ER AND THE ENVIRONMENT Compared to electricity generated by burning fossil fuels, nuclear energy is clean.

Nuclear power plants produce no air pollution or carbon dioxide but a small amount of emissions result from processing the uranium that is used in nuclear reactors. Like all industrial processes, nuclear power generation has by-product wastes: spent (used) fuels, other radioactive waste, and heat. Spent fuels and other radioactive wastes are the principal environmental concern for nuclear power. Most nuclear waste is low-level radioactive waste. It consists of ordinary tools, protective clothing, wiping cloths and disposable items that have been contaminated with small amounts of radioactive dust or particles. These materials are subject to special regulation that govern their disposal so they will not come in contact with the outside environment. On the other hand, the spent fuel assemblies are highly radioactive and must initially be stored in specially designed pools resembling large swimming pools (water cools the fuel and acts as a radiation shield) or in specially designed dry storage containers. An increasing number of reactor operators now store their older and less spent fuel in dry storage facilities using special outdoor concrete or steel containers with air cooling. The United States Department of Energy's long range plan is for this spent fuel to be stored deep in the earth in a geologic repository, at Yucca Mountain,

RISKS OF NUCLEAR POWER

Bernard L. Cohen, Sc.D. Professor at the University of Pittsburgh

Radiation The principal risks associated with nuclear power arise from health effects of radiation. This radiation consists of subatomic particles traveling at or near the velocity of light---186,000 miles per second. They can penetrate deep inside the human body where they can damage biological cells and thereby initiate a cancer. If they strike sex cells, they can cause genetic diseases in progeny. Radiation occurs naturally in our environment; a typical person is, and always has been struck by 15,000 particles of radiation every second from natural sources, and an average medical X-ray involves being struck by 100 billion. While this may seem to be very dangerous, it is not, because the probability for a particle of radiation entering a human body to cause a cancer or a genetic disease is only one chance in 30 million billion (30 quintillion).

Nuclear power technology produces materials that are active in emitting radiation and are therefore called "radioactive".g. Reactor accidents The nuclear power plant design strategy for preventing accidents and mitigating their potential effects is "defense in depth"--. they completely miss the point of defense in depth which easily takes care of such failures. Since natural radiation is estimated to cause about 1% of all cancers.. Of course it is possible that each system in this series of back-ups might fail one after the other. with accidents treated probabilistically. reducing our life expectancy by less than one hour. The risks are somewhat less than the cancer risks.000). accidents in nuclear power plants. and escape of radioactive wastes from confinement systems. etc. implying that it was a close call" on disaster. We will discuss these separately. oil. there have been about 400 extra cancer deaths among the 100. if that system should also fail there is another back-up system for it. burning coal. but there have been no extra genetic diseases among their progeny. The Media often publicize a failure of some particular system in some plant. among the Japanese A-bomb survivors from Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Other causes of genetic disease include delayed parenthood (children of older parents have higher incidence) and men wearing pants (this warms the gonads.002% (one part in 50. but all of them taken together. There has been much misunderstanding on genetic diseases due to radiation. Even in the Three Mile Island accident where at least . These materials can come into contact with people principally through small releases during routine plant operation. or gas. etc. will eventually expose the average American to about 0.if something fails.5 days. the latter cannot cause new types of genetic diseases or deformities (e. for example.000 people in the follow-up group. The genetic risks of nuclear power are equivalent to delaying parenthood by 2. or threaten the "human race". bionic man). 80 cases of genetic disease would be averted for each case caused by the nuclear industry. if 1% of the taxes paid by the nuclear industry were used to further implement this technology. is estimated to range from 3 to 40 days.. Since there is no possible way for the cells in our bodies to distinguish between natural radiation and radiation from the nuclear industry. Much can be done to avert genetic diseases utilizing currently available technology. By comparison. but the probability for that is exceedingly small. accidents in transporting radioactive materials. there is a back-up system to limit the harm done. radiation due to nuclear technology should eventually increase our cancer risk by 0. increasing the frequency of spontaneous mutations). or of men wearing pants an extra 8 hours per year.2% of his exposure from natural radiation. our loss of life expectancy from competitive electricity generation technologies.

It was clearly not a close call on disaster to the surrounding population. but the same is true for the cancer deaths from reactor accidents. expected once in 100. Since air pollution from coal burning is estimated to be causing 10. the largest number of noticeable deaths from coal burning was in an air pollution incident (London. This is much less than the geographical variation--. e. but such "noticeable" deaths would be expected in only 2% of reactor melt-down accidents.5%. Of course the nuclear accidents are hypothetical and there are many much worse hypothetical accidents in other electricity generation technologies.. there would be over 100 in 0. Risks from reactor accidents are estimated by the rapidly developing science of "probabilistic risk analysis" (PRA). To date. and 3500 in 1 out of 100. that disaster would have been averted. two lines of defense were still not breached--. Of course deaths from coal burning air pollution are not noticeable.S.000 deaths per year. Very high radiation doses can destroy body functions and lead to death within 60 days.g. built on a much less safe design concept.22% in New England to 17% in the Rocky Mountain states. and in 1 out of 100.000 years of reactor operation. The Soviet Chernobyl reactor. if it did.000 melt-downs (once in 2 billion years of reactor operation).000 there would be 50. increasing their cancer risk typically from 20% (the current U. Radioactive Waste The radioactive waste products from the nuclear industry must be isolated from contact with people for very long time periods.two equipment failures were severely compounded by human errors. average) to 20. A PRA must be done separately for each power plant (at a cost of $5 million) but we give typical results here: A fuel melt-down might be expected once in 20. and that vessel was sealed inside the heavily reinforced concrete and steel lined "containment" building which was never even challenged. 1952) where there were 3500 extra deaths in one week. the cancer deaths would be among 10 million people.essentially all of the radioactivity remained sealed in the thick steel reactor vessel. there would have to be 25 melt-downs each year for nuclear power to be as dangerous as coal burning. in 1 out of 5 there would be over 1000 deaths. In the worst accident considered. there are hydroelectric dams in California whose sudden failure could cause 200.000 deaths. The average for all meltdowns would be 400 deaths. The bulk of the . In 2 out of 3 melt-downs there would be no deaths.2% of meltdowns.000 melt-downs.000 deaths. did not have such a containment structure.

Probabilistic risk analyses indicate that we can expect less than one death per century in U. the residues from chemical processing of the ore. the wastes from coal burning plants that end up in the ground will eventually cause several thousand deaths from generating the same amount of electricity. If we assume that this material immediately becomes dispersed through the soil between the surface and ground water depth (despite elaborate measures to maintain waste package integrity) and behaves like the same materials that are present naturally in soil (there is extensive evidence confirming such behavior). The all-inclusive estimates of radon effects are that one nuclear power plant operating for one year will eventually avert a few hundred deaths.radioactivity is contained in the spent fuel. The much larger volume of much less radioactive (low level) waste from nuclear plants will be buried at shallow depths (typically 20 feet) in soil. If the waste behaves like other rock. from this source. cause one death from 50 years of operation. these effects are grossly over-compensated by the fact that mining uranium out of the ground reduces future radon exposures. from all of these accidents combined. The average lifetime of a rock in that environment is one billion years. Mining uranium to fuel nuclear power plants leaves "mill tailings". A typical estimate is that they may reduce our life expectancy by 15 minutes. A great deal of such transport has taken place over the past 50 years and there have been numerous accidents. Potential problems from accidents in transport of radioactive materials are largely neutralized by elaborate packaging.S. By comparison. coal burning leaves ashes that increase future radon exposures. This "high level waste" will be converted to a rock-like form and emplaced in the natural habitat of rocks. which lead to radon exposures to the public. By comparison. . deep underground. it is easily shown that the waste generated by one nuclear power plant will eventually. However. including fatal ones. over millions of years (if there is no cure found for cancer). However. the death toll from this low level waste would be 5% of that from the high level waste discussed in the previous paragraph. while an equivalent coal burning plant will eventually cause 30 deaths. there is less than a 1% chance that even a single death will ever result from radiation exposure. Other Radiation Problems The effects of routine releases of radioactivity from nuclear plants depend somewhat on how the spent fuel is handled. which is quite small in volume and therefore easily handled with great care.

Radiation The principal risks associated with nuclear power arise from health effects of radiation. corrections or ideas can be sent to the webmaster ( the webmaster ). and escape of radioactive wastes from confinement . This radiation consists of subatomic particles traveling at or near the velocity of light---186. If they strike sex cells. Radiation occurs naturally in our environment. While this may seem to be very dangerous.000 miles per second. They can penetrate deep inside the human body where they can damage biological cells and thereby initiate a cancer. a typical person is. because the probability for a particle of radiation entering a human body to cause a cancer or a genetic disease is only one chance in 30 million billion (30 quintillion). and an average medical X-ray involves being struck by 100 billion. accidents in nuclear power plants.Top of this page Return to the HomePage Comments. they can cause genetic diseases in progeny. and always has been struck by 15. it is not. accidents in transporting radioactive materials.000 particles of radiation every second from natural sources. These materials can come into contact with people principally through small releases during routine plant operation. Nuclear power technology produces materials that are active in emitting radiation and are therefore called "radioactive".

000 deaths per year. Since natural radiation is estimated to cause about 1% of all cancers. We will discuss these separately.000 there would be 50. expected once in 100. but the probability for that is exceedingly small. but the same is true for the cancer deaths from reactor accidents. The Media often publicize a failure of some particular system in some plant.S. The average for all meltdowns would be 400 deaths. two lines of defense were still not breached--. will eventually expose the average American to about 0. Risks from reactor accidents are estimated by the rapidly developing science of "probabilistic risk analysis" (PRA). and in 1 out of 100.if something fails. that disaster would have been averted.5%.systems. with accidents treated probabilistically. Of course deaths from coal burning air pollution are not noticeable. reducing our life expectancy by less than one hour.000). implying that it was a close call" on disaster. This is much less than the geographical variation--. average) to 20.22% in New England to 17% in the Rocky Mountain states. if it did. there is a back-up system to limit the harm done. The Soviet Chernobyl reactor. In the worst accident considered..002% (one part in 50.000 melt-downs (once in 2 billion years of reactor operation).2% of his exposure from natural radiation. Of course it is possible that each system in this series of back-ups might fail one after the other. in 1 out of 5 there would be over 1000 deaths. In 2 out of 3 melt-downs there would be no deaths. etc. built on a much less safe design concept. if that system should also fail there is another back-up system for it. did not have such a containment structure.essentially all of the radioactivity remained sealed in the thick steel reactor vessel. increasing their cancer risk typically from 20% (the current U.000 years of reactor operation. and that vessel was sealed inside the heavily reinforced concrete and steel lined "containment" building which was never even challenged. It was clearly not a close call on disaster to the surrounding population. radiation due to nuclear technology should eventually increase our cancer risk by 0. Even in the Three Mile Island accident where at least two equipment failures were severely compounded by human errors. they completely miss the point of defense in depth which easily takes care of such failures. Since air pollution from coal burning is estimated to be causing 10. A PRA must be done separately for each power plant (at a cost of $5 million) but we give typical results here: A fuel melt-down might be expected once in 20.000 deaths. but all of them taken together. . etc. the cancer deaths would be among 10 million people. there would have to be 25 melt-downs each year for nuclear power to be as dangerous as coal burning. our loss of life expectancy from competitive electricity generation technologieReactor accidents The nuclear power plant design strategy for preventing accidents and mitigating their potential effects is "defense in depth"--. By comparison.

Very high radiation doses can destroy body functions and lead to death within 60 days. . e. is estimated to range from 3 to 40 days. there are hydroelectric dams in California whose sudden failure could cause 200.000 deaths. burning coal. the largest number of noticeable deaths from coal burning was in an air pollution incident (London.g. and 3500 in 1 out of 100.. but such "noticeable" deaths would be expected in only 2% of reactor melt-down accidents.2% of meltdowns. 1952) where there were 3500 extra deaths in one week. To date.000 melt-downs. there would be over 100 in 0. oil. s. Of course the nuclear accidents are hypothetical and there are many much worse hypothetical accidents in other electricity generation technologies. or gas.