On the safety of nuclear power plants

 Created on Friday 06 Feb 2009
by Σπύρος Κιτσινέλης
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Lithium-6/Deuterium reactionWhen we talk of nuclear power plants, I am pretty sure that it doesn't take an expert to understand that from an energy production point of view, no other technology can surpass the fusion or fission processes of hydrogen or uranium. The debates and the criticism usually revolve around the safety issues as the very word nuclear has been connected in the human collective consciousness with the mass destructions of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and the big disasters of Chernobyl and to a lesser extend but just as important for the Americans, the Three Mile Island accident.

Of course this article is about nuclear power plants so I will not go into the details of building a bomb and its potential effects on the planet. There is no point in that as numerous countries have large arsenals already, countries like Greece do not have such aspirations and finally the focus here is on energy production which has nothing to do with weapons of mass destruction.

We should focus on the potential dangers and impact on environment and human health from the plants and the materials needed for such plants to operate. I would like to give you just a few figures and facts regarding the effects of nuclear power plants on humans and how these compare to the other already used and largely accepted technologies.

Let us start by saying that the Chernobyl accident involved a plant design -- graphite moderation -- which has never been used in any commercial generation plant in the West so the sort of accident which occurred at Chernobyl presents little connection to the worst possible accidents in the West.

As seen in the Three Mile Island accident the reactor vessels and containment buildings are not easily breached and little radiation was released to the environment, with no significant impact on health or the environment.

The problems of nuclear waste "do not come anywhere close" to approaching the problems of fossil fuel waste. A 2004 article from the BBC states: "The World Health Organization (WHO) says 3 million people are killed worldwide by outdoor air pollution annually from vehicles and industrial emissions, and 1.6 million indoors through using solid fuel." In the U.S. alone, fossil fuel waste kills 20,000 people each year. A coal power plant releases 100 times as much radiation as a nuclear power plant of the same wattage. It is estimated that during 1982, US coal burning released 155 times as much radioactivity into the atmosphere as the Three Mile Island incident.

Chernobyl nuclear reactor after the disasterThe World Nuclear Association provides a comparison of deaths due to accidents among different forms of energy production. In their comparison, deaths per TW-yr of electricity produced from 1970 to 1992 are quoted as 885 for hydropower, 342 for coal, 85 for natural gas, and 8 for nuclear.

Most human exposure to radiation comes from natural background radiation. The remaining exposure comes from medical procedures.
Several large studies in the US, Canada, and Europe have found no evidence of any increase in cancer mortality among people living near nuclear facilities. For example, in 1991, the National Cancer Institute (NCI) of the National Institutes of Health announced that a large-scale study, which evaluated mortality from 16 types of cancer, found no increased incidence of cancer mortality for people living near 62 nuclear installations in the United States. The study showed no increase in the incidence of childhood leukemia mortality in the study of surrounding counties after start-up of the nuclear facilities. The NCI study, the broadest of its kind ever conducted surveyed 900,000 cancer deaths in counties near nuclear facilities. However, such a study does not take into account cancer mortality from mines, waste tailings, or other such contaminated areas.
My final comment is do not reject without discussion or accept in apathy whatever can bring large scale changes in our everyday lives but instead look at the scientific facts and figures and bring the scientists into the spotlight as they hold more answers than anyone else in these matters. The general feeling on matters like this is largely influenced by other factors such as politics and journalistic sensationalism that many times lead to fear for no reason. Use science and scientists in order to make not ideal plans but the best possible ones. You need science in order to make the right choice and science needs you in order to remain strong and take you to the right direction.