Research & Commentary: The Safety of Nuclear Energy Generation

Published March 31, 2011

The earthquake and tsunami that rocked Japan on March 11 caused a series of explosions and fires at the Fukushima Dai-Ichi nuclear power plant, setting off a storm of media attention and public concern over the safety of nuclear power. The accident highlights the need for public education regarding exactly what nuclear energy is and why it is the safest form of energy we have.

Other than the fewer-than-50 people who died in the Chernobyl explosion in a plant without a containment building or properly trained personnel, and the single individual who died in Fukushima when pinned under heavy equipment, no one has perished in the world’s 444 operating nuclear reactors. Conversely, there are dozens of deaths each year in conventional coal-fired and gas-fired power plants, plus losses of life in coal mines.

Fukushima was built 34 years ago to withstand an earthquake one-seventh the size of the one it withstood and a tsunami half as high as the one it did not withstand. The fear wrought through Japan and the United States is a result of the belief that a nuclear power plant is similar to a nuclear bomb, ready to be set off by a “meltdown.” In fact, a nuclear power plant bears no resemblance to bomb. It is simply a controlled fission (splitting of nuclear elements) that gives off heat, which is used to make steam, turn a turbine, and create electricity.

All nuclear plants shut down instantly and automatically when anything such as the shaking of an earthquake occurs, but residual heat may remain for hours or days until cooling water carries away the excess heat. If the cooling is inadequate, the cylinders containing the uranium may melt, allowing the fuel rods to collapse to the ground, where they are cooled by the earth. That is what happened at Three Mile Island in 1979.

Unless the containment buildings are destroyed, the amount of radiation that leaks into the countryside is too low and discontinuous to cause physical harm to the population at a reasonable distance from the plant. In the United States, unfortunately, neither the nuclear power industry nor the government has made any effort to explain the simplicity and safety of nuclear power to the public.

The following documents offer additional information on the safety of nuclear power.


Radiation Levels Still Safe in Japan
This article from Environment & Climate News explains that a week after the Japanese disasters not a single civilian had been exposed to a health-threatening level of radiation: “‘There is no fear of contamination among local residents,’ a Japanese government spokesman told the press, as reported in the March 18 Christian Science Monitor. ‘No one has been found with levels that pose a threat to health.'”
Heartland’s Jay Lehr on FNC’s ‘Hannity,’ Other Shows Talking Japan Nuclear Crisis
A video roundup of appearances by Heartland Institute Science Director Jay Lehr on cable news programs about the overstated fears about Japan’s nuclear plant meltdown.

Burning Bright: Nuclear Energy’s Future
The National Center for Policy Analysis reports it is estimated that by 2025 U.S. demand for energy will increase by 50 percent. It concludes, “There is a growing, worldwide demand for electricity—to maintain current living standards in developed countries and to raise those in the world’s developing nations, where populations are rising precipitously. In addition, people have expressed growing concerns about air quality. These factors make building new nuclear power plants essential to meet our growing energy requirements while addressing environmental concerns.”

Dispelling the Myths About Nuclear Power
The National Center for Policy Analysis notes, “Nuclear energy is relatively clean, generating far less waste per unit of energy than any other major source and, based on the number of lives lost or people made ill, it is also far safer for human health. The benefits of nuclear energy are real, while the risks are mostly hypothetical.”

Nuclear Power Compiles Impressive Safety Record
This is an excerpt from testimony on nuclear power by Heartland Institute Science Director Jay Lehr, Ph.D., before the Colorado legislature in September 2008. Lehr testifies, “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.”

Morning Bell: Nuclear Facts to Remember While Following Japan
Jack Spencer, research fellow in nuclear energy at The Heritage Foundation’s Roe Institute for Economic Policy Studies, cites important facts about nuclear power. Spencer writes, “Events unfolding in Japan ought to have no impact on the current U.S. reactor fleet or future plans to expand that fleet. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission does not need to regulate more in response to this. We need to remember that nuke plants are privately owned and that their owners have every incentive to maintain safe operations.”

Three Lessons from Japan’s Nuclear Crisis
This Washington Times op-ed by Iain Murray, a vice president at the Competitive Enterprise Institute, argues that President Barack Obama should move to advance nuclear power in the United States. Regarding the nation’s nuclear power plants, Murray writes, “We need to replace many of them quickly with safer, more modern designs. That will require speeding up the regulatory process for approving new plants.”


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