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 Pennsylvanias 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 generationmeaning the actual generation
of power from nuclear reactorshas 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.
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 powers 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 countrys worst nuclear power plant accident
at Three Mile Island resulted in no identifiable health impacts.
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 doprevent radiation from escaping
into the environment.
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?
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. Currently, the U.S.
has 104 active nuclear reactors, which generate roughly 19
percent of our nations electricity.
For decades, the U.S has safely stored used nuclear fuel at
its nuclear facilities, as have other countries.
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 Frances 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.
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.
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.
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. Though
President Reagan lifted President Carters 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.
Moore agrees, asserting that 95 percent of the potential energy is still
contained in the used fuel after the first cycle.
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.