Out of all the things we could do to mitigate climate change, switching from coal-fired power plants to nuclear powered could have the most dramatic impact in reducing our CO2 output. Nuclear energy provides clean, reliable electricity with a much smaller ecological footprint than either wind or solar, which also have the annoying problem of intermittency.
Obviously, saying that there are obstacles with nuclear is vastly understating things. Costs, waste, safety, and public opinion being the Big Four. As a layperson without trillions of dollars, the only thing I can really address is public opinion.
One of the most interesting things I found when I started digging into nuclear energy issues is that the people who are the least afraid of it are the people who either work at nuclear power plants or live near them. I think I expected the people who grew up around them to be looking for an Erin Brockovich to save them from the big, mean nuclear companies who were trying to secretly kill all of their customers.
What I found though was just the opposite. A recent survey put out by the Nuclear Energy Institute shows an 89% favorable impression of the local plant. I don’t love relying industry surveys so I had a conversation with a friend who had grown up in Crystal River, Florida, home of a recently closed power plant, to see if her experience jived with this survey.
Jenny Lee, who is now a Jacksonville attorney, sat down with me over lunch and a glass of wine and gave me the lowdown on what it was like for her to grow up in Crystal River. The biggest takeaway from our conversation was that it was – just not a big deal. She said that the most mysterious thing about anyone working there was that they had pagers which were considered pretty exotic in the 80s. Nobody wore Tyvek suits or worried about cancer. The plant was a fact of life and a way to keep your bearings when boating on the river. It was frequently used as a reference point when giving directions and every Friday at noon, a test siren would go off. I asked her if this was every unnerving and her answer was, “Heck no. It meant the weekend was starting.”
While we were at lunch, Jenny called her sister, Molly Redrick, a pharmacist who still lives in Crystal River to see if she had any further insight but Molly’s childhood recollections were pretty much the same. As an adult and a pharmacist though, she has seen it from a new perspective. The closing of the plant was economically devastating for Crystal River, with many of the most highly educated (and highly compensated) people leaving town. As a town already struggling with poverty and a lack of opportunities, it was a tough blow.
Molly does remember a little uptick in fear after Fukushima when she had a few people come in to request potassium iodide from the pharmacy. That’s when she learned that the town keeps a stockpile of it in case of emergency. She said that occasionally people will come in and complain about their eyes hurting from the plant but that’s happened since it was closed so she suspects that it could be from the coal-fired plants still operating nearby.
Molly and Jenny suggested that I speak with a friend of theirs, who used to work at the Crystal River plant and still has an important role in the nuclear industry. He very graciously agreed to answer some of my concerns but we decided not to use his name since we still haven’t heard back from his legal department. (I’m sure they have more pressing matters than worrying about my blog.)
So, here is a condensed version of our Q&A. I’m sure I sounded like a complete moron but I think these are the issues most of us worry about when it comes to nuclear power.
Q: Is nuclear ever scary to you and do you worry about cancer?
A: When you learn and work in the industry, you better understand the facts behind radiation exposure and the impacts it has on the human body. I’ve never been scared nor do I worry about cancer from the effects of radiation.
There are monitors throughout the station that will sound an alarm if there is any type of unexpected/elevated dose (there never is) and when a worker enters an area that might have some small amount of radiation they wear specific monitors(dosimetry) that will detect the amount of the dose they are receiving and the rate at which it’s being received. It also records the cumulative amount and each worker receives an annual summary of the dose received.
I’d say that a typical nuclear worker (like a mechanic who works on a pump or a valve in a radiological controlled area) receives probably 40-50 mRem each year. To put that in perspective, a typical x-ray (medical/dental) is about 40-50 mRem also. The federal limits for dose are 5,000 mRem per year plus we set administrative limits much lower to ensure no worker ever approaches the federal limit…which still wouldn’t be harmful.
I don’t feel like the public is as terrified of nuclear as it once was. Maybe that’s just my perception though because my friends’ and family’s perception has changed as they’ve seen that it hasn’t affected me. (Although, they may have concluded that nuclear turns your hair grey and causes a receding hairline and weight gain.)
Q: What about terrorism? Would flying a plane into a plant cause a mushroom cloud and give everyone cancer?
A: Flying a plane into a nuclear plant will not cause a mushroom cloud or cancer because there isn’t enough fuel, nor the right concentration, nor the right arrangement/geometry to create a nuclear bomb. The fuel does need to be cooled because as the radioactive particles decay, they emit heat for a long time. We call this decay heat and we have systems in place that can remove this heat until it decays to the point that it can be placed in storage canisters and self-cooled.
A terrorist attack could cause a loss of all power to the station which would challenge our ability to run the systems that remove decay heat. We have emergency diesel generators to power the equipment but eventually we would need more diesel fuel. After 9/11, we put many more defense in-depth systems in place to combat scenarios of this nature.
We further built up this “defense in depth” infrastructure following the Fukushima event. We have all types of equipment that could be utilized to keep the fuel cooled for an extended loss of power. We also have contracts with government contractors and off-site agencies to supply additional equipment via helicopters, etc., in the event roads are impassable.
So, I don’t think it’s realistic that a terrorist attack could cause the nuclear fuel to be damaged but it could cause our plant to shut down which would mean power outages.
Q: Three Mile Island, Fukushima, and Chernobyl are the big 3 scary events people think of when it comes to nuclear but when I started looking into them, I was surprised at how low the death tolls were at each. Any death is significant but I was under the impression that the tolls were much higher. Is that something that everyone in the industry knows but may not be accurately portrayed in the media?
A: You are correct that the death tolls and health impacts aren’t always characterized accurately by the media. If the reporting is boring, it doesn’t sell newspapers.
The Three Mile Island event was unfortunate in that we were in the early stages of nuclear power in the U.S. and hadn’t fully realized the importance of training and eliminating human error in operating the plants. The operators didn’t trust some indications they should have and didn’t realize what was occurring. Therefore, they responded incorrectly and caused the event to get worse (they shut off cooling systems that ultimately led to the fuel being damaged).
We learned a lot from Three Mile Island and have put numerous controls in place related to redundant equipment, better monitoring of systems, and better training. An event like that will never happen again in the U.S.
Both Chernobyl and Fukushima were more significant in that the surrounding public did receive some radiation from those accidents. Chernobyl was caused by an unauthorized test where they bypassed safety systems and then they tried to keep the event a secret from the rest of the world. This will also never happen in the U.S.
Fukushima was caused by a series of events that were never thought realistic. Nuclear plants are designed to a set of parameters based on what is the worst expected (flood, earthquake, hurricane, etc.) to ever occur. Fukushima experienced an earthquake beyond what was ever expected and then a (tsunami) flood beyond what was ever expected.
We call the set of parameters we design against “design basis” and the equipment we have installed since 9/11 and then significantly added to since Fukushima are there for what we call “beyond design basis” events. We never expect to use this equipment but it sits there ready in the event something never imagined were to occur.
Q: Does the public fear of nuclear ever get on your nerves?
A: Not really. I get frustrated that the government seems to impose incredible restrictions on the nuclear industry such that it challenges our ability to be competitive with other industries. There are other industrial facilities that have tanks of toxic chemicals, harmful gasses, etc. and they seem to have fewer restrictions. This presents a challenge to keep nuclear plants competitive which is a shame since it’s the most environmentally sound source of electricity for our nation and there is an abundance of fuel that is readily available and cheap.
Nuclear is the best option for climate change issues, pollution, etc. At times, there seems to be a disconnect between the people who oppose nuclear and their position towards protecting the environment. I think this is generally based on ignorance and fear. It seems to me this is changing though and people are starting to better understand the negative impacts of fossil fuels.
A big thank you to Molly and Jenny and their friend. If this piece ever makes it through the legal department, I’ll update this post with my nuclear engineer’s name and company. He was awesome about taking the time to answer my questions.
Nuclear energy is one of those things where the more you know, the less you fear it. I guess that’s true about most things though. If you believe that climate change is a pressing issue, and I do, please take some time and look at the facts about nuclear rather than relying on tabloid fear-peddlers and Greenpeace hysteria.
And look at how many people are killed by fossil fuels each year versus how many have been killed by even the worst nuclear accidents. Because even though it’s understandable to be leery of nuclear energy, getting to zero carbon is going to take a lot more than just unplugging our phone chargers and putting up some solar panels.