by Max Schulz



Manhattan Institute/Zogby Survey of Adults Question Frequencies

Manhattan Institute/Zogby Survey of Adults Question X-tabs





On March 28, 1979, just days after the release of the movie The China Syndrome raised fears about the dangers of nuclear power production, a partial meltdown of a nuclear reactor occurred at Pennsylvania’s Three Mile Island (TMI) nuclear power facility. The meltdown, the only major nuclear accident in the history of the United States, confirmed for many that nuclear power is dangerous. Thirty years later, no new nuclear power reactor has been built in the U.S.

According to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, "Since commercial nuclear power plants began operating in the United States, there have been no physical injuries or fatalities from exposure to radiation from the plants among members of the U.S. public."

A plurality (38.3 percent) of respondents believe that U.S. nuclear power generation—meaning the actual generation of power from nuclear reactors—has led to at least one death, while almost an equal percentage of respondents (36.8 percent) correctly answered that no one has ever died from U.S. nuclear power production.[90] Almost one-quarter (24.9 percent) were unsure. Thus, the belief that deaths have resulted from U.S. nuclear power generation does not appear to be as widely held as some other energy myths. Still, the percentages indicate that public understanding of nuclear power’s risks remains significantly at odds with the facts.

According to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, “Since commercial nuclear power plants began operating in the United States, there have been no physical injuries or fatalities from exposure to radiation from the plants among members of the U.S. public. Even the country’s worst nuclear power plant accident at Three Mile Island resulted in no identifiable health impacts.”[91] Patrick Moore, cofounder of Greenpeace and now an ardent supporter of nuclear power, contends that TMI is actually a success story. “The concrete containment structure did just what it was designed to do—prevent radiation from escaping into the environment.”[92]

In addition to concerns about possible dangers of nuclear power production, a common fear about nuclear energy (shared by 42 percent of respondents) is that nuclear waste cannot be stored safely. Interestingly, almost half (49.8 percent) of respondents believed that nuclear waste can be stored safely. Additional nuclear energy production in the U.S. is likely, particularly if we expand our use of low- or non-carbon-emitting technologies. The issue of nuclear-waste storage will then become increasingly important. What will we do with the spent fuel? Is spent fuel safe in the first place?

Like the safety fears, concerns about storing used, or spent, nuclear fuel are unfounded. According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, “Most nuclear waste is low-level radioactive waste.”[93] Currently, the U.S. has 104 active nuclear reactors, which generate roughly 19 percent of our nation’s electricity.[94] For decades, the U.S has safely stored used nuclear fuel at its nuclear facilities, as have other countries.[95] Most notably, France, which generates about 80 percent of its electricity from nuclear power, has no trouble safely storing the spent nuclear fuel. Author and journalist William Tucker notes: “All of France’s nuclear waste from 25 years of producing 75 percent of its electricity is stored beneath the floor of one room at Le Hague. The lifetime output for each French citizen would fit in a soda can.”[96]

However, the issue of nuclear-waste storage is a long-term issue, and, in the U.S., nuclear facilities were not built to store spent fuel permanently.[97] Available storage space is declining, and long-term storage solutions are needed. Plans for building a permanent repository for used nuclear fuel at a suitable location at Yucca Mountain, Nevada, were stalled for years by regulatory hurdles. President Obama recently backed away from the proposal, announcing in his fiscal year 2010 federal budget request that funding for the project will be cut, while his administration devises an alternate plan for permanent nuclear-waste storage.[98]

Tucker and others challenge the very notion of nuclear “waste” and are critical of the U.S. for not reusing nuclear fuel after its first use by a nuclear reactor for power production. In 1976, President Ford issued a presidential directive suspending reprocessing of spent nuclear fuel, and, in 1977, President Carter outlawed nuclear fuel reprocessing.[99] Though President Reagan lifted President Carter’s ban in 1981, the necessary private capital to support nuclear fuel reprocessing had already fled the U.S. We do not reprocess spent nuclear fuel, in spite of the value and safety of doing so. (France safely reprocesses spent nuclear fuel.) Tucker writes, “Nearly all the material in a spent fuel rod is recyclable or easily handled.”[100] Moore agrees, asserting that “95 percent of the potential energy is still contained in the used fuel after the first cycle.”[101]

Nuclear power is ramping up throughout the world. France will continue to meet the majority of its electricity needs via nuclear energy, and China and India have plans for rapid expansion of nuclear facilities. For decades, the United States has produced nuclear power and stored used nuclear fuel safely. All indications are that modern nuclear power technology and extensive procedural safeguards will continue to provide Americans with safe, reliable nuclear power production and spent-fuel storage.

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