With a financial push from the Obama administration (and even Bill Gates
), nuclear energy
is out in front as an alternative to generating electricity with fossil fuels.
Nuclear power plants –- and there are 104 operating in the United States today -- work much like natural gas or coal plants: An energy source heats water to make steam; steam turns a turbine; the turbine generates electricity. But a nuclear reactor differs from fossil fuel-based plants in that it doesn’t burn anything and doesn’t produce any carbon-dioxide emissions. Zero.
However, it’s based on radioactive materials and it produces radioactive waste. That’s where the concerns lie. I think it’s fair to say that whenever the topic of nuclear energy comes up, the question of its safety is high on the list of discussion points.
It’s a complicated topic, but to give you some food for thought, I interviewed a person from either side of the issue. First, I spoke with Tom Kauffman, senior media relations manager for the Nuclear Energy Institute in Washington, D.C. Kauffman has been in the industry for more than two decades, held a senior reactor operator license and was at Three Mile Island when the accident occurred in 1979. Out of that conversation, I came up with a list of questions, which I emailed to Edwin Lyman.
Lyman is a senior staff scientist at the Union of Concerned Scientists in Washington, D.C. His research focuses on the prevention of nuclear proliferation and nuclear terrorism, and prior to working at the UCS, he was the president of the Nuclear Control Institute. Lyman emailed his answers.
Below are Kauffman’s and Lyman’s responses to some of the main safety concerns hovering over the future of nuclear energy. Neither one saw the other’s answers, as I did not want them to debate each other, but rather provide information about these issues from their point of view. Since I spoke with Kauffman first, I’ll put his answers first. Here are their responses to this controversial issue:
Oftentimes the topic of Chernobyl comes up when nuclear energy is mentioned. Could a Chernobyl-type accident happen in the United States at a nuclear power plant?
Kauffman: No. A Chernobyl-type accident can’t happen in the United States. It’s physically impossible. The reactor was a completely different design. All of the U.S. nuclear plants are self-limiting. They can’t run out of control and explode. The Chernobyl reactor wasn’t self-limiting. That design is banned in the United States and in most other nations. People who bring it up are using it as a scare tactic. My Subaru is as likely to blow up like Chernobyl as one of our nuclear reactors.
Lyman: The short answer is yes. An accident resulting in a large radiological release to the environment comparable to or worse than that of Chernobyl could definitely occur at a U.S. nuclear power plant. While the particular accident mechanism resulting in a catastrophic release of radioactivity would be different for a U.S. light-water reactor than for a Chernobyl-type reactor, the outcome could be similar. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission has a policy that if a core-melt accident occurs (such as the one at Three Mile Island in 1979), then the probability that the event could result in a large radiological release should be less than 10 percent.
According to computer simulations, some U.S. reactors would comfortably meet this limit, while it is less clear for others. Some reactor-containment buildings could be ruptured by a hydrogen explosion, for example. In addition, when a plant is down for a refueling outage, the containment building is open to the environment, but the fuel remains hot and is still vulnerable to melting if cooling is interrupted. And finally, terrorists with the tactical skill to attack a nuclear plant would find it fairly easy to blow a hole in the containment building.
Do people who work or live near nuclear power plants get exposed to radiation? And is that level safe? What's an unsafe level and how does it compare to our everyday exposure?
Kauffman: There have been commercial plants operating in the United States for more than 50 years, and collectively they have amassed more than 3,000 reactor years of operations. After all of those years and experience, there have been no deaths or negative health effects linked to the nuclear power plants in the public. There has never been a radiation-caused death of any of the workers. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, it’s safer to work at a nuclear power plant than it is to work at a bank or a grocery store or in real estate. The industry’s record shows that it has performed very safely and reliably for decades.
It’s a myth that there is no safe dose of radiation. If that were true, you couldn’t breathe the air or drink water or eat food. Every human being is continuously exposed to different forms of radiation, from outer space, the Earth, water, food and air. The risk associated with low doses of radiation from natural sources and manmade sources is extremely low.
The use of radiation to make electricity, in medicine to diagnose and treat disease or treating food for bacteria has improved, extended or saved the lives of millions of Americans.
Lyman: First of all, there is no such thing as a "safe" level of radiation. Reputable scientific bodies like the U.S. National Academy of Sciences have reviewed all the evidence and concur that even a single particle of ionizing radiation is capable of causing the genetic damage that could result in cancer. But the risk is proportional to the dose, so the higher the dose the greater the risk.
Many people who work at nuclear plants get exposed to radiation as part of the job. There is a federal limit for the maximum exposure a nuclear plant worker can receive over the course of a year, but the U.S. standard is 2.5 times the international standard. This limit is set so that the occupational risk incurred by radiation workers is comparable to that of other workers in hazardous industries.
People who live near nuclear plants also receive some routine radiation exposure. It is very hard to accurately project these doses, and they are extremely variable with respect to time and location. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission requires licensees to make estimates of these doses and show that they do not exceed regulatory limits. Regulatory limits are set so that the doses received by the public from anthropogenic radiation are a fraction of the radiation received from the natural background. But the public dose limit is the same for everyone, and doesn't take into account that certain subpopulations may be more susceptible to radiation exposure, such as children. Do nuclear power plants leak? If so, what does that mean and can those leaks be dangerous?
Kauffman: We’ve had some leaks, like at Vermont Yankee. But that was self-identified by on-sight monitors. They notified everyone and actively found the sources, isolated them and mitigated the consequences. It has not gotten into drinking water nor has it threatened the safety or the health of the public around the plant. None of the leaks ever have.
We’re working hard to prevent these things. But when they do happen, we take the initiative to self-identify and let everyone know, and then mitigate those events.
Lyman: I interpret a "leak" to mean an unauthorized release of radiation. Nuclear plants emit some radioactivity into the air and water during normal operation, but those releases are regulated by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. However, there have been several examples over the past few years of unauthorized and uncontrolled releases of tritium and other radionuclides to groundwater. Vermont Yankee is a case in point. So far, very few of these have resulted in detectable increases in radioactivity in public drinking water sources. However, these leaks may be troubling signs of unanticipated corrosion problems at aging nuclear plants and could lead to more serious problems if left uncorrected.
How vulnerable are nuclear power plants to terrorist attacks?
Kauffman: Nuclear power plants are some of the most highly protected facilities in the nations. They are up there with Fort Knox. They are built to withstand the impact of a jet liner. They are guarded and protected 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 365 days a year with security equipment and personnel armed with automatic weapons. These are fortified, highly secure, and well-protected facilities. The multiple layers of security make them less of target of terrorism than other, less-secure facilities.
Lyman: Nuclear plants are intrinsically vulnerable to terrorist attacks because they are delicate systems that can be easily disrupted through violent means. At some U.S. plants, detonation of an explosive device at a single location could be sufficient to result in a core meltdown. As a result, plants require extensive security measures to protect against both external violent assaults and insider sabotage.
However, these measures are cumbersome and expensive, and post-9/11 security requirements have been resisted by the utilities. Even today, nearly half of U.S. nuclear plants have not completed security upgrades mandated by Nuclear Regulatory Commission after the 9/11 attacks. And these measures are not foolproof. Currently, the Commission statistics reveal that about 10 percent of plants fail their "force-on-force" security inspections, in which a team of mock adversaries attack a plant to assess the quality of the security force response.
How vulnerable are shipments of new or used radioactive materials? Could they be blown up or crash and release radioactive materials that could harm people?
Kauffman: There have been more than 3,000 shipments of used fuel and highly radioactive materials since the 1960s that have totaled 1.7 million miles on our roads and railways, and in that time, there have been nine accidents. None have caused any radiation exposure. There were no leaks or environmental impact. No radiological impacts. No damage or impact to the public. That’s an excellent safety record.
A fuel-shipping container can withstand a direct hit by high-speed locomotive going 80 miles per hour. It can withstand a 1,475-degree Fahrenheit fire for 30 minutes, a direct hit by projectile 30 times more powerful than an anti-tank weapon, and 600 feet of water pressure.
Lyman: Some types of concentrated nuclear material are extremely hazardous and considerable care must be taken when they are transported. Spent nuclear fuel, plutonium and high-level nuclear wastes are the most dangerous categories. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission has requirements for transportation packaging and for transport safety and security measures, but the efficacy of these measures is --- and has been --- extensively debated for decades.
There is always a tradeoff between safety and the cost of transport. Transportation of nuclear material is the stage of the nuclear fuel cycle that is most vulnerable to terrorist attack. However, there is very limited information about the potential consequences of sabotage attacks on transportation casks. It simply isn't well known how much material could be released into the environment. But a sabotage attack does have the potential to spread radioactive contamination over a wide area.
Is finding a storage solution the responsibility of the federal government or the power plant? The fact of the matter is, even if no other plants are built in the United States, we still have operating plants that must dispose of waste. What in your opinion is, or are, some alternatives to safely storing radioactive waste?
Kauffman: Storage of used fuel is by law, the responsibility of the federal government to have a solution, but they haven’t fulfilled this obligation. When I was being trained in the late 1970s, the used fuel would go into storage pools and then it was supposed to be shipped off to reprocessing to be reused. But Carter stopped all development and research on reprocessing.
The Obama administration stepped up saying we need a plan in place for these materials and we need to consider developing technologies for reprocessing used fuel. President Obama doesn’t favor the Yucca Mountain option, but he’s recognized that we need a comprehensive, long-term plan. He and Energy Secretary Steven Chu established a blue ribbon commission that begins meeting this month and is charged with developing recommendations within two years.
The industry has made some recommendations, too. We would like to see centralized, interim storage. We have plants that have been decommissioned. Remove the used fuel from those decommissioned plants so that the sites can be made green and used for other purposes. To reduce the risk of proliferation, we want proliferation-proof ways to recycle the used fuel considered. It would be a tremendous waste to bury it somewhere.
Yucca Mountain and the used fuel issue were mired in politics for years, and now we see some very positive movement forward.
Lyman: By law, the federal government has the responsibility for the final disposal of commercial spent nuclear fuel, but the funding for carrying out this responsibility comes from electricity ratepayers. The government has not honored this responsibility and as a result is now defending itself from numerous utility lawsuits, and now that it has cancelled the current geologic repository program, it is likely going to continue to lose in court.
In our view (and the view of most experts), there is no alternative for nuclear waste disposal in an underground geologic repository. The government will have no choice but to restart the siting process that was originally started in the 1980s and culminated in the selection of Yucca Mountain. And there is no technical means to destroy nuclear waste so that a repository would not be necessary.
Some people advocate reprocessing spent fuel and assert that this technology would have benefits for nuclear waste management. However, this is absolutely not the case. Reprocessing greatly increases the volume of nuclear waste requiring secure disposal, releases considerable radioactivity into the air and water, and produces separated plutonium, which is a material that can be stolen by terrorists and used to make nuclear weapons. Therefore, reprocessing is the most dangerous option for dealing with spent nuclear fuel.
Photo: Getty Images/David McGlynn