Last updated on: 4/26/2012 12:20:39 PM PST
Is Nuclear Power Safe for Humans and the Environment?
General Reference (not clearly pro or con)
The US Nuclear Regulatory Commission stated the following on its webpage "Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ) About Radiation Protection," available at www.nrc.gov (accessed Apr. 24, 2012):
"An operating nuclear power plant produces very small amounts of radioactive gases and liquids, as well as small amounts of direct radiation. If you lived within 50 miles of a nuclear power plant, you would receive an average radiation dose of about 0.01 millirem per year. To put this in perspective, the average person in the United States receives an exposure of 300 millirem per year from natural background sources of radiation."
Apr. 24, 2012 - US Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC)
The US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) stated the following in its May 2007 publication "Radiation: Risks and Realities," available at www.epa.gov:
"Radiation is known to cause cancer in humans. Radiation can also cause other adverse health effects, including genetic defects in the children of exposed parents or mental retardation in the children of mothers exposed during pregnancy...
Current evidence suggests that any exposure to radiation poses some risk, however, risks at very low exposure levels have not been definitively demonstrated. While experts disagree over the definition of 'low dose,' radiation protection measures are based on an assumption that even small amounts of radiation exposure may pose some small risk. Factoring in the entire dose of natural background radiation accumulated over a lifetime, the risk of developing cancer as a result of this exposure is estimated to be roughly 1 in 100. The additional contribution from all man-made sources of radiation is much smaller. It should be noted that all of the long-term health effects associated with exposure to radiation can also occur in people due to other causes...
Naturally-occurring radiation accounts for approximately 80 percent of our exposure. Most of our exposure is from indoor radon, followed by radiation from outer space and from the Earth's crust...
Nuclear power reactors, which use uranium, supply the United States with about 20 percent of its electricity. Nuclear power plant operations account for less than one-hundredth (1/100) of a percent of the average American's total radiation exposure...
Any activity that produces or uses radioactive material generates radioactive waste that must be disposed of properly. Radioactive waste can be in liquid or solid form, and its level of radioactivity can vary...
Radioactive waste can remain radioactive for anywhere from days to hundreds or even thousands of years. Waste not properly isolated from the public and the generally accessible environment may contaminate air, soil, and water supplies."
May 2007 - Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)
The Nuclear Energy Institute (NEI) stated the following in its article "Myths & Facts About Safety," available at www.nei.org (accessed Apr. 24, 2012):
"After more than a half-century of commercial nuclear energy production in the United States, including more than 3,500 reactor years of operation, there have been no radiation-related health effects linked to their operation. Studies by the National Cancer Institute, The United Nations Scientific Committee of the Effects of Atomic Radiation, the National Research Council's BEIR VII study group and the National Council on Radiation Protection and Measurements all show that U.S. nuclear power plants effectively protect the public's health and safety. Nuclear plants also are safe for workers. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, it is safer to work at a nuclear plant than at a fast food restaurant or a grocery store or in real estate."
Apr. 24, 2012 - Nuclear Energy Institute
Tony Pietrangelo, MBA, Chief Nuclear Officer and Senior Vice President of the Nuclear Energy Institute, stated the following in his Mar. 21, 2011 article "Nuclear Power in America: Five Reasons Why It's Safe and Reliable," published in the Christian Science Monitor:
"Commercial nuclear power plants in the United States have produced electricity for over half a century, and there have been no radiation-related deaths linked to their operation. Studies by numerous health entities, including the National Cancer Institute and the United Nations Scientific Committee on the Effects of Atomic Radiation, show that US nuclear power plants effectively protect the public's health and safety.
The US Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) regulates the commercial and institutional uses of nuclear energy, including nuclear power plants. These plants are designed, licensed, constructed, and operated to rigorous requirements established by the NRC. Additionally, the NRC has a continuing inspection and oversight process with on-site resident inspectors and periodic inspection teams to ensure compliance with regulations and associated programs...
While it will take some time to fully understand the events at the tsunami-stricken Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant, we will evaluate the lessons from the events at Fukushima and apply them to make US nuclear plants even safer...
As we increasingly emphasize a low-carbon economy, our need for clean electric generating capacity will grow. Nuclear energy fills this role."
Mar. 21, 2011 - Tony Pietrangelo, MBA
John Hutton, Chairman of the Nuclear Industry Association and former member of British Parliament, stated the following in his Mar. 16, 2011 article "Britain Should Not Be Afraid of Nuclear Power," published in The Telegraph:
"[G]overnments in every corner of the globe will be looking closely at what the problems in Japan mean for the future of global nuclear energy. Many nations are committed to a new programme of investment in such energy. The fundamental question that we all need to ask is: 'Is it safe for us to go on building new nuclear plants?'
My answer is an emphatic 'yes.' Safety must, of course, always be at the heart of the case for nuclear energy, and regulators must make this their top priority... Modern nuclear technologies have multi-layered safety systems in place that offer a huge improvement on the older power plants...
The industry has a strong safety record and there is no reason to believe that this cannot be maintained into the future – a fact that must not be drowned out by those rushing to condemn nuclear energy. We need an appropriate response to Fukushima – not a knee-jerk one."
Mar. 16, 2011 - John Hutton
James Lovelock, PhD, Honorary Visiting Fellow at Oxford University Green College, wrote the following in his Mar. 2005 article "Our Nuclear Lifeline," published in Reader's Digest:
"We know nuclear energy is safe, clean and effective because, right now, 137 nuclear re-actors are generating more than one-third of Western Europe's electricity and 440 in all are supplying one-seventh of the world's [electricity]...
Radiation is part of our natural environment and we can live with it. All of us are exposed to natural radioactivity every minute, mostly from rocks and soil. The radiation bombarding us goes up 10 percent when we sleep next to another human. A weekend at a beach with granite rocks in Brittany or Cornwall increases it three-fold, a skiing holiday ten-fold.
How do nuclear power stations compare? The radiation from a reactor is tiny: about as much as that from our own bodies. According to the UK's National Radiation Protection Board, doses from the entire nuclear industry amount to less than one percent of our total exposure. Medical uses such as X-rays account for 14 percent and the remainder is natural. Compared with known cancer risks such as smoking and poor diet, it reports, the risk from non-medical, man-made radiation is about 1/100th of one percent...
The fall-out from the radioactive cloud [from Chernobyl] that swept Western Europe was really nothing: only one-tenth of a chest x-ray or ten days on holiday in the Alps...
A Swiss study of deaths related to power generation came up with astonishing results. Nuclear turns out to be five times safer than oil, ten times safer than gas and 100 times safer than hydro-electric dams. According to the World Health Organisation, worldwide fossil-fuel pollution is responsible for three million deaths a year."
Mar. 2005 - James Lovelock, PhD
The US Department of Energy (DOE) stated the following in its publication "Nuclear Energy: Answers to Questions," published on its website (accessed Apr. 24, 2012):
"Nuclear energy to produce electricity commercially began in the U.S. in 1957. Since then, it has proven itself as one of our safest energy technologies. Safety is a major consideration throughout the design, construction, and operation of a nuclear power plant. Hundreds of systems monitor, control, and support the safe operation of the reactor at each power plant. These systems provide maximum safety and reliability and reduce the chance of an accidental release of radioactivity into the environment...
The nuclear industry has rigid safety standards, which the NRC [Nuclear Regulatory Commission] sets and regulates. Utilities operating nuclear power plants must prove to the NRC that each plant can meet these stringent safety standards. Periodic inspections also ensure that each facility operates safely. Utilities face severe financial penalties if NRC inspections show that the plant is not operating in full compliance with federal regulations...
Since 1957, utilities in the U.S. have operated commercial nuclear power plants. During this time, no one in the U.S. has died or been injured as a result of operations at a commercial nuclear power plant. Efforts to ensure that nuclear power plants maintain this safety record are constantly emphasized, and the record compares favorably with all other ways of making electricity."
Apr. 24, 2012 - United States Department of Energy (DOE)
The Clean and Safe Energy Coalition stated the following in its publication "Why Nuclear," available at its website (accessed Dec. 15, 2008):
"Nuclear energy has perhaps the lowest impact on the environment — including air, land, water, and wildlife — of any energy source. It produces no harmful greenhouse gases, isolates its waste from the environment, and requires less area to produce the same amount of electricity as other sources.
Because nuclear energy has such a small impact on its surroundings, nuclear power plants provide excellent habitat for all species of plants and animals to thrive. Water discharged from a nuclear power plant contains no harmful pollutants and meets regulatory standards for temperature designed to protect aquatic life. This water, used for cooling, never comes in contact with radioactive materials.
Since the areas around nuclear power plants are so clean, they are often developed as wetlands that allow trees, flowers, and grasses to thrive and provide nesting areas for waterfowl and other birds. Many energy companies have created special nature parks or wildlife sanctuaries on plant sites.
Nuclear energy is safe and secure. Strict government regulations, continuous training by the industry, and enhanced security measures have combined to ensure safety inside and outside of America's nuclear power plants...
Many fear that nuclear energy plants pose a safety hazard since they might emit radiation. However, the truth is that nuclear power plants are a minuscule source of radiation. Because of their advanced design and sophisticated containment structures, U.S. nuclear plants emit a negligible amount of radiation...You would have to live near a nuclear power plant for over 2,000 years to get the same amount of radiation exposure that you get from a single diagnostic medical x-ray. Even if you lived right next door to a nuclear power plant, you would still receive less radiation each year than you would receive in just one round-trip flight from New York to Los Angeles."
Dec. 15, 2008 - Clean and Safe Energy Coalition (CASE)
Johnny Isakson, United States Senator (R-GA), stated the following in a June 3, 2008 press release titled "Isakson Criticizes Climate Change Legislation for Failing to Address All Renewable Resources," posted on his website:
"We should act now and we should act boldly to see to it that while we work for the best interest of the environment, we work for the best interest of our citizens, who are paying more for gas and energy than ever before and there is no end in sight...
For this senator, that means expanding conservation easements for better sequestering of carbon naturally and empowering the nuclear energy business to see to it that the one source of reliable, safe, carbonless energy that we know today in the United States of America is empowered for the 21st century."
June 3, 2008 - Johnny Isakson
Marilyn C. Kray, Vice President of Project Development at Exelon Nuclear, made the following statement during the Apr. 23, 2008 US House of Representatives Committee on Science and Technology hearing "Opportunities and Challenges for Nuclear Power," published on the Committee on Science, Space, and Technology website:
"America's 104 nuclear power plants generate about 20 percent of our electricity. In 2007, the nuclear industry generated more electricity than ever before, and we did it more safely than ever before as evidenced by data on unplanned reactor shutdowns and the industrial safety rate. Bureau of Labor Statistics data show that it is safer to work in a nuclear plant than to work in the real estate or financial sectors...
New nuclear power plants cannot be built without a high degree of public confidence in the safety of the technology, the competence and commitment of reactor operators, and the dedication of regulators. The industry recognizes that public confidence is based on the performance of our current fleet of plants. We must remain ever vigilant to the safety responsibility entrusted to us...
The nuclear industry's commitment to safe operations and its proven track record over the last 25 years have also reinforced public support for nuclear technology."
Apr. 23, 2008 - Marilyn C. Kray
Bernard L. Cohen, DSc, Professor Emeritus of Physics at the University of Pittsburgh, wrote the following in his article "Risks of Nuclear Power," published at Idaho State University's Physics website (accessed Apr. 24, 2012):
"The nuclear power plant design strategy for preventing accidents and mitigating their potential effects is 'defense in depth'--- if something fails, there is a back-up system to limit the harm done, if that system should also fail there is another back-up system for it, etc., etc. Of course it is possible that each system in this series of back-ups might fail one after the other, but the probability for that is exceedingly small. The Media often publicize a failure of some particular system in some plant, implying that it was a close call on disaster; they completely miss the point of defense in depth which easily takes care of such failures. Even in the Three Mile Island accident where at least two equipment failures were severely compounded by human errors, two lines of defense were still not breached--- essentially all of the radioactivity remained sealed in the thick steel reactor vessel, and that vessel was sealed inside the heavily reinforced concrete and steel lined 'containment' building which was never even challenged...
Risks from reactor accidents are estimated by the rapidly developing science of 'probabilistic risk analysis' (PRA). A PRA must be done separately for each power plant (at a cost of $5 million) but we give typical results here: A fuel melt-down might be expected once in 20,000 years of reactor operation. In 2 out of 3 melt-downs there would be no deaths, in 1 out of 5 there would be over 1,000 deaths, and in 1 out of 100,000 there would be 50,000 deaths. The average for all meltdowns would be 400 deaths. Since air pollution from coal burning is estimated to be causing 10,000 deaths per year, there would have to be 25 melt-downs each year for nuclear power to be as dangerous as coal burning."
Apr. 24, 2012 - Bernard L. Cohen, DSc
Jeffrey Patterson, DO, Professor Emeritus of Family Medicine at the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health, stated the following in his Apr. 26, 2011 article "Radiation Exposure and the Power of Zero," published in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists:
"The real issue is that the use of nuclear power and nuclear weapons is forcing humankind, and indeed the whole ecosystem, to participate in a particularly cruel and totally uncontrolled experiment. Given the scientific evidence that there is no safe dose of radiation, this is an experiment that has already gone awry..
The real question is whether we, as a human race, can afford in good conscience to risk annihilation with our continued reliance on nuclear technology. Can we continue to despoil our environment with long-lived radioactive materials that are scattered to the wind and embedded in our precious soil, randomly exposing large populations, and foisting health impacts on unsuspecting future generations who have no choice in this matter?
We may choose to do so. But if we do, I am quite sure that our children and grandchildren will roundly condemn us for our lack of foresight and our selfishness. As they struggle to deal with a poisonous environment and waste that must be safeguarded for thousands of years, they will certainly wonder what possessed us to do this.
We must choose to halt this process. To do this we need to... make a dramatic and rapid retreat from the use of nuclear power to generate electricity."
Apr. 26, 2011 - Jeffrey Patterson, DO
Ten former Nobel Peace Laureates, including the Dalai Lama, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, and Rigoberta Menchú Tum, stated the following in an Apr. 21, 2011 letter to open letter to 31 heads of state whose countries are currently heavily invested in nuclear power production, or are considering investing in nuclear power, available at the Nobel Women's Initiative website:
"On the twenty-fifth anniversary of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster in Ukraine - and more than two months after the massive earthquake and tsunami that devastated Japan... It is time to recognize that nuclear power is not a clean, safe or affordable source of energy.
We are deeply disturbed that the lives of people in Japan are being endangered by nuclear radiation in the air, in the water and in the food as a result of the breakdown at the Fukushima nuclear plant. We firmly believe that if the world phases out its current use of nuclear power, future generations of people everywhere - and the Japanese people who have already suffered too much - will live in greater peace and security...
[R]adiation is not just a concern in a nuclear accident. Each link in the nuclear fuel chain releases radiation, starting with drilling for uranium; it then continues for generations because nuclear waste includes plutonium that will remain toxic for thousands of years. Despite years of research, countries with nuclear energy programs such as the United States have failed to solve the challenge of finding safe and secure storage for 'spent' nuclear fuel... There are presently over 400 nuclear power plants in the world - many, in places at high risk for natural disaster or political upheaval. These plants provide less than 7% of the world's total energy supply. As world leaders, you can work together to replace this small amount of energy from other readily available, very safe and affordable sources of energy to move us towards a carbon-free and nuclear-free future."
Apr. 21, 2011 - No to Nuclear Power: Nobel Peace Laureates to World Leaders (38KB)
Helen Caldicott, MBBS, President of the Nuclear Policy Research Institute, wrote the following in her 2006 book Nuclear Power Is Not the Answer:
"Miners, workers, and residents in the vicinity of the mining and milling functions, and workers involved in the enrichment processes necessary to create nuclear fuel are at risk for exposure to unhealthy amounts of radiation and have increased incidences of cancer and related diseases as a result...
Relatively small but significant amounts of radiation are released on a daily basis into the air and water during the course of mining, milling, and enriching uranium for fuel to create the nuclear energy. Additionally, a nuclear power plant cannot operate without routinely releasing radioactivity into the air and water through the normal operation of nuclear reactors. Finally, and most frighteningly, accidental releases of even more radiation are commonplace in the nuclear industry...
Radioactive gases that leak from fuel rods are also routinely released or 'vented' into the atmosphere at every nuclear reactor. These gases are temporarily stored to allow the short-lived isotopes to decay and then released to the atmosphere through engineered holes in the reactor roof and from the steam generators. This process is called 'venting.' About 100 cubic feet of radioactive gases are also released hourly from the condensers at the reactor...
Although the nuclear industry claims it is 'emission' free, in fact it is collectively releasing millions of curies [the standard unit of radioactivity measurement] annually... By contrast, coal plants release some uranium and uranium daughter products in their smoke but very little radiation compared to atomic plants, and certainly no fission products...
Quite apart from these routine radioactive releases is the almighty problem of radioactive waste. Each regular 1,000 megawatt nuclear power plant generates 30 tons of extremely potent radioactive waste annually... the nuclear industry has yet to determine how safely to dispose of this deadly material, which remains radioactive for tens of thousands of years."
2006 - Helen Caldicott, MBBS
Jim Riccio, JD, Greenpeace USA Nuclear Policy Analyst, stated the following in the Mar. 14, 2008 Greenpeace report "Risky Business: The Probability and Consequences of a Nuclear Accident," published at the Greenpeace website:
"Each nuclear reactor has the potential to devastate the region in which it operates. The potential for such devastation lies in the radioactive fuel that fires the nuclear power plant. The radioactive fuel rods, whether inside the reactor or in the spent fuel pool, must be cooled to prevent them from melting down.
If a meltdown were to occur in either the reactor or the spent fuel pool, the accident could kill and injure tens of thousands of people, cost billions of dollars in damages and leave large regions uninhabitable.
[T]he nuclear industry and those that purport to regulate it have down played the potential of such an accident. However, if the nuclear industry is so confident in the 'safety' of its reactors and the long-lived radioactive wastes that they produce, why must the American taxpayer indemnify the industry against the financial consequences of nuclear accident through the Price Anderson Act?
In reality, nuclear power is an inherently dangerous activity. Splitting atoms is the most complicated and dangerous way to produce electricity...
The public should not be lulled into a false sense of security by the mere fact that the U.S. nuclear power industry has not melted down a reactor since Three Mile Island. Operating without a meltdown for a finite period of time does not mean that safety is adequate...
The United States can avoid the next nuclear accident by phasing out the remaining 103 commercial nuclear reactors."
Mar. 14, 2008 - Jim Riccio, JD
"Risky Business: The Probability and Consequences of a Nuclear Accident" (123KB)
Lisbeth D. Gronlund, PhD, Senior Scientist of the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) Global Security Program, David Lochbaum, Director of the UCS Nuclear Safety Project, and Edwin Lyman, PhD, Senior Scientist at the UCS Global Security Program wrote the following in their Dec. 2007 study for the UCS, "Nuclear Power in a Warming World: Assessing the Risks, Addressing the Challenges," published at the UCS website:
"An operating nuclear power plant contains a large amount of radioactive material, and an accident that results in the release of this material could cause significant harm to people and the environment. People exposed to high levels of radiation will die or suffer other health consequences within days or weeks. Lower radiation levels can cause cell damage that will eventually lead to cancer, which may not appear for years or even decades. People may need to be permanently evacuated from areas contaminated with radiation. The costs of evacuation and environmental remediation, and those of the loss of usable land, could be enormous. Radioactivity released by a severe accident could lead to the death of tens of thousands of people, injure many thousands of others, contaminate large areas of land, and cost billions of dollars...
[T]he Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) has reported four dozen 'abnormal occurrences' to Congress since 1986, and notified the International Atomic Energy Agency of 18 nuclear 'events' since reporting began in 1992.
While no technology can be perfectly safe, nuclear power is an inherently risky technology, and minimizing its risks requires stringent safety standards and practices. The United States has relatively strong safety standards for nuclear power. However, serious safety problems continue to arise because the NRC does not adequately enforce those standards.
Of course, accidents are not the only measure of safety, and the absence of accidents does not necessarily indicate that there are no safety problems. The number of U.S. reactors shut down for a year or longer to address numerous safety problems provides strong evidence of poor safety practices and inadequate NRC enforcement. A weak 'safety culture' within the NRC itself prevents effective oversight. The agency also relies on flawed approaches to assessing risks and inspecting nuclear facilities, and its standards for preventing and mitigating severe accidents are too low."
Dec. 2007 - Lisbeth D. Gronlund, PhD
Edwin Lyman, PhD
"Nuclear Power in a Warming World: Assessing the Risks, Addressing the Challenges" (1.7MB)
Physicians for Social Responsibility wrote the following in their publication "Dirty, Dangerous and Expensive: The Truth about Nuclear Power," available at www.psr.org (accessed Dec. 15, 2008):
"[A] thorough examination of the full life-cycle of nuclear power generation reveals nuclear power to be a dirty, dangerous and expensive form of energy that poses serious risks to human health, national security and U.S. taxpayers...
Each year, enormous quantities of radioactive waste are created during the nuclear fuel process, including 2,000 metric tons of high-level radioactive waste and 12 million cubic feet of low level radioactive waste in the U.S. alone. More than 58,000 metric tons of highly radioactive spent fuel already has accumulated at reactor sites around the U.S. for which there currently is no permanent repository. Even without new nuclear production, the inventory of commercial spent fuel in the U.S. already exceeds the 63,000 metric ton statutory capacity of the controversial Yucca Mountain repository, which has yet to receive a license to operate...
Uranium, which must be removed from the ground, is used to fuel nuclear reactors. Uranium mining, which creates serious health and environmental problems, has disproportionately impacted indigenous people because much of the world's uranium is located under indigenous land. Uranium miners experience higher rates of lung cancer, tuberculosis and other respiratory diseases. The production of 1,000 tons of uranium fuel generates approximately 100,000 tons of radioactive tailings and nearly one million gallons of liquid waste containing heavy metals and arsenic in addition to radioactivity. These uranium tailings have contaminated rivers and lakes."
Dec. 15, 2008 - Physicians for Social Responsibility (PSR)
Joseph J. Mangano, MPH, MBA, Executive Director of the Radiation and Public Health Project, made the following statement in his Mar. 11, 2008 article "Coal for Nukes – Replacing One Hazard With Another?," published in the Louisville Courier:
"One problem with nuclear reactors is what to do with the high level waste they produce. This waste is actually a cocktail of chemicals such as Cesium-137, Iodine-129, Strontium-90, and Plutonium-239, each radioactive and cancer-causing. Waste decays slowly remaining in dangerous amounts for thousands of years, and must be kept from escaping into the air, water, and food...
Another potential health problem is a large-scale release of radioactivity from a meltdown...
Even if a disastrous meltdown never occurred, a small portion of radioactivity must be released from reactors. This radioactivity enters the human body through breathing and the food chain, as gases and tiny metal particles. They kill and injure healthy cells, leading to cancer, and are especially harmful to the fetus, infant, and child...
There is no need to increase cancer risk by introducing a hazardous means of producing electricity. Replacing coal to limit global warming should not be based on another toxic product. Instead, it should feature conservation, more efficient products, and safe renewable forms of energy such as wind, solar, and geothermal power to protect public health."
Mar. 11, 2008 - Joseph J. Mangano, MPH, MBA