Is nuclear power too dangerous?

To follow is an excerpt from the CQ Researcher report "Nuclear Power" by Marcia Clemmitt on June 10, 2011.


Even critics of nuclear power are split: Some argue that because every exposure to ionizing radiation increases one's risk of cancer, nuclear plants are impossible to accept under any circumstance. Others remain open to nuclear plants as long as industry and government take tough safety measures. Meanwhile, nuclear-power advocates contend that accidents involving major radiation releases have been rare worldwide.

“You will never eliminate all risk, but there is tremendous work being done in reducing that risk,” says Neil Wilmshurst, vice president for nuclear activities at the power industry's Electric Power Research Institute. Because it's widely expected that most U.S. power reactors will receive extensions on their operating licenses rather than be replaced by newer designs, the group's current research mainly focuses on safely extending the life of older plants, such as determining how construction materials degrade with age, he explains.

“Nuclear engineers are extremely conscientious, and we teach the culture of safety,” says Georgia Tech's Sjoden. “None of us wants to be the person out there with our name in lights for allowing a major problem to happen.”

Pietrangelo of the Nuclear Energy Institute (NEI) says the industry takes a systemwide approach to safety. “We are all inextricably linked together” because the power industry knows that a problem at one nuclear plant raises public fears about all plants, he says. U.S. nuclear plant operators now spend one week in every six in training, he points out. If 80 percent of NEI's member companies agree that a safety action is of top priority and relates to all plants, “it becomes binding on everybody,” he says.

Consolidation in the power industry has increased safety because with fewer companies managing the same number of reactors, the companies are better able to accrue “the human infrastructure, the software, the knowledge about exactly what's going on” that aids safe operation, says Paul Joskow, a professor emeritus of economics at MIT and a board member at Exelon, the nation's largest operator of nuclear power reactors.

“I don't think there's any question that things are safer than they were 15 to 20 years ago,” says David A. Lochbaum, director of the Nuclear Safety Project at the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS), an environmental research and advocacy group. “Near misses,” such as small mechanical breakdowns that could lead to radiation-releasing accidents if they worsened, “are way down” in recent years, he says.

Reforms that followed both the Three Mile Island accident and 2001 terrorist attacks have made nuclear power safer in the United States, some analysts say.

“Most changes involve how employees manage plants,” says Per F. Peterson, a professor of nuclear engineering at the University of California, Berkeley. Today, workers report in writing every problem they notice, such as a slightly sticking valve, and “share it with all the other plants in the country,” he says. Furthermore, “you record why you did a fix in a certain way so that down the line you don't make some other change that inadvertently regenerates an earlier problem.”

Many analysts point out that while nuclear power arouses public dread, other power sources also have dangers — including radiation, which, for example, coal-burning power plants regularly release in small quantities in the form of “fly ash.” [Footnote 10]

The global intergovernmental group Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) estimates that in 2000 alone, 960,000 people around the world died prematurely from lung and heart problems and other diseases caused by airborne particulates, some 30 percent of which came from coal-burning power plants and other energy sources. [Footnote 11]

Furthermore, OECD argues, humans already face a relatively high risk of cancer from naturally occurring background radiation from the sun, foods such as bananas, medical procedures such as X-rays and CT scans and other sources, so that the additional risk incurred from nuclear power is modest. OECD analysts calculated that about 33,000 people will ultimately die because of radiation released by the 1986 Chernobyl catastrophe. But they also calculated that “natural background radiation” will cause “about 50 million” cancer deaths over the same period. [Footnote 12]

But none of these arguments is persuasive for nuclear power's staunchest critics. “The idea that the atom is safe is just a public-relations trick,” says Greenpeace's Riccio, quoting a quip often attributed to James Watson, co-discoverer of DNA. “If it were safe, you wouldn't need a whole agency to regulate it, you wouldn't need to try to ensure protection out to 250,000 years or evacuate people out to 50 miles” to avoid it, Riccio says.

Since 1972 the National Academy of Sciences has issued seven reports — dubbed the BEIR, or Biologic Effects of Ionizing Radiation, reports — which make clear that “you want to avoid doses of radiation, period,” says Riccio.

He charges that the NRC has a disturbing record of “rewriting the rules” to make it easier for plants to meet safety standards. That's especially troubling today because U.S. nuclear plants are aging, he argues. As they get older, oversight should increase, he says.

In his 1982 book Killing Our Own: The Disaster of America's Experience with Atomic Radiation, environmentalist and investigative reporter Harvey Wasserman argued that any breach of safety in a nuclear plant poses a dire health threat. “No matter how small the dose, the human egg … or embryo or fetus in utero, or newborn infant, or weakened elder has no defense against even the tiniest radioactive assault,” he wrote. “Science has never found such a ‘safe’ threshold, and never will.” [Footnote 13]

After Three Mile Island, “infant death rates soared in nearby Harrisburg,” and an increase in “the death and mutation rate among farm and wild animals was also thoroughly documented by the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture,” Wasserman wrote. [Footnote 14] Pennsylvania's Health and Agriculture departments verified the increases but did not conclude that they were linked to the nuclear accident, however. [Footnote 15]

Many analysts are somewhere in the middle, saying the picture of nuclear-power safety is mixed.

Countries vary in the level of attention they pay to safety issues, says MIT's Lester. “Lots of communication and lots of learning goes on across national borders, but it's voluntary, and some countries pay more attention [to lessons from abroad] than others,” he says.

Lochbaum of the Union of Concerned Scientists says different U.S. power companies have very different safety records and, surprisingly, the most financially efficient managers tend to be safest. “We had thought that cost-efficiency might result from cutting corners on safety,” but a UCS study found that, in fact, the most cost-effective plants “were very aggressively looking at safety problems.” It appears that other owners may have let the same problems slide until they worsened, thus likely costing them more to fix while also compromising plant safety, just as a small faucet drip that a homeowner doesn't fix can end up causing extensive damage, he says.

The Issues:

  • Is nuclear power too dangerous?
  • Is the United States prepared for a nuclear-plant emergency?
  • Is nuclear power needed to meet future energy needs?
Click here for more information on the CQ Researcher report on "Nuclear Power" [subscription required] or purchase the PDF.


[10] For background, see Mara Hvistendahl, “Coal Ash Is More Radioactive than Nuclear Waste,” Scientific American, Dec. 13, 2007,

[11] “Comparing Nuclear Accident Risks with Those from Other Energy Sources,” Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development Nuclear Energy Agency, 2010,

[12] Ibid.

[13] Harvey Wasserman, “‘Safe’ Radiation Is a Lethal Three Mile Island Lie,” Common Dreams website, March 28, 2011,

[14] Ibid.

[15] “Report Doubts Infant Death Rise from Three Mile Island Accident,” United Press International/New York Times, March 21, 1981,, and “Health Studies Find No Cancer Link to TMI,” American Nuclear Society website,