Is Nuclear Energy Really Safe?

Evidence over six decades has shown that nuclear energy is a safe and reliable means of generating electricity. The risk of accidents at nuclear power plants is low, and the industry is committed to safety. Nuclear power sources are dangerous because they emit particles of radiation and energy released from unstable molecules that try to calm down. These radioactive missiles can impact the human body and damage cells or DNA, according to David Lochbaum, director of the nuclear safety project at the Union of Concerned Scientists.

Enough radiation will cause cancer or possibly even transmit genetic mutations to your children. Too much can even kill you directly. Study after study in leading scientific journals found that nuclear power plants are by far the safest way to produce reliable electricity. So why are we so afraid of them? The nuclear industry prides itself on having security in its DNA, meaning that safety is the top priority and that every decision, step and precaution is based on that approach.

The industry continues to be recognized as one of the safest industrial work environments in the nation. If you ever visit a nuclear plant, you'll immediately see the industry's commitment to safety. Layer after layer of redundant and diverse security systems are part of an approach to security called “defense in depth”. This means that there are several overlapping safety levels designed to prevent the accidental release of radiation. Some of these barriers include the rods that coat the reactor's uranium fuel, the huge steel vessels and pipes that contain the fuel rods and cooling system, and a highly robust building that houses the reactor, which is made of steel-reinforced concrete several feet thick. In-depth defense essentially means that there are many things that keep nuclear plants and neighboring communities safe.

But the nuclear industry goes one step further to ensure that plants not only meet, but exceed, standards created by the federal government. Like in-depth defense in the plant, there are additional layers of supervision. The industry formed an independent third party called the Nuclear Energy Operations Institute (INPO) to establish best practices and conduct regular evaluations of plant performance in terms of safety and operations. The World Association of Nuclear Operators (WANO) does similar work internationally. Nuclear power plants consistently receive high WANO and INPO ratings and safety levels continue to rise.

Multiple and overlapping safety systems, commitment to safety culture and training, an independent regulator, and peer review organizations such as INPO are part of the many elements that ensure that nuclear plants operate safely and intelligently. The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) has a Safety Guide on Seismic Risks for Nuclear Power Plants, and the topic is covered on the WNA page on earthquakes and nuclear power plants. The plan emerged from intensive consultations with Member States, but not with industry, and was described as a meeting point and plan to strengthen nuclear safety worldwide. A particular nuclear scenario was the loss of cooling, which resulted in the melting of the nuclear reactor core, and this prompted studies on the physical and chemical possibilities, as well as on the biological effects of any dispersed radioactivity. Nuclear reactor accidents have long been claimed to be the epitome of low-probability but high-consequence risks. Its objective is to legally commit participating States operating terrestrial nuclear power plants to maintain a high level of safety through the establishment of international benchmarks to which States would subscribe. The Sierra Club and other environmentalists hated nuclear energy because it offered the promise of universal prosperity.

According to the nuclear power industry risk assessment, a reactor would only have 1 core damage event every 20,000 years. This means that, in normal operations, the radioactive waste problem associated with one of the most common energy sources in use actually exceeds that of nuclear energy. The IAEA has a safety knowledge base for aging and long-term operation of nuclear power plants (SKALTO), which aims to develop a framework for sharing information on aging management and the long-term operation of nuclear power plants. The radioactivity of these wastes can range from levels slightly higher than natural background levels, such as in the case of tailings from uranium mills, to the much higher radioactivity of used (spent) reactor fuel and parts of nuclear reactors. Nuclear energy is often perceived as deadly, but it kills far fewer people than energy from coal, coal and gas. It wasn't until the late 1970s that detailed analysis and large-scale testing, followed by the 1979 merger of the Three Mile Island reactor, began to make clear that even the worst possible accident at a conventional Western nuclear power plant or its fuel would not cause dramatic public harm. Those responsible for nuclear energy technology in the West dedicated extraordinary efforts to ensure that a fusion of the reactor core did not occur, since a fusion of the core was supposed to create a significant public danger and, if not contained, a tragic accident with likely multiple deaths. In conclusion, evidence over six decades has shown that nuclear energy is a safe means for generating electricity with low risk for accidents.

The industry is committed to safety through multiple layers of redundant security systems as well as independent third parties like INPO who evaluate plant performance in terms of safety and operations.