Q: Is nuclear power safe?
A: Despite what many of us believe, out of all major energy sources, nuclear is the safest.
No human activity is 100% safe, not even crossing the street. The relative safety among alternatives is what counts. If we start from the premise that energy is indispensable to human comfort and civilisation, then the question is: What is the relative safety (or danger) of nuclear power compared to other energy sources? The following table should convince us that nuclear energy deserves to be considered safe.
Deaths per unit of energy produced:
It has been estimated that up to 1.8 million air-pollution related deaths were avoided between 1971-2009 as a result of producing energy with nuclear power plants rather than available alternatives.
Coal is by far the most dangerous energy source, producing deaths both in the mining and transportation and in its emissions of air pollution. Petroleum is the second most dangerous, again producing deaths in the drilling and in emissions from automobiles. Nuclear is the safest, by far.
Q: But what about those terrible accidents at Chernobyl and Fukushima?
A: The values in the above table include fatalities from those accidents. As stand-alone events, their impacts are large. But the death toll from those events stands at several orders of magnitude lower than deaths attributed to air pollution from other traditional energy sources. The World Health Organization estimates that 3 million die every year from ambient air pollution, and 4.3 million from indoor air pollution.
Reliable information on the consequences of the accidents can be obtained from UNSCEAR (United Nations Scientific Committee on the Effects of Atomic Radiation) and WHO (World Health Organization). You can also consult our Saving Our Planet document library for information you can trust.
In the case of Chernobyl, 134 liquidators received radiation doses high enough to be diagnosed with acute radiation sickness (ARS). Among them, 28 persons died in 1986 due to ARS. There may be up to 4 000 additional cancer deaths among the highest exposed population groups -liquidators, evacuees and residents of the Strict Control Zones) – over their lifetime, corresponding to 3-4% above the normal incidence of cancers from all causes.
Chernobyl is the worst nuclear accident ever. Here was a nuclear reactor without a containment dome and it was on fire. It was raining radiation down on everybody. But when they counted the bodies, they found 28 deaths from acute radiation syndrome and 15 deaths from thyroid cancer over the last 25 years. There’s no evidence of an effect by Chernobyl on fertility, birth malformations, or infant mortality; nor for causing an increase in adverse pregnancy outcomes or still births; nor for any genetic effects.
In the case of Fukushima, there were no acute radiation injuries or deaths among the workers or the public due to exposure to radiation resulting from the accident. Some 16,000 people died from the earthquake and tsunami. Some, including sick and elderly, died because of poorly managed, unduly stressful evacuation procedures.
In countries like France or Sweden, where dozens of nuclear reactors have been operating for over 40 years, safety is assured by stringent environmental regulations under constant revision. All subsystems and components have been tested, simulated and redesigned, so that overhauled nuclear reactors are not only safer and cleaner, but also more efficient than when they were brand new.
Q: What about nuclear waste?
A: Nuclear power is the only large-scale energy-producing technology that takes full responsibility for all its waste (and fully costs this into the product). The amount of waste generated by nuclear power is very small relative to other thermal electricity generation technologies, and it is neither particularly hazardous nor hard to manage relative to other toxic industrial waste.
Safe methods for the final disposal of the remaining small quantities of high-level radioactive waste have been proven effective.
All of the other waste for electricity goes into the environment including from coal, natural gas and … solar panels! Solar actually produces 200 to 300 times more toxic waste than nuclear. And that solar waste contains heavy toxic metals like chromium, cadmium, and lead.
Every year, the lives of seven million people are cut short by waste products in the form of air pollution from burning biomass and fossil fuels.
Used nuclear fuel is a resource. All radioactive waste since 2000 in France is recyclable. Plutonium is extracted, mixed with uranium and recycled as Mox fuel. After being reprocessed several times, the fuel is stored to be used in the new fast neutron reactors that are being built. (The last French prototype was shut down in 2011, unfortunately).
Q: Couldn’t terrorists get hold of nuclear waste and make bombs from it?
Hardly! Michael Shellenberger walks us through such a hypothetical scenario, here.
Q: Isn’t uranium mining dangerous?
A: Mining conditions are vastly dependent on local conditions and regulations. It’s an issue of governance and transparency. When there are inspections, when workers follow regulations, there are no safety problems.
Q: But won’t the uranium get used up, like any other natural resource?
A: It’s estimated that there are at least four billion tons of uranium in seawater, or about 500 times the amount known to exist in land-based ores.
Renewable sea uranium harvesting can supply 20000 GW, so 50 times more nuclear power than now (about 400 GW). This resource is considered sustainable and renewable. Furthermore, the mined uranium is enriched (concentrated) to 3%, and the remaining 97% is saved for future use in fast neutron reactors and will provide more than 1000 years of fuel.
Q: But Germany is closing down its nuclear plants. There must be a good reason for that.
A: Germany’s Energiewende, or energy transformation program, was meant to shift from fossil fuel and nuclear power to a renewables-based energy system. Wind and solar energy, by replacing fossil fuels, were supposed to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. But in fact, renewables are replacing nuclear power but not fossil fuels, and emissions are stagnating or rising.
Until March 2011, Germany obtained one-quarter of its electricity from nuclear energy, using 17 reactors. It now gets about 12% from seven reactors, while 42% of electricity comes from coal, mainly “brown coal” or lignite. The preponderance of coal makes the country Europe’s biggest emitter of carbon dioxide.
Germany increased its wind turbines by 11 % in 2016 but got 2% less of its electricity from wind. Its carbon emissions rose in 2015 and again in 2016. Emissions would have declined had Germany not closed a nuclear plant and replaced it with coal and natural gas.
In 2017, emissions declined by just 0.5%. Germany has announced that it will fail to meet its 2020 climate target, which calls for a reduction of 40% compared to 1990.
Despite massive investments and subsidies, consumers saw electricity prices rise by 50 % over the last 10 years. German electricity prices are the double of those in France. Moreover, France generates 88% of its electricity from clean sources, Germany only 39% (2018 figures). Over 40% of
Paradoxically, public opinion in Germany remains broadly opposed to nuclear power.
Many hoped that the massive (and expensive) German movement toward intermittent wind and solar would serve as an incentive lesson for everyone. Unfortunately, the lesson learned was not what was expected.
Q: What was the reason for Germany’s decision?
A: It’s complicated. The answer lies in psychology, sociology and politics.
By the end of the 1970’s, German public opinion was turning against nuclear power and embracing the notion of energy from nature.
The background to this in Germany is the long-standing influence of romanticism with love of forests and religious or mystical regard for nature which carried through into the 20th century as a complex reaction to industrial capitalism. In the 1960s it became coupled with far-left activism which transferred across to the formation of the Greens, the world’s first major environmentalist political party. The politics of anti-nuclear protest gained an appeal to middle-class Germans, by conflating anti-NATO missile sentiment from being in the front line of a feared World War III and transferring this to the excellent plants that produced a third of their electricity very cheaply, while promoting idealistic visions of wind and solar potential.
The Chernobyl accident in 1986 reinforced nuclear power’s negative image. Yet, a poll in 1997 showed that 81% of Germans wanted existing nuclear plants to continue operating. The Fukushima accident in September 2011 convinced a majority that nuclear power was dangerous. In a poll in
In 2010, German Chancellor Angela Merkel reversed the decision by the SPD/Green coalition of Chancellor Gerhard Schröder to phase out nuclear energy. But the Fukushima accident changed her thinking, and in a spectacular U-turn, she announced her intention to shut all nuclear power stations
It’s interesting to note that the Fukushima accident had the opposite effect on some previous anti-nuclear activists. We could then evaluate the relatively small role of the most severe nuclear accidents in the total scale of human woes – even before you consider climate change. For example, Guardian columnist George Monbiot wrote: As a result of the disaster at Fukushima, I am no longer nuclear-neutral. I now support the technology.
Michael Shellenberger of California-based Environmental Progress also explains why he changed his mind about nuclear power, here.
Q: Do we really need nuclear energy?
A: Over the decade 2005-2015, the share of renewables in our electricity mix has increased by approximately 5-6 percent. But over this same period, the share from nuclear production has decreased by 5-6 percent. So our total share of low-carbon electricity production is almost exactly the same. Progress on electricity decarbonisation has been stalled over the last decade due to popular, unfounded aversion to nuclear energy.
The International Energy Agency (IEA) believes that nuclear power needs to double by 2050 if we are to meet the international 2°C warming goal. The IEA says nuclear reactor safety issues raised by Fukushima can be addressed by strong regulations, independent regulators, a culture of safety surrounding nuclear plants and the development of new safety technology.
Pretending that nuclear power is not part of the solution is just not responsible. The only way to mitigate climate change without nuclear is to cut energy usage by half. This is not possible, because world population is predicted to nearly double in the 21st century. So the question is: do we want to enable our descendants to live in a world of environmental and technological progress, or will we decide to leave them powerless, jobless and hopeless?
Q: Maybe Climate Change is inevitable. Why don’t we forget about it and just get on with our shopping …
A: No, disastrous Climate Change is not inevitable! We have the knowledge and the solutions. Climate change is our enemy: it’s the first time that humankind can come together to face a single enemy which is not one of us. Let’s not blow it!
– Julie Wornan, with input from Stephan Savarese and Bob Wornan