A Journey from Myth to Fact | AREVA North America: Next Energy Blog


by Gwyneth Cravens

Yesterday I mentioned some beliefs I once held:

  • Manmade radiation is far more dangerous than natural radiation—cosmic radiation, for instance.
  • Even a tiny speck of manmade radioactive material can kill you.
  • Radiation from a nuclear plant can travel hundreds of miles and kill you.
  • Nuclear plants are just ticking atomic time bombs. Without warning they can explode and kill millions and cause cancer, and mutations. The Chernobyl accident killed tens of thousands of people.
  • Nuclear plants could easily be taken over by a few gunmen and the fuel in the reactor stolen and turned into an atomic bomb.
  • The people who work in the nuclear field are indifferent to humanity and to the environment.
  • A coal-fired plant is safer than a nuclear plant any day.
  • Nobody knows what to do with nuclear waste. Mountains of it are piling up everywhere. It lasts forever and will turn huge tracts into radioactive wastelands.

Special Guest Blogger Gweneth Cravens

This list of problems seemed to me a deal-breaker for nuclear power as an environmental savior. (I believed the information to be true because it had been told to me repeatedly by organizations responsible for good works, like saving whales and cleaning up birds caught in oil slicks.) And was Rip Anderson-the scientist who told me that if we were going to protect humanity and ecosystems from devastation we needed nuclear power–aware of its dangers? I knew nothing of his day job, which turned out to be leading the team that got the country’s first permanent, deep-geologic, nuclear waste repository, the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant, certified by the EPA and opened. I soon discovered that he was an expert in probabilistic risk assessment. He listened patiently to my concerns, and carefully explained that they lacked scientific basis. He introduced me to his colleagues—experts in physics, engineering, radiation biology, microbiology, radiology, epidemiology, geology, risk perception, and other endeavors—and he suggested I see for myself what went on in the nuclear world. That’s how the Nuclear America Tour began.

I learned that whether rays and particles come from substances created in labs or in the environment doesn’t matter to our bodies, to our DNA. Most of our exposure is from Mother Nature. We evolved and live in a sea of natural radiation, and thousands of times a second it’s interacting with our molecules. And the average per capita exposure in America from medical radiation now equals that from nature. Depending on the type, radiation can be stopped by a piece of paper, skin, lead, or a thick concrete wall. This is why nuclear submarine crews can live for months within meters of a reactor and have enviable health profiles as compared with their peers on other Navy vessels.

Multiple barriers protect humans from the radiation released by the controlled chain reaction in a reactor. The uranium fuel pellets are jacketed in an alloy and enclosed in rods; the rods are immersed in water (itself a barrier); the water and rods are located within a thick-walled steel vessel which is anchored in bedrock, usually underground, and which is enclosed by a big steel and concrete containment building with walls four to six feet thick. (The Chernobyl reactor, of Soviet design, lacked containment.) On my website there’s a video of what happens to a jet crashing into a wall comparable to that of a containment building. Wall: 1. Jet: 0.

I learned that U.S. power reactors can’t explode atomically (it’s against the laws of physics) and that you can’t just whip up an atomic bomb from the low-enriched uranium in nuclear fuel.

Tours of nuclear plants and research reactor facilities convinced me that they’re more difficult to penetrate than, say, Fort Knox. In Power to Save the World there’s a chapter called “Barriers” that details the exhaustive security precautions, detection systems, and layers of protection at a plant. Even a footfall near a containment building is monitored.

If anyone feels compelled to fret about exposure to low-dose radiation from electricity generation, he or she should focus on coal combustion. Coal-fired plants expose people within a 50-mile radius to 100 to 400 times more radiation than they’d receive from a nuclear plant, and the annual output of coal fly-ash (around 120 million tons) contains enough uranium-235 to run all of our 104 nuclear power reactors. And that solid waste is also laced with toxic heavy metals that never decay. As for nuclear plants being more dangerous than coal-fired plants: their gaseous emissions create fine particulates that studies indicate kill 24,000 Americans a year and cause hundreds of thousands of cases of lung and heart disease. Household natural gas exposes people to 900 times more radiation than they would receive from living next to a nuclear plant, and natural gas pipelines and plants blow up periodically, causing fatalities—recently an explosion at a gas-fired plant in Connecticut killed six people. Not one member of the public has ever died as the result of the operation of our commercial nuclear power plants. (Wind farms and solar arrays supply intermittent power, so must be backed up by steady, base-load electricity that mainly comes from burning coal or gas.)

And the people I met on my journey from myth to fact? Parents and grandparents who do not want any harm to come to their children or their descendants and who take pride in meeting our demand for clean electricity. Workers who live with their families a few miles from the plant. Bird-watchers, hikers, campers, Sierra Club members, home solar-power enthusiasts, climate-change activists, climate-change skeptics, recyclers, organic gardeners. Democrats, Republicans, Independents, volunteers who spend time helping school children, the elderly, and the hospitalized . . . . In brief, many of the people who think nuclear power is such a good idea that they’ve devoted their careers to it are regular human beings who worry about the environment and about human welfare. Several people recited to me a World Health Organization statistic: in lands without electricity, the average lifespan is 43 years; just a few watts per week help people survive longer. Others mentioned nuclear power’s avoidance of about 700 million metric tons of carbon dioxide per year in the U.S.—about the same amount as would be avoided if all our passenger cars were taken off the road.

As for nuclear waste: plenty of solutions are being implemented right now. Since uranium is the densest of energy sources, all of the spent fuel generated in the U.S. by five decades of commercial nuclear power could fit in a single big-box store. Studies indicate that the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant, which now stores only defense-related waste, or a plant just like it next door in the salt bed, could safely store all of the nation’s spent nuclear fuel. (Incidentally, the citizens in that part of New Mexico like the WIPP so much that they keep inviting other nuclear industries to set up shop.) Less than 1% of all spent fuel contains long-lived radionuclides. Unlike the toxic heavy metals in coal fly ash, radioactive waste will inevitably decay to natural background levels. But most experts consider this material too valuable to bury—it retains over 95% of its energy after one trip through the reactor and can be repeatedly recycled into fresh fuel. The volume of the ultimate residue is tiny—and even that can be burned up in a particular kind of reactor.

After nearly a decade of excursions with Rip and Marcia through the nuclear world, and dozens of encounters with members of the technical community, I had to agree with Rip: nuclear power must play an important role in addressing the multifaceted challenge of global warming.

But no one group or method can do the job alone. We who are concerned about the challenges of energy and the environment have to cooperate and collaborate. Not much is going to happen until we can get past the mindset of Us-versus-Them.

To be continued . . .

Gwyneth Cravens is the author of “Power to Save the World: The Truth About Nuclear Energy” and has written articles on science and other topics for The New Yorker, Harper’s, the New York Times, the Washington Post, and other publications.

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