. Indeed, only one plant has been built in the last 20 years in the United States and the majority are approaching the end of their design life. National Geographic reported in May:

“The average age of American [nuclear] power plants, which are licensed to run for 40 years, is 39; in the last decade, at least five have been retired early, …The most recent closure came just last week, on April 30, when the second of two reactors was shut down at the Indian Point power plant, on the Hudson River north of New York City. Until a few years ago, those reactors had supplied a quarter of the city’s power. Nationwide, the EIA predicts that nuclear power generation will decline 17 percent between 2018 and 2025.”

This is a serious problem that, if left uncorrected, with leave many Americans hungry and freezing in the dark. Let’s dig into this issue further.

When we talk nuclear physics to most people⏤their eyes will glaze over with either lack of understanding or fear of the unknown. In fact, it is quite simple. Uranium, its most common fuel, is radioactive, which means it naturally decays or fissions. This is the process of splitting atoms which releases heat that can turn water into steam to turn a turbine to create electricity.

Its land footprint is small, only a tiny fraction of the land required to gain energy from wind or sun. A typical 1000-megawatt nuclear power plant requires less than a square mile (640 acres) to operate. To produce that amount of power from wind you need 1000, 2.5-megawatt wind turbines operating at their maximum efficiency of 30% which will require 350 square miles! To gain that from the sun you need 3 million solar panels spread across 175 square miles of land!

The truth about nuclear power is that it provides a viable and safe means for satisfying the world’s growing need for electricity. While the U.S. is truly awash in oil and gas and coal as well, the rest of the world is not so lucky. Fortunately, outside of the U.S., there is renewed interest in building nuclear power plants.

Misunderstood safety concerns are beginning to fade from memory. The once well-known event at Three Mile Island in Pennsylvania resulted from faulty instrumentation that gave erroneous readings for the reactor vessel environment. After a series of equipment failures and human errors, the reactor core was compromised, and it underwent a partial meltdown.

Even so, radioactive water released from the reactor core was safely confined within the containment building structure, and very little radiation was released into the environment.

The Three Mile Island incident actually underscores the relative safety of nuclear power plants: the safety devices worked as designed and prevented any injury from occurring to humans, animals, or the environment anywhere near its location.

Moreover, the accident directly resulted in further improvements in procedures, instrumentation, and safety systems. U.S. nuclear reactor power plants are now substantially safer as a result. Three Mile Island’s Unit One is still operating with an impeccable record.

Chernobyl an Anomaly

The worst nuclear power plant disaster in history occurred when the Chernobyl reactor in Ukraine experienced a heat (not nuclear) explosion. If such an explosion were to have occurred in a western nuclear power plant, it would have been contained because all western plants are required to have a containment building—a solid structure of steel-reinforced concrete completely encapsulating the nuclear reactor vessel.

The Chernobyl plant did not have this fundamental safety structure, and so the explosion blew off the top of the reactor building, spewing radiation and reactor core pieces into the air.

It was not the explosion, however, but the subsequent fire that spread radioisotopes around the area. The graphite moderator burned ferociously—which could not have happened if the plant had included a containment building from which oxygen could be excluded. It could also not happen in western nuclear reactors which, in place of graphite, use water as a moderator.

The design of the Chernobyl plant was inferior in other ways as well. In the former Soviet Union, there was more attention paid to electricity efficiency and reducing construction costs than was paid to public safety. As a result, there was minimal public safety designed into the system. Soviet scientists knew this and brought it to the attention of the authorities, but were overruled. Unlike Soviet nuclear power plant reactors, western reactors are designed to have negative power coefficients of reactivity under operating conditions. This means that when control of the reaction is lost, the reaction slows down instead of speeding up, making such a runaway accident impossible.

The Chernobyl nuclear power plant design would never have been licensed to operate in the United States or in any other western country, and the accident that occurred there simply could not occur elsewhere. Since the Soviet times, the Russians now build power reactors in line with completely different rules, ensuring public safety.

The circumstances surrounding the accident were in many ways the worst possible, with an exposed reactor core, an open building, and poorly trained operators. Yet even after all the negative factors surrounding the incident added up, only forty-nine plant workers and firemen died directly from radiation exposure at Chernobyl.

Public Effects Were Minor

No deaths directly attributable to exposure from the Chernobyl radiation have been found in the population of the contaminated regions.

In fact, cancer incidence rates over the most contaminated regions of Ukraine near Chernobyl have been consistently lower than rates in the country as a whole. The incidence of solid cancers (lumps of sick cells stuck together) among Russian recovery operation workers have also been lower than among the general population. This is why radiation therapy exists in medicine. While a lot of radiation is very bad, a little can be very good

This is consistent with studies from the World War II atomic bomb blasts, where small doses of radiation received far from ground zero resulted in lower cancer rates being recorded in those people some years later, compared to the rate observed amongst the general population. This result is also consistent with medical research indicating that low-dose radiation actually serves to protect at-risk individuals from the development of cancer.

The whole-body radiation dose due to the Chernobyl fallout received during the past 25 years, by individuals in the most contaminated parts of the former Soviet Union (about 1 mSv per year) is 10 to 100 times lower than the dose of ionizing radiation from natural sources received by individuals in many regions of the world. Neither radiation-induced diseases nor any genetic disorders have ever been found in these regions.

United Nations report

In September 2000, the United Nations Scientific Committee on the Effects of Atomic Radiation (UNSCEAR) published its Report to the General Assembly, a document of some 1,220 pages that deals with exposures and effects of the Chernobyl accident.

Apart from about 1,800 thyroid cancer cases registered in children and in some adults—of which more than 99 percent were cured—the U.N. report concluded there is no evidence of any major public health impact attributable to radiation exposure after the accident. 

The very same result was experienced after the tragedy at Fukushima in 2011 where as many as 20,000 died from flooding and pollution from the tsunami, but not one from radiation.

At Fukushima, there has been no increase in overall cancer incidence or mortality or in non-malignant disorders that could be related to radiation exposure. The incidence of leukemia, which due to its short latency time is a good indicator of radiation harm, has not been elevated among the approximately five million inhabitants of the contaminated regions, nor among the evacuated persons or recovery operation workers.

Nuclear is a safe power

While clearly there have been fatalities related to mining coal, drilling for oil, and burning natural gas, it turns out that nuclear power has been the safest way to produce electricity. In the U.S., however, it can no longer compete economically with fossil fuel due to unnecessary redundant safety requirements. Fortunately, other countries like France, Korea, and China are producing nuclear power safely at much lower costs.

France gets 75% of its power from its nuclear power plants and is the largest exporter of electricity in Europe. It had been a major importer until the late 1970s when they began building their nuclear program. 

Waste from nuclear plants is extremely small. France’s nuclear waste from 56 power plants is heated to become a form of glass that sits beneath a single building smaller than a basketball court. All the waste from twice as many plants in the US over 60 years would fit on a football field to a depth of fewer than 30 feet. A facility at Yucca Mountain in Nevada was built to store all U.S. waste for thousands of years but politics and former President Obama stopped its use. The New York Times reported:

“The Obama administration’s rushed efforts to shut down Yucca Mountain were strictly political and could set back the opening of a nuclear waste repository by more than 20 years, according to a new report by a federal watchdog.

“The administration killed the repository program last year without citing technical or safety issues, and restarting the costly and time-consuming process of finding a permanent repository or an alternative solution could take decades and cost billions of additional dollars, the Government Accountability Office reported yesterday.”

This means that American utilities and the U.S. government still lack any designated long-term storage site for high-level radioactive waste. Most U.S. nuclear power plants, therefore, resort to indefinite on-site storage of waste in steel and concrete casks. Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm told a House Appropriations panel in May that she anticipated announcing the department’s next steps with regards to long-term storage “in the coming months.” Let’s hope she really does.

Currently, over 200 nuclear power plants are in some stage of construction around the world to be added to more than 400 now in operation. Unfortunately, only two are in the United States and their completion remains in doubt because of unnecessary construction requirements which make them uneconomical. Clearly, natural gas is so abundant and inexpensive in the U.S. that nuclear power can’t compete. But if we are not building some nuclear power plants, we will lose our high level of technology to other countries along with well-trained nuclear engineers. It’s high time for a nuclear renaissance!


Dr. Jay Lehr is a Senior Policy Analyst with the International Climate Science Coalition and former Science Director of The Heartland Institute. He is an internationally renowned scientist, author, and speaker who has testified before Congress on dozens of occasions on environmental issues and consulted with nearly every agency of the national government and many foreign countries. After graduating from Princeton University at the age of 20 with a degree in Geological Engineering, he received the nation’s first Ph.D. in Groundwater Hydrology from the University of Arizona. He later became executive director of the National Association of Groundwater Scientists and Engineers.

Tom Harris is Executive Director of the Ottawa, Canada-based International Climate Science Coalition, and a policy advisor to The Heartland Institute. He has 40 years experience as a mechanical engineer/project manager, science and technology communications professional, technical trainer, and S&T advisor to a former Opposition Senior Environment Critic in Canada’s Parliament.

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