Nuclear Power Compiles Impressive Safety Record

Published February 1, 2009

Editors’ note: The following article is the second excerpt from testimony delivered by Heartland Institute Science Director Jay Lehr, Ph.D. before the Colorado legislature on September 16. It is part of a continuing series of articles by Lehr on nuclear energy.

For too long the nuclear industry has been hamstrung by scare tactics and outrageously false propaganda.

The truth about nuclear power is that it provides a viable and safe means for satisfying our growing need for electricity. Continuous concerns over critical energy shortages in this country are sparking a renewed interest in nuclear power on the part of Americans who do not want to be left in the dark.

Containment History

The event at Three Mile Island resulted from faulty instrumentation that gave erroneous readings for the reactor vessel environment. After a series of equipment failures and human errors, plus the inadequate instrumentation, the reactor core was compromised, and it underwent a partial melt.

Even so, radioactive water released from the core configuration 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.

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 the 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 reactor burned ferociously—which could not have happened if the plant had included a containment building from which oxygen could be excluded.

Western Safety Requirements

The design of the Chernobyl plant was inferior in other ways as well.

Unlike the Chernobyl reactor, Western power plant nuclear reactors are designed to have negative power coefficients of reactivity under operating conditions, which makes such runaway accidents impossible. When control of the reaction is lost, the reaction slows down instead of speeding up.

The bottom line is that the flawed Chernobyl nuclear power plant would never have been licensed to operate in the United States or any other Western country, and the accident that occurred there simply could not occur elsewhere.

The circumstances surrounding the accident were in many ways the worst possible, with an exposed reactor core and an open building. Thirty-one plant workers and firemen died directly from radiation exposure at Chernobyl.

Public Effects Were Minor

In September 2000, the United Nations’ Scientific Committee on the Effects of Atomic Radiation (UNSCEAR) published its Report to the General Assembly with Scientific Annexes, a document of some 1,220 pages in two volumes. Annex J (volume 2, pages 453-551) 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—there is no evidence of any major public health impact attributable to radiation exposure after the accident, the U.N. report concluded.

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.

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

May Actually Suppress Cancer

In fact, cancer incidence rates over the most-contaminated regions of Ukraine have been consistently lower than rates in the country as a whole. The incidence of solid cancers among Russian recovery operation workers has been significantly lower than among the general population.

This is consistent with studies from the World War II atomic bomb blasts, where small doses of radiation received far from ground zero produced lower cancer rates than among the general population. It is also consistent with considerable new medical research indicating low-dose radiation may actually serve to protect at-risk individuals from the development of cancer.

The whole-body radiation dose due to the Chernobyl fallout received during the past 15 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.

Jay Lehr, Ph.D. ([email protected]) is science director of The Heartland Institute.