Fake news: fact over fiction, debunking nuclear myths

Nuclear has attracted its unfair share of malignment over the decades, but the facts present a different case.

Fears regarding nuclear energy are based more on mass rumour and even paranoia than reality. In this special report we dispel the five great myths regarding nuclear energy, and suggest that nuclear is in fact a relatively safe and secure solution to energy demands, just one with a bad reputation

Myth number 1: Nuclear accidents, causing loss of life, happen all the time

This is an interesting one to open with, because nuclear power’s fundamental battle is fighting the weight of public opinion. This is also the major myth surrounding nuclear and the myth that this article will devote the most time to.

Public opinion, often misguided and based on rumour suggests that nuclear accidents occur often and result in fatalities. Nuclear accidents can be catastrophic. It is undeniable that Fukushima was a major disaster with a global impact. However, Fukushima resulted from the after effects of a tsunami impacting serious design flaws in a coastal nuclear power plant. The industry has learnt from this disaster, just as it did from Three Mile Island and Chernobyl. The second, larger (equivalent to 10 tons of TNT), explosion propelled radioactive graphite moderator into the atmosphere, which caught fire, creating fallout. The disaster becoming pan-Continental was more to do with an atrocious initial emergency response and cover-up, denial, cronyism, incompetence, than any dangers associated with the generation of nuclear power.

No deaths were associated directly with either Fukushima or Three Mile Island. In the United States, no fatalities have ever occurred from the generation of nuclear power. Statistically it is safer to work in an NPP than as a lawyer in an office. Power facility neighbouring residents are around 4,000 times more like to die as a result of an accident at power plant driven by fossil fuels, than a nuclear power plant. Yes that is partly due to the fact that far more fossil fuel based plants are operational than nuclear facilities. This is true, however, the world operates 450 nuclear power plants contributing to 11% of the global energy mix. Nuclear is a significant source, not as significant as fossil fuels but highly contributive nonetheless, yet direct deaths attributable to nuclear accidents number in the tens and even these are tenuous at best. Indirect death due to nuclear may prove more; for instance, the expectation of a future rise in cancer-related fatalities is expected due to the radiation leaks from Fukushima, but without minimising that one fatality is too, these are expected to also number in the tens in the coming three decades. One in one thousand deaths occur due to nuclear per petawatt/hour – this figure for coal is a frightening 100,000 per petawatt/hour.

Myth number 2: Nuclear will destroy the environment

So most western x-genners grew up associated the American nuclear industry with Homer Simpson and Blinky the three-eyed fish, who was genetically mutated by radioactive waste pumped out of the Springfield nuclear power plant. This makes for great television. The truth is, that in most nuclear power generating nations, nuclear reactor operators are under the strictest possible national regulatory frameworks and international guidelines because governments and transnational bodies such as the IEAE understand the general public’s concerns. Nuclear power plants emit no greenhouse gasses during operation – in the long term, they result in comparable emissions to renewable forms of energy such as wind and solar. 

The perception is that nuclear waste, the by-product of the energy creating process, remains a dangerous environmental pollution for thousands of years and is not easily contained. This has no foundation and is nothing more than misperception. During the transportation phase ultimately storing the spent nuclear fuel, such waste is moved by truck, rail, and ship.  Thousands of such shipments have without incident, with no leaks or cracks of the specially-designed, and heavily-regulated under tight security, containers.

Once the used fuel reaches the disposal area, the most dangerous radioactive waste – typically less than 1% of the waste volume - is easily shielded from the environment. Most waste will require a storage time of a few hundred years, some portion does remain radioactive for many millennia, however, studies show that this portion is not much more radioactive than the natural surroundings.
 
Nuclear reactors emit no greenhouse gases during operation. Over their full lifetimes, they result in comparable emissions to renewable forms of energy such as wind and solar. Nuclear energy has saved the environment from countless CO2 emissions, had the equivalent power been produced by fossil fuels. France for over a generation, has produced 75% of its energy through nuclear, and enjoys the cleanest air and among the lowest carbon emissions of any industrialised nation. 

Myth number 3: Nuclear is expensive and other forms of power generation are less costly

The initial establishment cost of building and operating a nuclear power plant are extremely costly, one of the main reasons that a number of developing nations, which would benefit from including nuclear in their energy mixes, are not funding the construction of NPPs. However, unlike most other forms of power generation, NPPs are good to go for pretty much the period of human lifetime. Fossil fuel plants generally require large-scale upgrading or even demolition and re-construction after 25 to 30 years. NPPs have a maximum lifespan of 70 to 80 years. 

Once stakeholders commit to the highly significant initial investment in nuclear facilities, such plants are proven to be hugely efficient energy producers, and actually produce electricity for a fraction of the fluid cost of fossil fuel plants and even some renewable plants which are costly in terms of ongoing cost of power generation. Basically, nuclear power plants are expensive to build but relatively cheap to run, even when waste disposal costs are taken into account.

American nuclear energy expert Rod Adams states, “The fundamental aspect of nuclear energy that fission heat is actually quite cheap. The average total production cost from a US nuclear power plant today is just 1.86 cents per kilowatt-hour. Nuclear plant owners [2008] in the US spent an average of just 0.49 cents per kilowatt hour for fuel and 1.37 cents per kilowatt hour for non-fuel O&M.”

South Africa’s lone NPP, Koeberg, was added to the nation’s power grid 33 years ago. Today it is South Africa’s cheapest and one of the most reliable sources of energy. It is actually considered to be an important revenue generator, apart from being a major employer, clean and relatively young.

Summing up

Just one year ago Oxford University physicist, cancer researcher and columnist, Dr David Robert Grimes wrote in The Guardian, “It is important also to see [power generation-related] disasters in the wider context of energy production: when the Banqiao hydroelectric dam failed in China in 1975 in led to at least 171000 deaths. Even windpower has resulted in more than 100 deaths since the 1990s. [It is important] to point out that every form of energy production has some inherent risk. Our reliance on fossil fuels is particularly costly, not only to the environment but to human health; each year, at least 1.3 million people are estimated to die from air pollution. More recent estimates put this figure at 5.5 million.”

Myths regarding nuclear both fuel and are fuelled by public opinion – the perceived dangers dispelled above and countless times in the past by engineers, academics and other experts, have helped cause the abandonment of nuclear in Germany, Vietnam and soon in Korea. After Fukushima and the suspension of nuclear, pollution increased and blackouts increased leading to public protest. Japan’s suspension of nuclear for safety concerns that have subsequently been dispelled since we have gained wisdom and knowledge, brought new waves of environmental damage due to the fact that the nation became massively reliant on the substitutive dirty fuels that it by necessity imported.

Obstructive but ignorance-based public opinion is nuclear’s greatest enemy and therefore vicariously, and somewhat ironically, a serious environmental foe. Nuclear accidents occupy a disproportionately large space in the public consciousness and the misbelief regarding environmental risk and bottom-line generation costs are no more based on reality.

Nuclear energy involves risk and dangers. Of course it does, but the benefits of nuclear generation far outweigh these risks, and when comparative analysis is conducted, other energy generating methods are exposed as horrendously dangerous, yet avoid the nervous and biased eye of the general public. Nuclear is safe, clean and inexpensive when averaged out over the long-term. The atom needs to be given its fair public hearing with balanced debate. And in encouraging this judicious debate, we might just be saving the planet.

*Blinky illustration is credited to Matt Groening, the creator of Blinky