if you want a greener, cleaner world, you’ll need nuclear power

Nuclear energy easily whips up public panic thanks to the coverage of incidents at Chernobyl and Fukushima. But fear and media hype have overshadowed two basic facts: nuclear power works, and we need it more than ever.

romantically apocalyptic screens
Illustration from Romantically Apocalyptic

Until the Fukushima incident, the explosion at Chernobyl has been the rallying cry of countless anti-nuclear activists asked why we can’t use nuclear power to help reduce carbon emissions and help us transition to renewable sources of energy faster. But there’s mounting evidence that for all the shock of Chernobyl and the immediate effects of the blast, the damage it caused has been greatly exaggerated. Instead of estimates of more than 50,000 deaths, which seemed to treat every other malady experienced by Ukranians as a consequence of radiation poisoning, few fatalities and some 4,000 cases of thyroid cancer in children, mostly from contaminated milk in which radioactive iodine replaced calcium, could be attributed to the incident.

For full disclosure, I was a small child in Ukraine when the reactor exploded and turned out just fine, with all my fourteen fingers and thirteen toes roughly where one would expect them to be. Meanwhile, in Chernobyl, nature is eating the abandoned city of Pripyat with far fewer mutated and deformed animals one would be led to think live there. When you visit on a good day, the sun is shining, the birds are singing, the fish are swimming, the trees are humming, and lakes glow a lovely iridescent blue. Mandatory gallows humor aside, yes, the Chernobyl incident was far from harmless. But at the same time, the fallout of fear and panic spread much farther and was far more powerful than the radiation released by the meltdown.

so, just how dangerous are nuclear power plants?

Just as anti-nuclear activists have latched onto an oversimplified view that all radiation is lethal and any exposure will create vast dead zones straight out of post-apocalyptic comics books, a few pundits tack to the other extreme, like Michael Shellenberger in Forbes, who argues that we actually have all the proof we need that nuclear power is incredibly safe, even after meltdowns, and many of the actions taken to keep cleaning up both Chernobyl and Fukushima are nothing more than politically-motivated overkill. The upshot is that we should be building more nuclear capacity to help wean ourselves off fossil fuels faster, and that pollution from coal power plants causes far more cancers than any nuclear reactor ever has, including those that melted down, and coal ash is more radioactive than well contained nuclear waste.

Obviously, getting all our power from nuclear reactors would be unwise. We would ideally need a mix of energy sources like wind, tidal, solar, and geothermal as well. But while we build that capacity, bringing more reactors online would help us shut down coal fired plants faster and allow for breathing room on renewables. It’s also true that an operating nuclear reactor would pose no threat to its surroundings unless it’s hit by one a one-two punch of a 9.1 earthquake and 20 foot tsunami. However, the part Shellenberger and other nuclear advocates seem to miss is the big problem of storing nuclear waste. There’s still no overarching strategy for dealing with spent fuel rods and more nuclear power plants means more spent fuel, and while we could recycle it for a few years, it would still be dangerous for centuries.

how do we store nuclear waste?

When modern reactors are done with their fuel, the rods spend a few years cooling off in large pools of water, which is very good at conducting away heat and blocking alpha and beta decay particles. Ideally, we’d just have lots of cooling tanks to keep the spent rods for as long as we need until they no longer pose a direct threat to everything around them, but the space for such tanks is very finite and linked to the power plants. Cooled rods are sealed in containers made of steel and concrete and then stored, well, pretty much wherever we can put them for now until a permanent site is found. Unfortunately, since no one seems to want a nuclear waste storage site anywhere near them, choosing one has been a problem for decades, and we’re yet to formally designate one, although some locations have been chosen.

And it’s really not easy to find a permanent storage site either. It has to be as geologically inert as possible for thousands of years not to break containers in earthquakes and allow a stealthy contamination of the soil and groundwater. It has to be remote and inhospitable so it’s difficult to access and no one wants to explore it. It has to remain clearly marked with warnings that could still be legible and understood hundreds of years from now in case its location is lost and people of the future decide to build a new city there, not knowing they’re doing it on top of radioactive metals and one major slip-up could have very serious consequences. And there has to be a specialized infrastructure to get the waste from the reactors to this resting place.

where do we go from here?

Since we did find a few good storage locations, we’re probably not going to find too many more, and will need to make up our minds sooner rather than later. The bottom line here is that there’s really no avoiding the fact that if we want to seriously lower our carbon footprint, nuclear energy has to become a bigger part of the grid, and fears about nuclear power are a mix of legitimate but manageable concerns, and overblown panic fed by those genuinely terrified of the very word radiation, and who assume that no amount of exposure can possibly be safe despite the fact that if this were true, the sun would’ve turned us into a The Thing-like mess of random limbs and tumors a few hundred million years ago.

We saw that it takes massive disasters for nuclear plants to pose a real threat, and we know how to do not just a proper cleanup, but go well above and beyond that. We also know that these disasters aren’t going to happen on a regular basis, especially after two major ones with old reactors — one being operated improperly and one built in a very geologically risky zone — that give us a very good guide for what not to do in the near future. Many countries get between a fifth and three fourths of their energy needs met by nuclear reactors without incidents leading to contamination or actual harm, and making every generation of reactors safer. And if we’re really serious about phasing out fossil fuels and helping the environment, nuclear is far from the worst way to do it.

# science // nuclear power / nuclear reactors / nuclear waste


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