Published: March 28, 2011
Patrick Moore, National Post • Mar. 28, 2011 | Last Updated: Mar. 28, 2011 4:04 AM ET
Nuclear energy supplies about 16% of the world’s electricity, a percentage similar to hydroelectric power. Among the 30 countries with nuclear power plants, 21 countries obtain 15% or more of their electricity from nuclear energy, ranging from Canada at 15% to France at nearly 80%. In the U.S., about 20% of electricity is produced by 104 nuclear plants, nearly one-quarter of all the world’s nuclear power. The 439 nuclear plants that operate in 31 countries today are producing clean, reliable, reasonably priced electricity for hundreds of millions of people. And yet nuclear energy remains the most controversial form of power, so much so that some countries and regions have passed laws against it, either pledging to phase it out altogether or placing bans on further development.
Nuclear energy came by its controversial reputation honestly. Two atomic bombs killed nearly a quarter of a million people on August 6 and August 9, 1945, in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. This was our first experience with nuclear technology on a grand scale. A deep fear was indelibly impressed into the human consciousness. Now we could annihilate whole civilizations in seconds. Now genocide had become suicide. The course of evolution had been altered and the nature of culture and politics were changed forever.
Throughout the 1960s and 1970s, the world lived in constant fear that there would be an all-out nuclear war. My generation was born into that world and by the time I came of age, the Beat Generation had had its heyday and the hippy years of the late 1960s had just begun. Many of us became radicalized and turned against the establishment that was preparing for what seemed like our inevitable annihilation.
Meanwhile, the U.S. and many other countries embarked on programs to build nuclear reactors in order to produce electricity. Most of the 439 reactors that operate around the world today were built during the 1960s, 1970s and into the 1980s. During those early years of the nuclear energy industry, there was an optimistic outlook and it seemed nuclear power would sweep the nations of the world. That all changed at 4.00 a.m. on March 28, 1979, when Reactor 2 on Three Mile Island in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, had an accident involving loss of coolant water, which caused a meltdown in the core of the reactor.
A wave of fear spread across the country in the aftermath of the accident. It didn’t help that the hit movie The China Syndrome, starring Jane Fonda and Jack Lemmon, had been released only two months before. In the movie, a nuclear plant accident, which results from a meltdown of the reactor core, threatens the world with destruction. The Three Mile Island accident seemed eerily similar; it was as if fiction had suddenly become reality.
In the aftermath of the accident, many follow-up health studies focused on the people who lived near the reactor. In the end there was no negative impact on the public or the workers in the plant. In many ways the accident at Three Mile Island turned out to be a success story. It was a major mechanical failure, but no one was injured, never mind killed. Three Mile Island was a huge wake-up call for the nuclear industry, not only in the U.S., but in all Western countries that had reactors. All the safety systems and operating procedures were gone over and strengthened to make sure such an accident would not be repeated.
Unfortunately the Soviet Union still lay behind the Iron Curtain in 1979 and the Three Mile Island accident had no effect on its nuclear program. Years earlier the Soviets had begun to build reactors around the country for power production. They took a short cut and simply copied the design of their nuclear-weapons production reactors, failing to include a containment structure and adequate safety systems. It was like putting a nuclear reactor in a warehouse. The RBMK class of Soviet reactors was an accident waiting to happen. And it did.
There were four identical reactors at the Chernobyl nuclear complex in the Ukraine. In 1986 a group of engineers was assigned to do a test on Unit 4, which had the best operating record in the group. Ironically, the test was designed to improve the safety of the reactors. When the operators contravened basic safety procedures, the test went horribly wrong and the reactor blew up, breaking through the roof and spewing the radioactive contents of the core downwind over the Ukraine, Belarus, and on to Sweden.
In many ways, Chernobyl was symptomatic of everything that is wrong with the Communist system: Secrecy, central control, shoddy engineering, and lack of concern for human life. It took a week to put out the fire because of the huge graphite moderator in the reactor core. Thirty-four people died, either during the explosion or from radiation and burns they suffered while trying to put out the fire that continued to spread radiation into the atmosphere for a week after the explosion. When the fire was finally extinguished, a large area downwind had been contaminated with strontium90, cesium-137, iodine-131 and other fission products.
The anti-nuclear movement in the West used Chernobyl as proof that nuclear energy should be rejected and all existing reactors should be closed. Just as the Cold War was coming to an end, there was a new cause to replace the campaign against the buildup of nuclear weapons. In a way, nuclear energy simply replaced nuclear weapons as the cause of the day. The Greens in Europe made ridiculous claims that 300,000 people had died in the aftermath of Chernobyl. To this day Greenpeace claims that there were more than 90,000 deaths.
A Chernobyl-like accident could not possibly occur in the reactors operating outside the former Soviet Union. Whereas the Three Mile Island accident involved a loss of cooling water from the reactor that, in turn, caused a meltdown of the core due to the heat of radioactive decay in the fission products, the Chernobyl accident was a runaway nuclear reaction.
Despite the unfortunate fact that injury and death were caused at Chernobyl, nuclear energy is still one of the safest technologies we have invented. Every industry, whether it be construction, farming, mining, steel production, forestry, financial services, transportation, or energy production, has risks associated with it. For the amount of power it produces and the number of people involved in its operations, the nuclear industry is a very safe place to work. A study of 54,000 nuclear workers conducted by Columbia University and published in 2004 found these workers had significantly fewer cancers, less disease, and lived longer than their counterparts in the general population.
Compare the record of the nuclear industry to other major energy technologies. An accident in the turbine room of Russia’s largest hydroelectric dam caused 69 deaths in July 2009. In February 2010 the Connecticut Kleen Energy natural gas plant exploded, killing five plant workers. In April 2010, an explosion in a coal mine in West Virginia resulted in 29 deaths (about 5000 workers die in coal mines every year, mostly in China). Later that same month, 11 workers were killed when a British Petroleum oil rig blew up and sank in the Gulf of Mexico. By contrast, no nuclear worker has ever been killed in a nuclear plant accident in the West and only one accident has caused fatalities. The Chernobyl accident was the exception that proves the rule that nuclear energy is one of the safest industries we have.
The fear of radiation fuels much of the opposition to nuclear energy. I attended a public hearing in Vermont, conducted by the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission to receive comments on whether or not the Vermont Yankee reactor should be granted a 20-year licence extension. A young woman came to the microphone with a small child in her arms and proclaimed that she had moved to a house near the reactor and she knew her child was going to get cancer from the radiation being released into the environment. My immediate thought was, “if you really believe your child will get cancer from living near this plant, surely you should move somewhere else.” Apparently this is not a politically correct thought, as my colleagues advised me later.
For other people, nuclear waste is the key concern that leads them to reject nuclear energy as an option. When antinuclear folks tell us “nuclear waste will remain radioactive for millions of years” they are talking about the uranium, plutonium, and other heavy elements. But these can be burned as fuel and thus converted into fission products with much shorter lives. This is only one of the benefits of recycling used fuel. Another, of course, is the fact that the uranium that was mined in the first place can be recycled many times to produce over 100 times as much energy, if all the uranium-238 is burned. Instead of using only 0.7% of natural uranium we can use 100%, increasing the energy potential by more than 100 times. In other words, 100 years of nuclear energy production can be turned into more than 10,000 years of energy production. It is somewhat akin to the biblical miracle of the loaves and fishes, according to which thousands of people were fed with five loaves of bread and two small fish. This is what is meant when nuclear energy is described as sustainable.
Then there is the common misconception that so-called nuclear waste is liable to leak out and contaminate the environment. As in The Simpsons cartoons, it is depicted as a yellowish-green corrosive liquid that roils around in its container trying to eat its way out. In fact used nuclear fuel takes the form of solid pellets that are not at all corrosive and are securely contained in steel and concrete casks built to last for hundreds of years. The used nuclear fuel that is stored safely and securely at nuclear reactors around the world will certainly be recycled eventually. One of the reasons it is not all being recycled now is that new uranium is cheaper than recycled fuel.
Simple arithmetic tells us that if we want to cut fossil fuel consumption in half we must at least triple the amount of energy derived from all non-fossil sources. If total energy consumption doubles or triples, we need to increase the non-fossil energy by six or eight times by the end of the century.
Is this possible? Yes, but only if we are willing to include every cost-effective, non-fossil option available to us, especially nuclear energy. Without nuclear energy, cutting our use of fossil fuels by half while doubling total energy consumption would require a 12-to 32-fold increase in energy from the remaining alternatives. Without nuclear energy, the job literally becomes impossible.
– Excerpted from Confessions of a Greenpeace Dropout: The Making of a Sensible Environmentalist, courtesy of Beatty Street Publishing, 2011.