Why it’s time to dispel the myths about nuclear power

Apr 14, 2016

Photo credit: Air Photo Service/AFP/Getty Images

By David Robert Grimes

This year marks the fifth anniversary of the Fukushima disaster, and the 30th anniversary of the Chernobyl incident. Together, these constitute the two greatest nuclear accidents the world has ever seen.

Even now, widespread confusion over these disasters still blights rational discussion on energy production; too often the debate becomes needlessly acrimonious, reliant on rhetoric in lieu of facts. Yet as climate change becomes an ever-encroaching factor, we need more than ever to have a reasoned discussion on nuclear power. To this end, it’s worth dispelling some persistent myths.

The events in the Ukrainian town of Pripyat on the morning of 26 April 1986 have permanently etched the name Chernobyl, and all its connotations, into the public mind. With a dark irony, it was a poorly conducted safety experiment that was the catalyst for the worst nuclear disaster in history. The full odious sequence of events that led to the accident would constitute an entire article. In essence, however, the mixture of flawed design, disabled redundancies and a tragic disregard for experimental protocol all feature heavily in the blueprint of the disaster. The net result of this errant test was a massive steam explosion, replete with enough kick to blow the 2,000 ton reactor casting clean through the roof of the reactor building.

Despite the sheer explosive force of the eruption, what ensued was not a nuclear blast. The spectre of the cold war has left an unfortunate conflation between nuclear weapons and nuclear power, but it is important to note that they operate on very different principles. The Chernobyl explosion was instead a conventional high-pressure failure due to excess steam. Seconds later, the remaining coolant flashed to steam and a second even greater explosion occurred, dispersing the shattered nuclear core and effectively terminating the chain reaction. This second explosion also ejected chunks of graphite moderator into the air, which caught fire, releasing radioactive fallout. It’s estimated that the second explosion released 40bn joules of energy – roughly equivalent to a staggering 10 tons of TNT.

Contrary to all safety regulations, the roof of the reactor complex had been constructed with bitumen, which proved a highly flammable agent. The burning, highly toxic graphite rods ignited at least five fires on the roof of the adjacent reactor. To compound matters further, the night shift and engineering chief squabbled over whether the reactor should be shut downFor several hours workers were in situ with minimal protection. Firefighters arrived on the scene, completely unaware of the dangers they were being exposed to. In the commotion, a helicopter tasked with dumping 5,000 metric tons of sand and neutron-absorbing boron in an effort to quench the flames collided with a crane and spiralled into the ground, killing all four of crew members immediately – a tragic event caught on camera. By 5am the fire had been brought under control, but a number of men had been exposed to high radiation levels and lacked even the most basic protection.

The Soviet response was an unmitigated disaster; rather than admit the fault and take preventative action, the authorities pretended nothing was amiss. In this interim of inaction, hazardous material released in the blast seeped unimpeded into the soil around Pripyat, chief among them radio-iodine 131. This radio-isotope has a half-life of a mere eight days, but if ingested it can accumulate in the thyroid, leading to illness and the potential emergence of thyroid cancer in later life. To circumvent this, those exposed to high levels of radio-iodine are generally given potassium iodide to prevent ill effect. But even this basic prophylactic response was not taken, and residents continued to ingest contaminated food. Finally, a full 36 hours after the explosion, the authorities gave the order to evacuate. This too was likely to have been covered up, had traces of radioactive fallout not been detected at a Swedish nuclear facility the next day, which revealed the scale of the problem to the world.

Chernobyl was a perfect storm, a damning tale of ineptitude leading to needless loss of life. It was also unequivocally the world’s worst nuclear accident. To many, it is also heralded as proof-positive that nuclear energy was inherently unsafe, a narrative adopted by many anti-nuclear groups. The word Chernobyl became synonymous with death on a massive scale. But perception and reality do not always neatly align; in the wake of the disaster, the UN Scientific Committee on the Effects of Atomic Radiation (UNSCEAR) and others undertook a co-ordinated effort to follow up on health effects. In 2006, after two decades of monitoring they outlined the health effects; of the firefighters exposed to the huge core doses and incredibly toxic smoke, 28 died from acute radiation sickness. A further 15 perished from thyroid cancer. Despite aggressive monitoring for three decades, there has been no significant increase in solid tumours or delayed health effects, even in the hundreds of thousands of minimally protected cleanup workers who helped purge the site after the accident. In the words of the 2008 UNSCEAR report: “There is no scientific evidence of increases in overall cancer incidence or mortality rates or in rates of non-malignant disorders that could be related to radiation exposure.

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26 comments on “Why it’s time to dispel the myths about nuclear power

  • Just one word that wasn’t mentioned in the article: Thorium.

    Sidestep the debate. Abandon dual-purpose (weapons/power) technology, with it’s inherently greater risks.

    Imagine, if Iran was told, yes, you can have nuclear power, just don’t use U/Pu.

    Of course, the Nuclear Industry has no expertise in Thorium. So they’d be no better qualified than, say, ship builders, to develop Thorium power plants.

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  • OHooligan #1
    Apr 15, 2016 at 4:09 am

    Of course, the Nuclear Industry has no expertise in Thorium. So they’d be no better qualified than, say, ship builders, to develop Thorium power plants.

    They have made a belated start now funding is no longer fully withheld – albeit 60 years late!


    The Chinese initiated action to find viable energy sources significant enough to wean the country off its dependence on carbon-based energy. The large amounts of Thorium being produced as a by-product of its rare earth mining operations, is a further incentive. ThEC12 was partnered by the Shanghai Institute of Applied Physics(SINAP) – a senior academic institution of the Chinese Academy of Science (CAS), which has been given specific responsibility for the Thorium Energy utilization programme in China.
    The initative in China makes us believe that the Thorium Energy implementation door against which we’ve been pushing, may finally be starting to open.

    @OP – Why it’s time to dispel the myths about nuclear power

    But like thorium, many key issues are missing from this article!

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  • This article states the case I have against conventional nuclear power better than I could. I think he is missing the point in several places.

    It is exactly the fact that human error is involved that has me at least concerned about it in general. Both Chernobyl and Fukushima were cases of human error. He has done an excellent job of explaining just how incompetent the human factor was in Chernobyl, but defends Fukushima (I’d agree to a point). However, and this may sound like 20/20 hindsight but did no-one consider the possibility that an eathquake/tsunami prone area like Japan might not be the most sensible place to put a nuclear reactor? Or if they did, why didn’t they consider what would happen if their backup diesel generators failed? In both cases it was lucky that matters were not worse. In the case of Fukushima clearly many of the safety systems worked and greatly reduced worse outcomes. But, if someone had thought to consider what might happen if something happened to like a Tsunami clearly a better contingency would have been applied, how many nasty surprises could happen that we have simply never imagined? And this is the point.

    In both instances control was lost because we have to assume that people will always be involved. Scoffing at the nuclear nay sayers on the basis of physics or statistics without considering it is humans building a running the things is frankly a fantasy. We understand the physic of flight too it doesn’t stop aircraft from crashing, not because we don’t understand the systems and how to fly but because people are sometimes idoits, lazy, greedy, egotistical morons.

    We are talking about the possibility of very long term contamination or very risky and expensive clean up if this occurs. So risk cannot be measured over the course of the how long nuclear reactors have been with us, you only get to compare the risks of the nuclear age after the risk is gone. What he is doing is the equivalent to measuring the risk of a particular air flight while you are still up in the air, ‘I’m safe because I didn’t crash on take-off’, I’ll feel completely safe after landing, stopping and walked off the thing and not before.

    We have not dealt with the waste, we have not dealt with the weapons that engaging in nuclear energy almost always results in, and yes I know many of the worlds reactors cannot produce weapons grade materials but I don’t think it is a coincidence that most of the nations that get involved with nuclear energy also get involved in nuclear weapons. And I’m not forgetting that much money and worry is spend over issues like North Korea sending the odd missile off to remind us of what it hopes to be able to do, or how safe do we feel with Pakistan being a nuclear power and struggling with corruption and religious extremism? Again its back to people. And that is why I’m against nuclear power, perhaps after sky net and the robot take over they can efficiently and effectively use nuclear power. Seems clear to me that we can’t be trusted with it.

    I’m not suggesting anyone shuts down nuclear reactors and in the west in favour as the author suggests burning coal, to suggest that these are our only choices is a false dichotomy. Until/unless fusion or thorium reactors become a reality I’d think the sensible thing to do would be invest in wind and solar as ageing nuclear power plants come off line, neither of which to my knowledge have caused significant risk to human life or are likely to in the future, the odd maintenance worker might fall off a wind turbine or a mechanical fault could bring one down but it’s unlikely to have to cause a whole town to have to move, cost billions to clean up, or leave thousands to wait for the next 30 years to see if they are going to get cancer, or for the whole of Europe to have to stop buying food from countries in which a potentially radioactive cloud drifts as I seem to remember after Chernobyl. There are idiotic, sometimes greedy and corrupt people involved here and that will always be the case with all human endeavours.

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  • In 1607 a tsunami surged up the Bristol Channel, causing widespread devastation, almost certainly the result of an earthquake off the coast of Ireland. There are several nuclear power stations lining the Bristol Channel, some of them on low ground, not much above sea level. Who’s to say it won’t happen again, and it could be worse next time?

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  • Reckless Monkey #3
    Apr 15, 2016 at 5:30 am

    t is exactly the fact that human error is involved that has me at least concerned about it in general. Both Chernobyl and Fukushima were cases of human error.

    Windscale and Three Mile Island were also a combination of poor design, cooling faults, and human error.

    He has done an excellent job of explaining just how incompetent the human factor was in Chernobyl, but defends Fukushima

    While some environmental factors were exceptional at Fukushima, back-up systems MUST be designed to work under severe conditions, and with more forethought, could have been designed to do so.

    However, there is little evidence to suggest that politicians or commercial enterprises have learned from these disasters, as new reactors (such as Hinckley Point) are planning to use obsolete water-cooled uranium reactors, cheaply constructed by those putting in low tenders for construction work.

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  • Four likes in a row.

    I so wanted the US to fund Indian Iranian codevelopment of Thorium. What stabilising future trade and customers they would find….

    Losing chunks of the planet for the foreseeable future to the inevitable accidents and malice is simply bonkers. Shit happens. We need more house trained energy sources.

    Negawatts are still the highest return energy investment. We can also make 90% less stuff and still have as new and innovative things in service models. That’s a huge cut in discarded embodied energy, road and sea miles. Our bitty efforts at solving these problems need to be stepped back from to see the virtues of integrated solutions.

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  • The problem with these sort of reactors is you must actively control everything correctly or you have a big accident. It is a bit like successfully juggling plates decade after decade. You want a reactor that if you just let it sit there, creates no hazard.

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  • As with the space shuttle programme, all to often safety is considered subordinate to finance and quick results, and pretty much an optional extra, – if the short-term budget runs to it!


    The Department of Energy is dusting off one of the old betamaxes of nuclear technology: The molten salt reactor. But with political will lacking at home, it will rise in China.

    In 1973, the Nixon administration made a momentous decision that altered the course of civilian nuclear power: It fired the director of the renowned Oak Ridge National Laboratory, scuppering development of a reactor widely regarded as safer and superior to the complicated, inferior behemoths that define the global industry to this day.

    Nixon banished a reactor that was virtually meltdown-proof, left comparatively little long-lived waste, made it more difficult to fashion a bomb from the waste, ran at friendlier atmospheric pressure instead of the potentially explosive pressurized environments of conventional reactors, and ran at much higher temperatures, making it more cost-effective as an electricity generator.

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  • @OP – link – The volume of radioactive leak from the site is so small

    The Japanese have gone to considerable trouble and expenditure to contain it!

    as to be of no health concern; there is no detectable radiation from the accident in Fukushima grown-food, nor in fish caught off the coast.

    This of course hasn’t stopped numerous organisations employing Fukushima as an anti-nuclear argument, despite the lack of justification for doing so.



    For the first time, scientists have detected radioactivity in fish that have migrated into California waters from the ocean off Japan, where radiation contaminated the sea after explosions tore through the Fukushima nuclear reactors last year.

    Radioactive cesium was detected in samples of highly prized Pacific bluefin tuna, but it is well below levels considered unsafe for humans, the scientists say.

    The evidence is “unequivocal” that the tuna – caught off San Diego a year ago – were contaminated with radiation from Japan’s nuclear disaster, the researchers said.

    The migratory bluefin studied by the researchers were all caught by sport fishermen and were not headed for the market.

    Daniel J. Madigan, a marine ecologist at Stanford’s Hopkins Marine Station in Pacific Grove (Monterey County), Nicholas Fisher, a marine scientist internationally known as a specialist in radiation hazards at Stony Brook University on Long Island, and Zophia Baumann, a staff scientist in Fisher’s laboratory, reported their discovery Monday in the early online edition of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences

    The levels were below recognised dangerous levels, but we need to remember that the Japanese built an “ice wall” to contain the contaminated ground water, and stop the flow of radioactive material to the sea.

    The conflict with the above claims, would also indicate that the author of The Guardian article had not done basic homework!
    An absence of research is not an absence of radioactive contamination!

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  • @jimfox #12

    How right might I be indeed?

    ThorCon is designed to bring shipyard quality and productivity to nuclear power.

    ThorCon’s genesis is in ship production.

    They really are ship builders, then. I’m pleasantly surprised. 🙂

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  • @Alan4Discussion

    The conflict with the above claims, would also indicate that the author of The Guardian article had not done basic homework!

    An absence of research is not an absence of radioactive contamination!

    Yes, I heard one statistician (and I haven’t the maths or sufficient understanding of the nature of radioactive waste to be terribly confident about this issue, which is surrounding by much inaccurate information) that one of the factors that hasn’t been considered in the Chernobyl disaster is that due to fluctuating cancer rate due to any number of difficult to measure influences of cancer rates in a society we would need to wait decades and have over 900 000 additional cancers before they could positively uniquely identify the additional cancers to Chenobyl. Hence he argued we must consider before we claim how few lives have been proven to be lost, just how many must get cancer (a portion of whom will die) before we can say with any certainty that they are connected to Chenobyl. I had a quick google search to find the article again (unsuccessfully), I’d be grateful if anyone else knew of it as I might have misremembered the numbers. But the point I think is valid.

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  • At the time of Chernobyl, I was amused to see a map of the UK published in a newspaper, showing the radiation levels in different parts of the country. Granted there was heavy rainfall in the north, but there was an especially hot hot spot located in the vicinity of the Cumbrian coast, around Windscale, sorry, Sellafield (name changed to shake off the bad press). How unlucky they were to get all that nasty Soviet radioactivity dumped on their Perfectly Clean and Safe plant.

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  • the danger of nuclear energy: superheated water and rapid decompression can release huge amounts of kinetic energy.

    Does no one ever question our reliance on industrial revolution based technology to generate electricity?

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  • SaganTheCat #17
    Apr 18, 2016 at 8:43 am

    the danger of nuclear energy: superheated water and rapid decompression can release huge amounts of kinetic energy.

    While all generators use steam turbines to produce electricity via heat exchangers, pressurised water in the reactor cooling system is a feature of the light water reactors.

    There are many other types of reactor, some of which do not use water or pressurised water for reactor cooling, and some which are much safer.


    The AGR was intended to be a superior British alternative to American light water reactor designs. It was promoted as a development of the operationally (if not economically) successful Magnox design, and was chosen from a multitude of competing British alternatives – the helium cooled High Temperature Reactor (HTR), the Steam Generating Heavy Water Reactor (SGHWR) and the Fast Breeder Reactor (FBR) – as well as the American light water pressurised and boiling water reactors (PWR and BWR) and Canadian CANDU designs.

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  • SaganTheCat #17
    Apr 18, 2016 at 8:43 am

    the danger of nuclear energy: superheated water and rapid decompression can release huge amounts of kinetic energy.

    The fundamental difference between pressurized water reactors and other types, is that the (primary system) pressurised water is in the reactor (shown as red on the linked diagram), where as the pressurised steam (shown in blue) which runs the turbines is a separate secondary system which can be heated by other substances in other types of reactor.


    It is unfortunate, that for political reasons, these more dangerous reactors were chosen in preference to others, and are in common use!

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  • There are three intertwined problems with nuclear reactors. Waste is one but could be largely dealt with during design. Politics and Capitalism are the biggest problems as both reward hiding, escaping, and passing on problems instead of solving them or fixing them.

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  • Which was the reactor design that used molten sodium as the coolant? When I heard about that, I wondered if the designers ever actually met a chemist, were they just looking at the thermal properties and ignoring the chemical ones.

    I take it none of that insane design ever got built.

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  • Nuclear Fission is a process that leaves products that are unsafe for humans for many thousands of years. Unless and until we can demonstrably keep these products safe from contaminating our environment or harming people until they have decayed to the point where they are harmless we should not use nuclear fission. Note that this is a 100% test. I do not accept that any level of risk is acceptable, because the consequences of accidents are so harmful.

    The other BIG questions concerning nuclear fission are these: What is the net energy contribution and what are total carbon emissions of nuclear over the entire life cycle? I suspect when you take EVERYTHING into account it cannot be justified. That is why nuclear is so expensive. Carbon emissions? Surely nuclear is carbon free? NO! Carbon is emitted at every stage of the life-cycle, even during generation.

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  • @visgat

    The thorium fueled molten salt design appears to be worth a closer look, especially as regards safety and radioactive waste. I’ve been anti-nuclear forever for the reasons you cite, but I find myself open to learning more about this long neglected design.

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  • Plutonium has various isotopes with differing half-lives, but the durable ones aren’t going to become safe anytime soon!


    According to the Environmental Protection Agency, plutonium enters the bloodstream via the lungs, then moves throughout the body and into the bones, liver, and other organs. It generally stays in those places for decades, subjecting surrounding organs and tissues to a continual bombardment of alpha radiation and greatly increasing the risk of cancer, especially lung cancer, liver cancer and bone sarcoma.

    There are documented cases of workers at nuclear weapons facilities dying within days of experiencing brief accidental exposure to plutonium, according to the Hazardous Substances Data Bank.

    Furthermore, among all the bad things coming out of Fukushima, plutonium will stay in the environment the longest. One isotope of plutonium, Pu-239, has a half-life of 24,100 years; that’s the time it will take for half of the stuff to radioactively decay. Radioactive contaminants are dangerous for 10 to 20 times the length of their half-lives, meaning that dangerous plutonium released to the environment today will stick around for the next half a million years.

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  • Isotopes of Uranium also have long half-lives!


    Uranium-238, the most prevalent isotope in uranium ore, has a half-life of about 4.5 billion years; that is, half the atoms in any sample will decay in that amount of time.

    Summary of Uranium Isotopes
    Isotope Percent in natural uranium
    . . . . . . . . . . . .. . . . . .No. of Protons No. of Neutrons Half-Life (in years)
    Uranium-238 99.284 92 – – – — – 146 — – – – — 4.46 billion
    Uranium-235 0.711 92 — — – – – – 143 – — – – – – 704 million
    Uranium-234 0.0055 92 – – – – – 142 – – – – – – 245,000

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