Analysis: Nuclear Power Is Safest Energy Source, Studies Show

Published April 1, 2005

Today’s nuclear power technology, by any and every measure, provides the best safety performance and lowest risk of workplace accidents among all commonly utilized power sources. Nuclear power plants are not at risk from terrorist attacks: They do not offer exponential damage opportunities and they are the most fortified installations in the nation.

It is safe to say neither the general public nor government officials understand many or any of these facts. Their lack of understanding is primarily the result of an extremely successful fear campaign waged by anti-nuclear activists 30 years ago. In addition, the news media has inaccurately reported accidents and mishaps at nuclear power plants.

Our Radioactive World

We live in a radioactive world–this has been true since the beginning of time. Background radiation in the natural environment was much greater in the past than it is today, as all nuclear material decays naturally. The world is less radioactive today than at any time in the past … and man has evolved and prospered through it all.

Each day we are exposed to naturally occurring radiation from rocks in the Earth’s crust, outer space, our atmosphere, radon gas, smoking, and even each others’ bodies. Every plane flight we take into the upper atmosphere increases our exposure to radiation.

In the end, it appears we will voluntarily accept all of this radiation but will resist any manmade radiation–no matter how harmless–to which we are exposed.

Radiation Sources

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) calculated in 2003 the primary sources of radiation in daily life:

Radon radiation in average household 200 millirems
Living a mile high in Denver 81 millirems
Natural radiation in the human body 39 millirems
Atmospheric radiation from outer space 31 millirems
Mammogram 30 millirems
Chest x-ray 10 millirems

I did not list the highest and lowest sources of radiation to which we are regularly exposed. The highest is the 1,400 millirems received by a person undergoing medical tests for gastrointestinal problems. The lowest is the less than one millirem experienced by a person living near a nuclear power plant.

The average U.S. citizen receives 360 millirems per year according to EPA, from a combination of the sources listed above.

Energy Risks

In 1998 a Swiss study looked at 13,914 severe accidents, including 4,290 in the energy industry, between 1969 and 1996. This included both Three Mile Island and Chernobyl. Even including those two highly publicized incidents, the study determined that among conventional energy sources–coal, oil, natural gas, and nuclear–nuclear power was by far the safest.

The second safest power source, natural gas, has a fatality rate 10 times higher than nuclear power. The Swiss report, “Comprehensive Assessment of Energy Systems Severe Accidents,” published by the Paul Scherrer Institute in 2003, concluded that in the production of a full year of a trillion watts (terawatt-year) of energy–which might require many years to produce, as all of Canada takes 15 years to generate a terawatt-year–fatalities expected from the various potential energy sources are:

Nuclear 8 fatalities
Natural Gas 85 fatalities
Coal 342 fatalities
Oil 418 fatalities

My friend and colleague Dr. Bernard Cohen of the University of Pittsburgh pioneered the concept of risk as equated to lost life expectancy as a result of human activities. For instance, one can take all the deaths resulting from automobile accidents in America and, based on a life expectancy of 70 years, calculate the lost years of life, divide it by the driving population, and get the lost life expectancy due to the automobile.

On this basis Cohen compared the relative risk of nuclear power to other activities. He used an increased risk of premature death of one chance in a million as a standard. His calculations indicate that if one lived at the boundary of a nuclear power plant for five years, there would be an increased risk of premature death from nuclear radiation of one in a million. That risk would decline significantly as one moved further away from the plant.

But Cohen found the very same risk of premature death occurs to the individual who:

  • rides 10 miles on a bicycle;
  • rides 300 miles in an automobile;
  • rides 1,000 miles in an airplane; or
  • lives two months in Denver.

Three Mile Myth

Any discussion of nuclear power safety inevitably turns to Three Mile Island, considered the worst–and only–nuclear power failure in the United States. Sen. Pete Domenici (R-NM) addressed Three Mile in his outstanding 2004 book, A Brighter Tomorrow: Fulfilling the Promise of Nuclear Energy:

“… few realize that even though 90 percent of the fuel rods ruptured, the accident was a non-event from a radiation standpoint. The maximum exposure to the nearest member of the public was little more than a third of the [Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s] annual limit for the public. And no worker exceeded the commission’s current annual limit for occupational exposure.”

Domenici also recounts the amazing health record for sailors living on nuclear submarines during the past 50 years. “In the Navy’s nuclear submarines, the sailors who live and work within yards of operating reactors receive less whole body radiation while underway than while at home and exposed to natural background radiation.”

Safe Technology

Polls show the public accepts far greater risk in their everyday lives, without concern, than the risks they are exposed to with nuclear power. Perhaps some of the remaining unnecessary fears will be assuaged by the next true evolution of reactor design: “pebble bed reactors” that use thousands of ceramic-coated, tennis ball-sized spheres of graphite and uranium.

These reactors are designed so that the chain reaction cannot heat the mass above 1,600 degrees Celsius, at which point the temperature of the mass will fall. The ceramic coat will not melt at temperatures below 2,000 degrees Celsius. Thus no meltdown can occur, making the reactor inherently safe, rather than safe as a result of external safety systems.

Nuclear power plants do not offer an attractive target to terrorists. In 2003, the Electric Power Research Institute performed a simulated air and ground terrorist attack, concluding that no parts of a Boeing 767-400, when crashed into a reactor, would penetrate the containment building or the spent fuel storage pool. As for attack by land, nuclear plants are relatively unattractive targets because of high security and low explosion potential.

While the risk of anything occurring never reaches zero, nuclear safety should not be on any rational person’s list of things to lose sleep over.

Jay Lehr ([email protected]) is science director for The Heartland Institute.

For more information …

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Radiation Risks and Realities report, document #402-k-92-004, is available online at .