SUMMARY
INTRODUCTION

ENERGY MYTHS

ENVIRONMENTAL MYTHS

OPEN QUESTIONS AND OVERLOOKED REALITIES

POLICY IMPLICATIONS
APPENDIX


 

 

 

 

ENVIRONMENTAL MYTHS

MYTH 6: THREE MILE ISLAND WAS A DEADLY NUCLEAR ACCIDENT

Nuclear power is thought by many to be unsafe, in part because mildly enriched uranium, the chief fuel used in commercial nuclear power plants, is radioactive. Moreover, its use generates nuclear waste that can pose dangers. Coal, natural gas, and petroleum, by comparison, do not pose similar risks. Many Americans’ fears about nuclear energy stem not just from concerns about the dangers of radioactive materials but from the near-catastrophe at Pennsylvania’s Three Mile Island nuclear power plant in 1979. The accident, which involved a partial meltdown of the reactor’s core, remains the worst accident that the American nuclear industry has ever experienced.

It is therefore surprising to many people to learn that no one died at Three Mile Island. In a test of the public’s knowledge about what happened, our respondents were offered various possibilities as to the number of people killed as a result of the accident. Almost 45 percent of respondents were “not sure,” which suggests some uncertainty in the public’s mind about the nature of the accident. Only about one in six respondents answered, correctly, that the accident resulted in no fatalities. Nearly 12 percent thought that more than a hundred people died. Almost 10 percent of respondents put the figure at 27 deaths.

Of course, people’s opinions about nuclear energy are informed by more than just Three Mile Island. The 1986 accident at the Chernobyl nuclear plant in the former Soviet Union helped harden opposition to nuclear energy in some quarters, particularly in Europe. Unlike Three Mile Island, Chernobyl actually claimed lives. Several dozen people died in the first few months after the accident, and the region had to be permanently evacuated. Perhaps 4,000 people eventually will die from radiation-induced cancers tied to the disaster, according to a recent United Nations report.[10]

The chief lesson to draw from the Three Mile Island and Chernobyl incidents is not that nuclear power is fundamentally unsafe. Instead, it would seem that nuclear power is safe, with the proper safeguards in place. The difference between the two incidents bears out this conclusion. Three Mile Island’s concrete containment structures—airtight structures made of steel-reinforced concrete—did what their name suggests: they contained the accident, ensuring that deadly radiation did not escape into the atmosphere. Chernobyl, on the other hand, like most Soviet-era reactors, did not have containment facilities. The tragedy of Chernobyl was not the initial accident but that nothing was in place to stop the release of radiation. Chernobyl reveals more about the dangers of Soviet-style Communism than it does about nuclear energy. As Mark Mills notes, “The Soviet empire … would have been hard-pressed to make a viable toaster oven.” Unlike commercial nuclear plants in the United States, the Chernobyl reactor was designed to produce weapons-grade material in addition to electricity. Its inherent design instability and lack of safety features practically made an accident inevitable; its lack of a containment structure guaranteed that an accident would become catastrophe.

 

In over a half-century of commercial nuclear power generation, not one person has died as a
consequence of an accident at an American nuclear plant. Still, given the dangerous nature of nuclear
materials, people naturally have concerns about the presence of a nuclear power plant in their community.

 

Given the great benefits of nuclear energy, journalists and policymakers need to understand the facts. As demonstrated in the following charts, nuclear energy in America has a track record of safety.


 

 

 

ENERGY AND THE ENVIRONMENT: MYTHS AND FACTS

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Clarice Smith
Deputy Director,
Communications
Manhattan Institute
(212) 599-7000

 

 


Copyright The Manhattan Institute 2007