Monday, August 20, 2007

Nuclear Power's Imperfect, but It's Less Deadly than Coal

David, who works as an engineer at a nuclear power plant - that's a conversation-stopper at dinner parties, we've found - came home today with news of a presentation he'd just attended at work. The featured speaker had been a control room operator at Three Mile Island on the day in 1979 when one unit's reactor core partially melted down. This man, just short of retirement, was in his '30s then, and ever since the accident, he's been travelling to nuclear power plants around the country explaining how events unfolded that day, and warning a younger generation of workers not to let improved technology and more rigorous oversight make them complacent. Despite all the improvements in the industry prompted by the accident, bad things can still happen.

It was a great presentation, apparently, and as David told me about it, he handed me a fact sheet the Nuclear Regulatory Commission had issued about the accident. (The former control-room operator estimated that roughly 600 investigations had been conducted since 1979.)

I looked through the NRC report. It's written simply, in layman's terms. Its lead sentence reads:

"The accident at Three Mile Island Unit 2 nuclear power plan near Middletown, Penn., on March 28, 1979 was the most serious in U.S. commercial nuclear power plant operating history, even though it led to no deaths or injuries to plant workers or members of the nearby community."

The report goes to explain precisely what happened. In the end, the NRC determined that the accident resulted from a "combination of personnel errors, design deficiencies, and component failures."

In the aftermath of the accident, several federal and independent studies were conducted to determine what, if any, health consequences the people around the plant had suffered due to the small amounts of radiation released from the plant.

"Estimates are that the average dose to about 2 million people in the area was only about 1 millirem. To put this into context, exposure from a full set of chest x-rays is about 6 millirem. Compared to the natural radioactive background dose of about 100-125 millirem per year for the area, the collective dose to the community was very small. In the months following the accident, although questions were raised about possible adverse effects from radiation on human, animal, and plant life in the TMI area, none could be directly correlated to the accident."

Bottom line: Although the reactor was seriously damaged, the effect of the radiation release on life and the environment was "negligible."

I'm a recent convert to nuclear power, and I'm certainly not downplaying its risks. It's imperfect, to be sure.

But, here's the thing with risk. In just the past several days, six coal miners and three rescue workers have died in this country, and almost 200 coal miners have died in China. Yet the public will soon dry its tears, if indeed it ever really shed any, and we'll continue burning coal as if nothing ever happened.

My question is this: Why do we accept these deaths as tragic but unavoidable, while continuing to wring our hands about nuclear power, which, even in its worst US accident, has yet to harm a single person in this country?


Johan Simu said...

People fear the unkown. Coal mining accidents dont scare the avarage joe, simply because no matter how horrible the accident is he is at no risk himself. He cares more about having electricity than he cares about some coal miners dying.
The avarage joe doesnt care about the risk of beeing killed by polution from coal power either because hey, he bbq with coal so how bad can it be right?

Radiation on the other hand is the great boggyman. No one understands radiation, no one even makes a attempt to understand the real effects of radiation. They just swallow the regular bullshit from media and environmentalists. "Nuclear" is like "chemicals", something mythical, dangerous, almost magical. Something that kills silently and no one is safe from it. Atleast that is what most belive.

Johan Simu said...

Also I dont think people in general acctualy know how little damage three miles island did. Most seem to think it was a disaster, atleast here in sweden. When I try to tell people that three miles island was the perfect demonstration of the safety of containment buildings they just choose not to belive it. I told a swedish politician and outspoken anti nuke recently on his blog that TMI had no environmental or health consequenses whatsoever. He then accused me of lying and simply blocked me from further discussion.

People have heard so much about TMI that they belive it must have been a disaster. Combine that with distrust towards goverment and big buisness and they imidietly draw the conclusion that it was terrible, any evidence against that conclusion is just big biz trying to hiding the real consequenses.

Its impossible to use studies to show that it was a harmless accident, because those studies can not be trusted in the minds of environmentalists. Science is only trustworthy when it confirms what they belive. Kind of like creationists.

Anonymous said...

How right you are. That's why I sometimes wonder if there's any purpose to debating an issue. TMI wasn't a disaster - just the opposite.

DRPI said...

As Simon and Garfunkel said, "A man hears what he wants to hear and disregards the rest . . ."

NUREG said...

The closure of Barseb├Ąck will have a substantial impact on the environment. Barseb├Ąck's output of approximately 4 TW h per year will primarily be replaced by imports from coal-fired plants in Denmark and Germany. In doing so, emissions of carbon dioxide in Sweden's surroundings will increase, corresponding to more than a doubling of the Swedish electricity sector's emissions of carbon dioxide. Besides sharply increased carbon dioxide emissions, the fallout in southern Sweden of acidifying substances, such as sulphur and nitrogen, will also increase.

Of course, the Swedes are ignoring the fact that Germany's fossil generation will be needed for domestic consumption if they too implement a nuclear phaseout.

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