Nuclear energy is one of the most widely recognized energy sources today, with the World Nuclear Association reporting that nuclear power supplied 2,553 TWh (terawatt hours) of electricity in 2020. However, because of a few highly-publicized accidents involving nuclear reactors and a slew of misinformation and fear following these accidents, nuclear energy’s usefulness to humanity as a safe, reliable source of energy is still downplayed and at risk of being phased out entirely in decades to come.
This possibility is still hotly contested, which is all the better as nuclear power is still one of the cleanest and safest methods of power generation on Earth.
There are a few regular criticisms of nuclear power often bandied about but there is less truth to these myths than one may realize. The first, and perhaps most well-known critique, is that nuclear power should not be used because of how unsafe or dangerous it is to people, a claim immediately met by modern nuclear safety standards.
According to the World Nuclear Association, “the design and operation of nuclear power plants aims to minimise the likelihood of accidents and avoid major human consequences,” if they do happen. While most of us are familiar with the devastating incidents at Chernobyl and Fukushima Daiichi, it is worth noting that these are in fact “the only major accidents to have occurred in over 18,500 cumulative reactor-years of commercial nuclear power operation in thirty-six countries,” says the association.
The association emphasizes that “the evidence over six decades shows that nuclear power is a safe means of generating electricity. The risk of accidents in nuclear power plants is low and declining.”
Data collected by Australia’s Prime Ministerial Taskforce on Uranium Mining, Processing and Nuclear Energy bears this out. When comparing different energy sectors between the years 1969 and 2000, nuclear power was found to be responsible for far fewer fatalities–or indeed, accidents of any sort–than coal, oil, natural gas, liquefied petroleum gas, or hydroelectricity. While accidents in these other sectors number in the hundreds to even thousands, with fatalities in the thousands to tens of thousands, the nuclear industry reported only one accident within that time, with thirty-one fatalities.
The Fukushima Daiichi incident of 2011 did raise a new safety concern for nuclear power: namely, “the loss of power to maintain effective cooling,” according to a 2015 fact sheet released by the Nuclear Energy Institute (NEI). In response, the industry “has developed a diverse, flexible mitigation approach,” called the FLEX program. The program adds robustness and redundancy to existing safety systems by “stationing another layer of backup equipment at plant sites and regional depots,” states the NEI.
In terms of how effective the FLEX program and other safety initiatives have been, the NEI cites data monitored by the World Association of Nuclear Operators (WANO) and the Institute of Nuclear Power Operations (INPO) that illustrates how “U.S. nuclear energy plants continued operating at high levels of safety and reliability in 2014.” In that year, the nuclear power industry recorded just 0.03 industrial safety accidents per 200,000 worker-hours, far below the 2015 goal of 0.1 accidents per 200,000 worker-hours since 2010.
Indeed, “Data compiled by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics shows that it is safer to work at a nuclear power plant than in the manufacturing sector, leisure and hospitality industries, and financial sectors,” says an NEI fact sheet.
After the safety of people, another consistent concern regarding nuclear energy is the effect it can have on the environment, an enduring thought that is not entirely based on truth. In a 2019 piece for the Nuclear Energy Institute, an industry association, Kelly McPharlin reports that the nuclear power industry in the United States is “recognized as one of the safest industrial working environments in the nation.”
The industry promotes a safety approach called “defense-in-depth,” which provides “multiple overlapping levels of safety designed to prevent accidental radiation release,” McPharlin says. In addition, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) performs detailed safety and security procedures and plant check-ups.
In the 2021 article, 3 Reasons Why Nuclear is Clean and Sustainable, the United States Department of Energy’s Office of Nuclear Energy counters another myth, which is that nuclear power is an unclean, unsustainable source of energy. Nuclear energy creates steam that is used to generate power via turbines and does not discharge combustion by-products into the atmosphere, whereas burning coal or gas releases a host of greenhouse gases and particulates that can form smog or acid rain.
In fact, according to the NEI, in 2019, if nuclear energy was not used in the United States, a further 476 million metric tons of carbon dioxide would have been produced.
The NEI also states that nuclear energy also requires far less land to generate the same amount of power compared to other clean energy sources, such as wind or solar.
Several industry experts also extol the uses of nuclear power as a clean resource. In a 2021 interview with CNET’s Daniel Van Boom, Dietmar Detering and Eric Dawson of the nonpartisan advocacy group Nuclear New York reveal that the big advantage is that “nuclear power produces huge amounts of electricity while emitting next to no carbon.” Fossil fuels, in contrast, are what Van Boom calls “consistent but dirty,” while renewables are “clean but weather dependent.”
James Hansen and Michael Shellenberger, meanwhile, in an opinion piece for the Wall Street Journal, argue that “anyone seriously interested in preventing dangerous levels of global warming should be advocating nuclear power.” Nuclear already accounts for 93 percent of Pennsylvania’s clean, zero-emissions electricity; furthermore, if it “and Ohio’s nuclear plants close and are replaced by facilities that burn natural gas, it would be like adding 13.5 million new cars to the roads.”
Nuclear power has been in use in one form or another for decades, which puts it in the category of proven sources of electricity. In fact, nuclear power technology could evolve even further to utilize the process of nuclear fusion, a breakthrough scientists may be on the verge of making.
No approach to power conservation or generation is above critique but the reputation of nuclear power continues to be attacked based on claims brought about by fear and misinformation. Proponents of nuclear power must continue to present evidence for its safety and efficiency to ensure the viability and availability of nuclear power generation for the foreseeable future.