“Per unit of energy produced, nuclear is the safest of all energy sources.”
If you ask Bill Gates about climate change, he will tell you that our best way to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to embrace nuclear power. As the tech mogul and billionaire investor behind one of the most prominent global development groups recently stressed: “Nuclear is ideal for dealing with climate change, because it is the only carbon-free, scalable energy source that’s available 24 hours a day.”
So why do many environmentalists and policymakers, like the authors of the Green New Deal in the United States, remain opposed to nuclear power? The reason most often cited for their opposition involves safety concerns, but nuclear energy experts argue those fears are misplaced.
“Per unit of energy produced, nuclear is the safest of all energy sources. Nuclear plants do not release any air or water pollutants as part of their normal operation,” explains David Watson, a British physicist and clean energy advocate. “They operate 24/7, unlike intermittent solar and wind which must be backed up by methane gas-burning plants since grid-scale storage is still years away.”
As the World Nuclear Association notes: “In over 17,000 cumulative reactor-years of commercial operation in 33 countries, there have been only three major accidents to nuclear power plants… of all the accidents and incidents, only the Chernobyl and Fukushima accidents resulted in radiation doses to the public greater than those resulting from the exposure to natural sources.”
Despite the widespread public attention to those incidents, and the outsized role they continue to play in our public discourse, the actual impact from those events pales in comparison with the massive toll coal and other fossil fuels take on public health and people’s livelihoods worldwide each year. In the United States, for example, only 0.005% of an average citizen’s yearly radiation dose comes from nuclear power. Americans receive 100 times more radiation from coal-fired plants, and 200 times more from taking long-haul flights.
Coal, of course, brings with it many more problems than radiation exposure. According to a 2016 report jointly produced by the World Wildlife Fund, the Climate Action Network Europe, Sandbag, and the Health and Environment Alliance, 257 coal-fired plants in the European Union were responsible for nearly 23,000 deaths and at least €32.4 billion of expenditures on healthcare in 2013 alone. 19,000 of those deaths were attributed to fine particulate matter so small it enters the lungs and bloodstream, causing strokes and heart disease as well as lung cancer.
Nor does Europe have the worst of it. A study published in the Lancet last year found that air pollution was responsible for 1.2 million deaths in India in 2017 alone, shaving 5.3 years off the average lifespan in the country. By failing to comply in a timely fashion with emissions guidelines set by the government in 2015, Greenpeace also found Indian coal plants to be responsible for 76,000 premature – and avoidable – deaths.
Given the deadly track record of coal around the globe, why is it that nuclear energy sparks so much opposition? The answer lies, in part, in the way nuclear power has fused in the popular imagination with nuclear weapons. Politicians have further stoked fears of nuclear energy by playing up concerns about it, as seen in the responses of certain EU countries to new nuclear projects currently underway in countries like Belarus.
This is not to say nuclear energy does not have its potential hazards. That is precisely why modern nuclear plants are constructed according to rigorous safety standards. The International Atomic Energy Agency requires all its 171 member states to abide by those standards at nuclear plants worldwide, mandating high-quality materials, first-class construction and regular maintenance once operations have started.
As a result, modern nuclear plants do not release any significant amount of radiation into their environments. Inside these plants, radioactive material heats water, turning it into steam that spins giant turbines that generate electricity. Some of that water is released from the plants, yet its content of radiation is so negligible that even if you are directly exposed to it for longer periods, your chances of developing a cancerous tumor would stand at just one tenth of one percent.
As Wired’s Nick Stockton put it: “You’re far more likely to grow a tumor because you sneak a cigarette now and again.”