ONE of the selling points of nuclear power, according to those who favor it, is that in spite of its fearsome reputation, it is actually quite safe. More people have died as a result of the use of other forms of energy production than from the use of nuclear power, they say, and they have statistics to back them up.
For example, the most objective studies of the 1986 Chernobyl disaster put the overall death toll at around 6,000 – about 50 as a direct result of the accident, the rest from various forms of radiation-induced illnesses in the months and years after the event. By contrast, about 13,200 deaths in the US each year are attributed to fine particle air pollution, of which coal-burning power plants are the biggest source. Even if only half of those deaths could be conclusively linked to power plant emissions, that is still a Chernobyl and then some in terms of casualties, not just once, but year after year.
And, if the definition of deaths caused by power generating facilities is taken literally, nuclear advocates point out, then hydroelectric power is the deadliest of them all; in 1975, a cascade of failures of hydroelectric dams in China caused floods that killed 230,000 people.
Comparisons of nuclear power to conventional fossil-fueled power in terms of fatal risk to humans are invidious, and a straw man argument; at this point, enlightened as we are to the risks and implications of climate change, no one would assert that conventional coal- or petroleum-fueled power plants are a better option. In fact, no one really needs to argue that there are better options than nuclear power (even though there clearly are), but simply point out that nuclear power’s irrefutable record of failure and huge economic costs make it an equally unacceptable option at best.
The development of nuclear power for commercial use began after World War 2, and finally came to fruition in 1956 and 1957 in the United Kingdom and the United States, respectively, with Britain’s Calder Hall plant, and the Westinghouse plant in Shippingport, Pennsylvania. The history of serious nuclear accidents, however, began a few years earlier, with a partial meltdown of Canada’s NRX research reactor in 1952.
The severity of a nuclear incident is measured according to what is called the International Nuclear Event Scale (INES), which was introduced by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) in 1990. The scale ranges from 0 to 7, with 0 representing a “deviation” and 7 representing a “major accident.” To date, there have only been two level 7 events – the 1986 Chernobyl disaster, considered to be the worst nuclear accident ever, and the 2011 Fukushima disaster. Anything with an INES rating of 4 or higher is considered an “accident,” in that it has consequences outside the nuclear site.
Since 1952, there have been 113 nuclear incidents worldwide (an average of 1.7 incidents per year), defined as causing at least $50,000 in property damage or a loss of human life, which would make them at least a level 0 or 1 on the INES scale. Of these, there have been at least 38 incidents that would qualify as a level 4 or higher on the INES scale.
Since the beginning of commercial nuclear operations, about 1.5 percent, or about one out of every 67 nuclear reactors ever built, has experienced some degree of meltdown. Even if no radiation escapes to the environment, such an accident is catastrophic and essentially destroys the reactor. In the Three Mile Island accident in the US in 1979, for example, very little radiation was actually released from the reactor containment building, and in terms of its environmental or human safety risk, the accident was not nearly as serious as was first thought. The Unit 2 reactor, however, was thoroughly wrecked; in service for only 13 months at the time of the accident, cleaning up the mess took 14 years and cost an estimate $973 million (about $1.73 billion in today’s money).
That is the real threat of nuclear power; it may be statistically safer in terms of deadly risk, but its economic risk is enormous. Unlike a conventionally fueled power plant, where the power source is essentially a big furnace, or a solar PV plant that doesn’t even have any moving parts, even a “simple” nuclear system is complex, and requires delicately balanced chemistry to operate efficiently, or even operate at all. And while it is true that virtually every serious nuclear incident or accident has been unique – which allows nuclear advocates to say things like, “The same kind of accident as Three Mile Island/Chernobyl/Fukushima couldn’t happen here” – the reason they have been unique is because there is almost an infinite number of ways a nuclear power system can fail. And when it does, even if it doesn’t kill anyone or poison the surrounding environment, the cost of cleaning up the mess may be more than what the plant is worth, and takes longer than what it did to build the thing in the first place.