People raise their hands and demand cleaner energy alternatives, yet they continue to shun the source that is not only already producing 11% of the world’s power, but is responsible for 96.5% fewer greenhouse emissions as compared to coal. They shun the source because it isn’t popular, no matter how practical. Unfortunately, popularity will beat out practicality every time.
Imagine the lunch room of the high school for the world’s power plants. There sit the “Cool Kids”. They show off their coal burning smoke stacks, and belittle all the other power plants. Everyone knows they are a little outdated, and dirty, and responsible for most of the greenhouse gasses on the planet, but they still reign supreme in the popularity contest of the power plants. Even the hipster alternative power sources like wind and solar, with their scarves and wool knit caps, and glassless eyeglass frames can’t keep up with the cool coal kids. No matter how many cups of overpriced Starbucks coffee they drink.
Quietly, in the corner sits the arch rival of the cool kids. He’s a little scrawny. He’s a little awkward. He’s just a little misunderstood. Nuclear power knows he might not be one of the cool kids today, but when he gets out of power plant high school he is destined for much greater things.
Poignant analogies aside, there is a rift in the energy community developing over something as simple as high school level logic and reasoning…
But why is that scrawny, awkward, misunderstood power source so unpopular?
Because it is just that: Misunderstood.
Just the word Nuclear conjures images of radiation symbols, men in biohazard suits, and three eyed fish. It brings to mind pictures of blue barrels leaking glowing sludge onto an ocean bottom, or the floor of some secret bunker. It reminds us of incredible disasters and terrible acts of war. The imagery associated with the word nuclear never brings to mind images of clean skies, sustainable power sources, or an electric bill that doesn’t require the black market sale of a semi-vital bodily organ.
That almost instinctual negative opinion, no matter how misguided, is what leads people to the #1 misconception about nuclear power: that it is somehow inherently dangerous. According to a CBS survey, a clear majority of Americans believe nuclear power is safe, but 62% would not like a nuclear power plant in their community.
“Sure it’s safe, but keep it over there…”
According to the International Atomic Energy Agency, there have been a total of 33 incidents related to nuclear power reported since 1952. Of those 33 events, only 10 surpassed the “incident” level on the International Nuclear Event Scale. Of those 10 events 3 were considered “Serious” or “Major” accidents.
They are household names; Chernobyl, Three Mile Island, and now Fukushima.
The incident at Fukushima was the result of a tsunami produced from earthquake. Even if we could learn how to prevent earthquakes, the plant was built 10 meters above sea level as opposed to the 35 meters height originally proposed. Why did they move the building site? It was cheaper. I don’t mean to get all “Forest Gump” here, but stupid is as stupid does. Still, you can’t condemn the entire concept of nuclear power based on that single incident.
Chernobyl is rated a 7 on the event scale, and was caused by a fluke power spike during a regularly scheduled test operation. The fallout from that disaster has been more than well documented despite the former USSR’s attempts at covering it up. Lessons were learned, and admittedly so, at a very high price.
Three Mile Island, a 5 on the event scale, is really the only incident to be traced back to equipment failure and operator error. Basically a valve was turned and released reactor coolant (40,000 gallons of it) in an attempt to prevent a reactor core meltdown. It worked, but the release of the radioactive water into the Susquehanna River created a media circus of negative press. Even though there has never been a single case of cancer associated with the incident at Three Mile Island, the initial panic and subsequent media blitz de-railed the United States nuclear program almost completely. Orders for 51 similar reactors were canceled between 1980 and 1984.
By comparison there have been thousands of major industrial accidents in the same time frame. For instance, the 1962 coal fire in Centralia, Pennsylvania that lead to the evacuation of the entire area, and is STILL BURNING 52 years later. That didn’t even put a dent in the reputation of the coal industry. In 1988 in Norco, Louisiana a Shell Oil Refinery exploded, killing 7 workers and costing an estimated 706 million dollars. A few months later in 1988 in the North Sea the Piper Alpha oil production platform blew up, killing 167 men and costing an estimated 3.4 billion dollars. Oil production never slowed down. In 2011 in Karachi, Pakistan a factory that made ready to wear clothing destined for Western export burned to the ground killing 289 people. We still wear clothes…
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