The Iranian nuclear deal has been exploding in the news lately, so I’m going to switch gears a bit and give a little nod to nuclear. Use of nuclear power as a ‘renewable’ energy source is a controversial topic, especially with past and recent failures of nuclear power plants, and has a lot of people asking if it is the best alternate energy option. So let’s go over some common misconceptions about nuclear energy.
‘Nuclear power plants will cause harmful radiation exposure.’
When you work with any radioactive material, you are bound to be exposed to some amount of radiation and the same is true of a nuclear power plant. However, the amount of radiation you are exposed to on a daily basis from natural sources is more than you would be exposed to if you lived or worked at a nuclear plant.
Natural sources of radiation surround us every day… light from the sun, dirt and rocks in the ground, even some food. I am exposed to more radiation by eating a banana a day than I am by living near Sharon Harris power plant. Even more radiation is released by burning coal and fossil fuels.
‘Nuclear power is dangerous.’
Worries that have been expressed about the dangers of nuclear power plants include “it will be targeted by terrorists”, “it will explode”, “it will be turned into a nuclear bomb”. First, there are extremely strict regulations that nuclear plants must meet from the building itself to new employees. The containment structure, which protects the area of the plant where nuclear fission occurs, is designed to withstand the impact from a plane crash… take that terrorists!
As far as explosions go, nuclear reactors do not explode like nuclear bombs. It is not possible. I mentioned fission before right? This is the process of breaking apart atoms and those parts (neutrons, specifically) bounce around and break more atoms. Fission in nuclear reactors relies on slow-moving neutrons that are easily stopped by ‘control rods’ of graphite or another non-fissionable material. Nuclear bombs use extremely fast moving neutrons or even a completely different process… fusion. If a nuclear reactor were to explode, it wouldn’t have nearly the power of a nuclear weapon, more like that of dynamite (TNT).
But what about Chernobyl? This poorly-designed reactor would have never been built outside of the Soviet Union, it had no containment structure of any sort. Scientists have proven that if Chernobyl had had a containment structure, none of the radiation would have escaped and none of the deaths would have occurred.
In fact, many more deaths occur from coal. The graph below shows the number of deaths for each unit (kWh – kilowatt hour) of electricity. Including Chernobyl, nuclear power is responsible for about 1 death per 10 billion kWh. For the same number of kilowatt hours (10 billion kWh), coal is responsible for 33 deaths.
‘Nuclear power is bad for the environment’
Compared to environmental damage from mining goal and oil spills, nuclear power is an angel. Yes there is radioactive waste, but the most harmful parts of this waste is recycled into new nuclear fuel. The leftovers can be buried and are no more radioactive than other natural elements. Along the ‘no more radioactive than other things in nature’-line, mutations are caused by other factors all the time. After all, mutation is what leads to evolution.
‘Nuclear power is renewable’
On the other side of things, nuclear power is not a renewable resource. An alternative energy source? Yes. More sustainable than fossil fuels? Yes. But renewable? No. Nuclear power still uses one of the earth’s non-renewable natural resources – uranium. Unlike water, air, and sunlight, uranium is not constantly replenished or renewed. The amount on our planet is finite. But… nuclear power uses a tiny amount of uranium for the amount of energy it produces.
Still worried? Take a look at France. They get 75% of their energy from nuclear power, and 17% of that is from recycled nuclear fuel.
For more general information about nuclear power check out UNC’s website Nuclear Energy in America.
Media Matters Myths and Facts about Nuclear Power offers a look at both sides of nuclear plus some info-graphics.