Is Nuclear Energy Safe? A Comprehensive Look

The safety of personnel is a top priority in nuclear power plants. To minimize radiation exposure, remote handling equipment is used for many operations in the reactor core. Other safety measures include physical shielding and limiting the time workers spend in areas with high radiation levels. Despite public concerns, data shows that nuclear energy is much safer than fossil fuels. Recent innovations could reduce risks even further.

Studies in major scientific journals have found that nuclear power plants are the safest way to produce reliable electricity. So why are we so afraid of them? The radioactivity of nuclear waste can range from levels slightly higher than natural background levels, such as tailings from uranium mills, to much higher levels of used (spent) reactor fuel and parts of nuclear reactors. Surprisingly, nuclear energy is the benchmark to beat, surpassing coal, oil, gas and even wind by a slight margin as the least deadly energy resource in application (see Figure). In addition, coal-fired power plants release more radioactive material per kWh to the environment in the form of coal ash than waste from a nuclear power plant under standard shielding protocols. There is also the fact that the nuclear industry has a history of error in its risk analysis. Despite this, nuclear energy used for electricity production has been in decline since 2001 and now represents only a tenth of the world total.

Therefore, the question should not be: “Is nuclear energy deadly?” Instead, we must ask ourselves “is nuclear energy more dangerous than other energy sources?” Ensuring nuclear safety also requires qualified personnel, an effective safety culture in the workforce, funding for research on operational and safety issues, and an appropriate focus on safety. However, what is at stake with nuclear energy is much greater than what is at stake with other energy sources. Nuclear energy cannot be a good response to climate change because the climate will have already gone to hell long before enough nuclear power plants can be built to stop the process. An evaluation by the Commissariat à l'Énergie Atomique (CEA) in France concluded that no amount of technical innovation can eliminate the risk of human-induced errors associated with the operation of nuclear power plants. Nuclear power plants use fissionable materials to produce energy in the form of heat, which is converted into electricity by a conventional power plant.

The KANUPP plant in Karachi, Pakistan, has the largest number of 8.2 million people living within a 30-kilometer radius of a nuclear power plant, although it has only a relatively small reactor with a power of 125 megawatts. The main proposal for long-term storage of nuclear waste is to bury it in carefully selected deep geological deposits.