Busting the Top 5 Nuclear Energy Myths


iStock_000003470513SmallHappy Nuclear Science Week! In celebration, we are inaugurating our new series Nuclear Mythbusters. Let’s start with classic nuclear energy myths.

Credit to Nuclear Connect for their resources.

Myth 1 — Nuclear energy is dangerous.

Truth: Nuclear energy is as safe or safer than any other form of energy available. No member of the public has ever been injured or killed in the entire 50-year history of commercial nuclear power in the United States. In fact, recent studies have shown that it is safer to work in a nuclear power plant than an office. It is also impossible for a nuclear reactor to explode like a nuclear weapon; these weapons contain very special materials in very particular configurations, neither of which are present in a nuclear reactor.

Source: Nuclear Energy Institute

Myth 2 — Chernobyl, Three Mile Island and Fukushima Daiichi have given thousands of people cancer and will continue to do so.

Truth: The three major nuclear power plant disasters — Chernobyl, Three Miles Island and Fukushima Daiichi — resulted in more than 50 deaths to date, all from the Chernobyl accident. While the exact numbers of deaths will likely never be known, the Chernobyl Forum has estimated that an additional 4,000 will pass away from complications due to radiation exposure. Of the people known to have received a high radiation dose, the increase in cancer incidence is too small to measure due to other causes of cancer such as air pollution and tobacco use. In addition, a Chernobyl-type accident could not have happened outside of the Soviet Union because this type of reactor was never built or operated here.

Sources: IAEA, ANS, Science Magazine

Myth 3 — There is no solution to nuclear waste.

Truth: All of the used nuclear fuel generated in every nuclear plant in the past 50 years would fill a football field to a depth of less than 10 yards, and 96 percent of this “waste” can be recycled. Used fuel is currently being safely stored. The U.S. National Academy of Sciences and the equivalent scientific advisory panels in every major country support geological disposal of such wastes as the preferred safe method for their ultimate disposal. In addition, used nuclear fuel can be recycled to make new fuel and byproducts. Most of the waste from this process will require a storage time of less than 300 years. Finally, less than 1 percent is radioactive for 10,000 years. This portion is not much more radioactive than some things found in nature, and can be easily shielded to protect humans and wildlife.

Source: Krane, K.S., 1988. “Introductory Nuclear Physics.” John Wiley and Sons;  Nuclear Energy Agency, OECD report, 1999. “Progress Towards Geologic Disposal of Radioactive Waste: Where do We Stand?”

Myth 4 — Nuclear energy poisons the environment.

Truth: Nuclear reactors emit no greenhouse gasses during operation. Over their full lifetimes, they result in comparable emissions to renewable forms of energy such as wind and solar. Nuclear energy requires less land use than most other forms of energy.

Source: Meier, P.J., 2002. Life-Cycle Assessment of Electricity Generation Systems and Applications for Climate Change Policy Analysis.

Myth 5 — Fukushima radiation is killing ocean life.

Naturally occurring radiation in the ocean is much higher than the radiation that is seeping from the Fukushima plant. But the radiation is not a cause for worry since it is a fraction of the amount of radiation that Americans receive during a routine dental examination.

Source: Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution