Nuclear Power

How It Works and Why It's Better Than Other Fuels

Written in Summer 1991. This version copyright (c) 2005 Dianne L. Durante


Ah, the joys of summer in New York.  Ice cream cones, open fire hydrants, the bliss of running into an air-conditioned building from 95-degree streets, and the threat of a brownout or blackout every time there's a heat wave.

We require more and more power to run air-conditioners and other machines, and that's a good thing.  It means that we do less exhausting physical labor, that we live more cleanly and more comfortably, and ultimately that we live longer.  The problem is that all those machines need electricity, and we seem to be running out of ways to generate it.  Fossil fuels pollute the atmosphere.  Solar power plants are hardly practical in the rainy Northeast.  And as for nuclear . . . What if the plant explodes?  What if it leaks radiation and we all get cancer?  What if it melts down?  What about all that waste, leaking radiation for thousands of years?

We have been told so many times that nuclear power is a threat that most of us don't even question the idea. It's time to start questioning it.  Most of the horror stories that we take for granted about nuclear power are either wrong or, at best, based on facts taken out of context.

No one supporting nuclear power argues that it's 100% safe.  There is no 100%-safe way of generating electricity. The fact is, however, that nuclear power is safer than fossil fuels (coal, gas and oil), which are at present our only options for generating massive amounts of electricity.  This is true in every stage of the production of electricity, from the time the fuel is dug out of the ground to the time its residue is disposed of.  Let's go through this process a step at a time.


Fuel for the power plant

The main reason that nuclear power is safer than fossil fuels is that the amount of fuel required to run a nuclear power plant is much less than what's needed to run a plant powered by fossil fuels.  To run a 1,000 megawatt electrical power plant (which gives enough electricity for about a million people) for a year takes 38,000 railroad cars of coal.   The same size nuclear power plant requires only 6 truckloads of fuel.  That means that for nuclear there are proportionately fewer mining disasters, fewer agonizing deaths from ailments such as Black Lung, and fewer deaths and injuries in railroad accidents while transporting the fuel.  Also, because nuclear fuel is much more concentrated, it's easier to protect it than it is to safeguard huge tanks of natural gas or oil.  A 1,000 MW oil-fueled plant burns about 40,000 barrels per day, and keeps on hand enough for 6 weeks or so: that's like guarding the Metropolitan Museum as opposed to a diamond ring.


Operating the power plant

Fossil fuel plants pour pollutants into the atmosphere.  One recent study (done at Brookhaven labs) estimated that such pollutants from a 1,000 MW plant cause over 70 deaths per year.

Ah, but what about all that radiation that a nuclear power plant supposedly releases?  Bear in mind, first, that we are constantly subjected to radiation, from the sun and from the earth.  The average yearly dose for an American is about 350 millirems.  If you flew from New York to Los Angeles, you'd get about 5 additional millirems, just from being higher in the atmosphere.  If you smoked 1 cigarette, you'd also get about 5 millirems.  If you lived at a high altitude, for example in Colorado, you'd get maybe 450 or 500 millirems per year, and if you lived in an energy-efficient home in the Northeast's radon belt, you might get much more than that.  A nuclear plant, on the other hand, is prohibited from emitting more than 5 millirems of radiation per year; most emit between 1 and 3. Living next door to a nuclear plant would, therefore, have very little effect in the total of the radiation you were exposed to.

There have been numerous studies on the effects of radiation.  No one has shown that increasing your exposure by a couple hundred millirems—never mind by 1 to 3—increases your risk of cancer by a measurable amount.  And there are enough people in Colorado that someone would have noticed.  On the other hand, the increase in deaths from the pollutants coal-fired plants emit is measurable and actual.

What about accidents?  What if the nuclear plant explodes, spewing radiation far and wide?

The simple answer to this is: it can't.  A nuclear bomb requires, first, fuel that contains 90% of a certain type of uranium (U235), and second, a powerful trigger mechanism to throw several pieces of such fuel together and hold them together while they try to explode apart.  The fuel in a nuclear power plant is only 3% U238, and there's no trigger mechanism, nor anything remotely similar.  A nuclear explosion in a nuclear power plant is as likely as a fire in a glass of pure water. (The 1986 Chernobyl disaster resulted in part from flammable components not used in the West.)

An explosion in a power plant fueled by gas or oil is not only probable, it's actually happened, many times, with the loss of many lives.

What if something does go wrong with the nuclear power plant?  Won't a core meltdown be disastrous?

First of all, if an accident does happen, a nuclear power plant has safeguard upon safeguard upon safeguard, and these defenses are largely automatic: they don't require men to risk their lives searching for gas shut-off valves and trying to extinguish exploding gas tanks.  A nuclear plant has a containment building strong enough to withstand the impact of a jet at landing speed, and designed precisely to prevent radioactivity from escaping if there is an accident.  The only place for the "meltdown" to go would be straight down, and soil is a terrific insulator against radioactivity. (Why do you think they build fallout shelters underground?)

In contrast to the in-depth defenses of a nuclear plant, remember that gas explosion in the Bronx 2 years ago, that killed 2 men?  That was caused by a man digging with a backhoe.  No containment building stopped the damage there, and the fuel didn't sink safely underground.  Similar accidents happen frequently when dealing with gas.  They make blazing headlines for a day, and are forgotten a week later.

Another advantage of nuclear power plants is that if something begins to go wrong, engineers have hours or days to deal with it.  A meltdown wouldn't occur with a crack and a bang, the way a gas explosion does.

Although we've had nuclear power plants operating in the United States for 45 years, there has never yet been a single death at a western nuclear plant caused by a problem in the reactor.  (Accidental falls, heart attacks, and so on, yes, but such deaths also occur at fossil-fired plants.)  On the other hand, not a year goes by without a couple major explosions of natural gas or oil.


Waste disposal

Aside from the pollutants it dumps into the air, a 1,000 megawatt fossil fuel plant produces as waste 36,500 truckloads of ash, which contains such deadly items as arsenic, lead and mercury.  That's about 320 lbs. of ash per person per year.  Do you ever hear where it goes, or what precautions are taken to make sure it doesn't get loose and do harm?

Ah, but what about that nuclear waste? The common wisdom is that it's extremely toxic, that it remains that way for thousands of years, and that no one can be certain it won't escape its containers and sneak up on us.  Here are the facts.

A 1,000 megawatt nuclear plant produces 1 truckload of waste per year, which comes out to an amount the size of one aspirin tablet per person. Much nuclear "waste" can be recycled: the uranium and plutonium that weren't used up can be taken out and put into new fuel rods, and several other useful materials can be removed.  What's left has only 3% of the radiation of the original waste product.

Nuclear waste is put into 1 of 3 categories. The standard for "low level waste" is so low that, if this standard were applied to humans, we couldn't be buried or incinerated.  We have too much "normal" radioactivity in our bodies.  For "high level waste," there are well tried procedures: the waste is combined with glass into solid form, sealed in stainless steel containers, put into stable geological deposits and constantly monitored.  At that point, it's already a lot safer and much less likely to get loose and affect you than coal ash is.

What about the radioactivity of what's put underground?  You may have heard that plutonium, one of the waste products of nuclear power, has a half-life of 24,000 years and therefore is a major carcinogenic hazard for thousands of future generations.  But think of it this way: if you had a 10,000-gallon water tank in your basement, and it had a crack that leaked 1 cup per day, the tank would leak for 16,000 days.  You probably wouldn't notice, since the amount was so small.  But what if the 10,000 gallons poured out in only 5 days?  2,000 gallons a day you would notice.  With regard to plutonium, the fact that it takes 24,000 years to get rid of half its radiation means that it's emitting very little in a year, or even over an average human life span.  It's radioactive particles with very shorthalf-lives (such as those that occur when radon breaks down, with half-lives of 30 minutes or less) that are extremely dangerous.  (As it happens, most of the plutonium can be removed and reused, so it's doesn't even have to be the main component of nuclear waste.)

The most convincing argument about the disposal of nuclear waste is this:  we're putting back in the earth less radioactive material than we took out, and we're putting it where it's much less likely to make contact with humans.

The final word

Nuclear power is safer than fossil fuels, at every stage of generating power.  It's less dangerous because fewer miners are required to produce it.  It's less dangerous to drivers because far less fuel has to be transported to power stations.  It's less dangerous at the power plant, because a nuclear plant has far more safeguards than a fossil-fuel plant, and because, if an accident does occur, the plant workers have a much longer time to handle the problem.  And it's safer when the fuel is used up, because the waste can be packaged up and disposed of according to well-tried means, in isolated areas.

It's time we started looking at the facts about nuclear power, and began replacing our fossil-fuel plants with a much safer way of generating power.


My credentials

Why should you listen to what I say?  I'm not an engineer or a scientist.  I'm not even a TV newscaster or a star of multi-million dollar blockbuster movies.  What makes me an authority on this subject?

Quite simply, the fact that I have learned to be skeptical of media claims of imminent crises and technological doom.  I know that it is technology—by which I mean someone applying his mind to a material problem and finding a better solution to it—that has gotten men out of caves and into the skyscrapers of Manhattan.  I was therefore skeptical about claims that generating electricity by nuclear power spelled doom for mankind.  I made it my business to learn the facts.  (They are all available in books written for the general public, such as Trashing the Planet by Dixie Lee Ray, former chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission, and Petr Beckmann's The Health Hazards of NOT Going Nuclear, from which I took most of the numbers cited above.)  Then I used my judgement.  You should do the same.


Addendum, March 2005

Recently Forbes Magazine had an excellent article on the nuclear power industry, "The Silence of the Nuke Protesters." Read it here, and don't forget the sidebar "Stopping the Bad Guys." Another good article, chock-full of statistics, is "Why the U.S. Needs More Nuclear Power," by Peter W. Huber and Mark P. Mills, City Journal Winter 2005 .

Bottom line: in the years since this article was written, nuclear power plants have become even safer and a more attractive alternative to fossil fuels, and there has still been no death caused by a problem with the reactor at any nuclear power plant in the West. Yet many people still believe nuclear power plants are frighteningly vulnerable: witness the ridiculous story-line in the 2005 season of the TV show 24, in which terrorists gained control of a plant and caused a meltdown, allowing all the radiation to escape directly into the atmosphere.