inFact with Brian Dunning inFact with Brian Dunning


Nuclear Energy

Some say nuclear energy is ready to make a comeback; some say it's still too dangerous. How do you know which to believe?

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Nuclear reactors have gone through 70 years of development. After the prototype Generation 1 reactors, like Chernobyl, the world went to Generation 2, which included a lot of safety improvements. Generation 3 reactors being built now have fundamental improvements: Designs where the reaction can't be sustained if anything goes wrong. Generation 4, now being planned, will be safer and cleaner than anyone could have dreamed 20 years ago.

But some people see only the problems of the past, rather than the promise of the future. Opposition to nukes is one reason we're not all driving around today in electric cars.

At Three Mile Island in 1979, a valve broke, and some coolant leaked into a container designed for that purpose. No one was injured. Within the industry, Three Mile Island was regarded as a shining example of how well the safety systems work. Unfortunately, The China Syndrome, a movie about a nuclear accident, had come out only 12 days before; and the public's perception was that nuclear energy was too dangerous.

In all of history, there's been exactly one civilian nuclear accident in which anyone was hurt: Chernobyl, in 1986. It was the oldest reactor operating, decades obsolete. One faction wanted to try a dangerous test; another faction disabled some safety systems to prevent it; and then the shift ended and everyone went home. The new shift weren't told anything was happening until it was too late. Read about it, it's staggering, you don't know whether to laugh or cry.

Within a few months, 56 people had died from radiation, and it's projected that as many as 4,000 may eventually die. But in the United States alone, 50-60,000 people die every year from lung cancer caused by air pollution from coal and oil burning power plants. We would need a Chernobyl meltdown every three weeks just to match the ongoing US death toll we've chosen by clinging to our current fossil fuel system.

But isn't nuclear waste just as bad? Yes, it's bad, but lobbying against future plants won't make the existing waste go away. Generation 3 and 4 reactors produce almost no high level waste, and what they do create is recyclable. We've already created most of the nuclear waste the world will ever see.

Look to the future. Look to the facts and the science, and make an informed choice.

— Brian Dunning

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References & Further Reading

ACS News Center. "Air Pollution Linked to Deaths From Lung Cancer." American Cancer Society. American Cancer Society, Inc., 6 Mar. 2002. Web. 21 Dec. 2009. <>

Bernarde, Melvin A. PhD. Our Precarious Habitat... Its In Your Hands. Hoboken: John Wiley & Sons Inc., 2007. 243-287, 417-425.

Cohen, Bernard L. The Nuclear Energy Option: An Alternative for the 90s. New York: Plenum Publishing Corporation, 1990.

Domenici, Pete, Lyons, Blythe, and Steyn, Julian. A Brighter Tomorrow: Fulfilling the Promise of Nuclear Energy. Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc., 2004. 181-211.

Economist. "Nuclear's next generation." The Economist. The Economist Newspaper Limited, 10 Dec. 2009. Web. 19 Dec. 2009. <>

Ehresman, Teri. "Next Generation of Reactors." Idaho Nation Labortatory: Nuclear Advances. Idaho National Laboratory, 24 Oct. 2005. Web. 21 Dec. 2009. <>

International Atomic Energy Agency. "INSAG-7, The Chernobyl Accident: Updating of INSAG-1." Safety Series. 1 Jan. 1992, No. 75-INSAG-7.

ITER. "The ITER homepage." ITER - The Way To New Energy. ITER Organization, 1 Jan. 2009. Web. 21 Dec. 2009. <>

Manaugh, Geoff and Twilley, Nicola. "One Million Years of Isolation: An Interview with Abraham Van Luik." BLDGBLOG. Future Plural, 2 Nov. 2009. Web. 19 Dec. 2009. <>

Moss, Zachary. "Chernobyl accident still haunts UK." Bellona. The Bellona Foundation, 1 May 2003. Web. 21 Dec. 2009. <>

Pope, C. Arden III; Burnett, Richard T.; Thun, Michael J. "Lung Cancer, Cardiopulmonary Mortality, and Long-term Exposure to Fine Particulate Air Pollution." JAMA. 6 Mar. 2002, Volume 287, Numer 9: 1132-1141.

Spencer, Jack and Loris, Nicolas D. "Three Mile Island and Chernobyl: What Went Wrong and Why Today’s Reactors Are Safe." Web Memo: The Heritage Foundation. 27 Mar. 2009, No. 2367.

USA Today. "Study: Air pollution, lung cancer are linked." USA Today. Gannet Co. Inc., 5 Mar. 2002. Web. 21 Dec. 2009. <>


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