Is Nuclear Power Safe? A Comprehensive Look at the Evidence

For over six decades, nuclear energy has been a reliable and safe source of electricity. The risk of accidents at nuclear power plants is low and decreasing, and the consequences of an accident or terrorist attack are minimal compared to other commonly accepted risks. Nuclear power plants are among the safest and most secure facilities in the world. However, accidents can occur that have a negative impact on people and the environment.

To reduce the likelihood of an accident, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) helps Member States apply international safety standards to strengthen the safety of nuclear power plants. Nuclear power plants maintain the highest standards for operational safety, cybersecurity and emergency preparedness. Comprehensive industry safety procedures and strict federal regulations keep our plants and neighboring communities safe. 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, says 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 kill you directly. The nuclear industry prides itself on having safety in its DNA. This means that safety is the top priority and that every decision, step and precaution is based on this 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 will 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. INPO's mission is to promote the highest levels of safety and reliability to promote excellence in plant operation. 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. Despite public concerns, data clearly show that nuclear energy is a much safer source of energy than fossil fuels.

Recent innovations could soon reduce risks even further. It shows that many residents are experiencing increasing frustration and instability due to the nuclear crisis and their inability to return to their pre-disaster lives. The nuclear power industry has improved reactor safety and performance, as well as proposed new and safer reactor designs. The only reason why nuclear energy powers 80 percent (and decreasing) of France, and powers 30 percent of pre-Fukushima Japan, is because those countries do not have the wealth of natural resources that the United States has. Nuclear engineer David Lochbaum explained that almost all serious nuclear accidents occurred with what was then considered state-of-the-art technology. The Chernobyl disaster was a nuclear accident that occurred on April 26, 1986 at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant in Ukraine. Protection of critical infrastructure such as nuclear power plants is a requirement for chemical facilities, operating nuclear reactors and many other utility facilities. An evaluation by France's Commissariat à l'Énergie Atomique (CEA) concluded that no amount of technical innovation can eliminate human-induced errors associated with operating nuclear power plants. A fundamental issue contributing to the complexity of a nuclear power system is its extremely long lifespan.

Today, nuclear power plants from this generation are closed down and for the most part dismantled. During the Cold War, the project expanded to include nine nuclear reactors and five large plutonium processing complexes which produced plutonium for most of the 60,000 weapons in US arsenals. The Hanford site is a mostly dismantled nuclear production complex on the Columbia River in US territory. In 2003, US Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) drafted mandates on improving safety in nuclear power plants. Nuclear power began to spread in earnest after US President Dwight Eisenhower's 1953 “Atoms for Peace” speech. Some 50 third-generation nuclear power plants are already in operation or under construction worldwide, with another 150 to 200 plants in planning or preparation phases.