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March 18, 2011

Putting Nuclear Power in Perspective

With the nuclear reactor crisis in Japan, the Internet is a-buzz with the dangers of nuclear power. I don't want to go into the details of the situation in Japan because I think that has been done well other places already. If you are interested in that, I recommend Live Science and Georneys. What I wanted to talk about is the real dangers of nuclear power in some context.

from National Geographic
Nuclear power is generated by fissioning radioactive elements. This process produces radiation and heat. That heat is then usually used to heat water into steam that drives a turbine. The reactors themselves also need to be cooled by some means to control the speed the fission occurs. Problems happen when the fission starts producing heat in a uncontrolled chain reaction. This can lead to a meltdown of the reactor and leaking of large amounts of radiation. It is that radiation that causes so much concern among nuclear power detractors. Despite these fears, nuclear power currently generates about a third of our power in the United States.

There is no doubt that there are dangers to nuclear power. The two worst disasters on record are Three Mile Island and the infamous Chernobyl. While most people view these as some of the greatest disasters in the last century, they actually come nowhere close. At Three Mile Island, I could find no evidence of any deaths from either the initial meltdown or the subsequent radiation. In fact, radiation would have had to be thousands of times higher than the numbers reported for the people living in the area to have encounter any measurable health effects. Chernobyl is a slightly different story. With such a controversial issue, the number of people affected varies wildly depending on who you ask. The data I am giving here is from a 2005 report by the World Health Organization (WHO). I recommend you read the report, as the story has a lot of nuance. Still, they concluded that approximately 4000 people will likely die in total from Chernobyl and its after-effects. As of right now, the meltdown in Japan is somewhere in between these two.

So let's compare the worst nuclear power disasters to some other current events. Dam failures in the last fifty years have claimed tens, if not hundreds of thousands of lives. In the US alone, about fifty people died in coal mining accidents last year. In 2007 Scientific American reported the following, "In fact, the fly ash emitted by a power planta by-product from burning coal for electricity-carries into the surrounding environment 100 times more radiation than a nuclear power plant producing the same amount of energy." While this is still not deadly levels of radiation, it is still worth noting. In addition to this, more than 150 people are killed each year from lightning, tornados, and hurricanes. Natural disasters can dwarf these numbers, with the tsunami in 2004 killing well over one hundred fifty thousand people.

I do not want to trivialize the importance of safety in dealing with nuclear power or the deaths of above. Still there is a reality that everything we do has risks. Nuclear power is no exception. Over the last few decades, it has been getting safer and safer. Three Mile Island is actually a testament that even when things do go wrong, we can control the damage to prevent any deaths. Like most things, nuclear power is not a magic bullet or a monster of pure evil. The reality lies somewhere in between.

5 comments:

Anonymous said...

I just want to say that I appreciate what you are doing with this blog.I haven't ever been interested in science much.But almost all of your blogs are interesting to me.So thank you for opening my eyes to how interesting science can really be.:)

Carver said...

I'm really glad you enjoy it. Sharing our own excitement for science was our goal from the beginning. I am glad that comes across in our writings.

Melissa said...

People must use such powerful instruments responsibly. It is sad that many innocent people are harmed by others' irresponsible activities. We must be mindful and watchful of these developments in our world. mining equipment

coal seam gas australia said...

Those last two sentences say it all. Using such powerful equipment will always be a double-edged sword. It all depends on the people behind it whether a piece of equipment will become a blessing or a bane.

Stephen Hansen said...

Very interesting blog post. You are obviously passionate about science. Keep it up.