PBS Program Examines Nuclear Power

Published July 1, 1997

In April, the PBS broadcast an hour-long Frontline report titled “Nuclear Reaction.” Here are some of the points made during the program.

  • The energy from nuclear power is in very concentrated form. The energy produced in a nuclear reactor vessel 12 feet tall and 12 feet in diameter can produce enough electricity to run a city.
  • The average American receives about 350 millirems of radiation from natural, or “background” sources each year, most of which comes from air, soil, and water. Radon accounts for about 200 millirems of the average American’s annual exposure. Radiation from a nuclear power plant is extremely low–less than one millirem.
  • American nuclear power plants, unlike the Chernobyl design, are enclosed by massive steel and concrete containment domes to prevent radioactivity from reaching the environment.
  • The Chernobyl accident was economically devastating and a human tragedy, but health effects were limited. Some children developed thyroid cancer, which is curable, but leukemia and adult cancers have not increased. The actual death toll stands at 31 firefighters who received extremely high doses of radiation during the accident.
  • No American has died from an accident involving radiation at a U.S. nuclear plant. Radiation exposures from the 1979 accident at the Three Mile Island nuclear power plant ranged from 2 to 10 millirems–less than a chest x-ray.
  • Coal-fired power plants emit air pollution, acid rain, greenhouse gases, carcinogens and–because coal contains radioactive elements–more radioactivity than nuclear power plants.
  • Nuclear power plants meet 20 percent of America’s electricity needs.
  • France, Japan, and other countries don’t consider used nuclear fuel as waste. They recycle their used nuclear fuel to recover plutonium and usable uranium. The United States, on the other hand, plans to dispose of the used fuel in underground disposal facility.