Nuclear power carries extreme, persistent risks

Below is a guest blog post, published with permission, of an opinion editorial by William H. Schlesinger, Dean Emeritus at the Nicholas School of the Environment at Duke University, that originally ran in the Charlotte Observer on January 25, 2016. You can find the original publication here. We added the map to this post showing nuclear facilities in our region along with evacuation zones and ingestion pathways, that comes from our report, Code Red Alert, which can be found here.

Nuclear power carries extreme, persistent risks

William H. Schlesinger

As the world’s nations embrace a low-carbon future, it is easy to envision renewed interest in the nuclear option. But we should be cautious in our optimism for the nuclear option.

We’ve seen three big examples of the dangers of nuclear power – the meltdowns at the Three-Mile Island, Chernobyl and Fukushima. The 1986 disaster at Chernobyl left about 1,000 square miles of land uninhabitable by humans for the foreseeable future, leaving dangerous levels of Plutonium-239 in the soil. Imagine the same for a nuclear power plant near you. For central North Carolina, this would involve the exposure of 2 million people and the instantaneous and permanent abandonment of the campuses of Duke, NC State and UNC. The half life of Plutonium-239 is 24,000 years.

The half-life of some of the other radioactive elements released at Chernobyl, such as cesium-137 and strontium-90, is about 30 years. Unfortunately, the contamination of the environment by these isotopes was more widespread, in part because they are lighter and more easily carried by winds and water.

The half-life of a radioactive element says only when half of the original content has decayed away. If the original contamination was large, even half can be significant. We should not associate a half-life of 30 years with a return to safety at Chernobyl.

Higher incidence of thyroid cancer and genetic irregularities are reported from the human populations around Chernobyl. Nuclear advocates are quick to point out that some wildlife populations in the exclusion zone have increased dramatically, perhaps as a result of relaxation of hunting and other human pressures after 1986. But the higher incidence of albinism in resident barn swallows should be a constant reminder that radiation-induced genetic mutations afflict wildlife populations and potentially humans as well.

Map of nuclear facilities in our region, from SACE's Code Red Alert report

Severe contamination of the local environment resulted from the Fukushima disaster. It is unclear whether some areas will ever be inhabited again. Again, some of the more mobile radioactive elements have been carried to distant lands. Within a month, elevated levels of Iodine-131, and cesium-137 were recorded in rainfall collected by the National Atmospheric Deposition Stations across the U.S. Iodine-129 (half-life of 15.7 million years) was carried through the atmosphere to British Columbia, and cesium-134 through ocean currents reaching the west coast of North America. By the time they reached North America, the levels of these isotopes were lower than the amounts naturally found in most soils. Fallout spreads worldwide, but the worst effects of a nuclear disaster are normally found in the region around the event itself.

With nuclear power comes the associated problems of its waste disposal, which have yet to be addressed effectively in the United States. And a proliferation of nuclear power also enhances the likelihood that nuclear materials will be diverted to nefarious purposes. When all the hidden costs are included, nuclear power is not competitive with many sources of renewable energy.

Nuclear power may appear to be clean – we see no equivalent of black-lung disease among coal miners, no mercury accumulations in fishes downwind, and no CO2 emissions that change our climate globally. But, when there is a problem with nuclear power, it is sure to be large, persistent, and biocidal for the persistence of life on Earth. Accidents always happen; can we afford an accident with nuclear power?

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William Schlesinger says that low levels of radiation are biocidal but anti-nuclear power campaigners have never shown that. They just assumed so by projecting mortalities from high-dose exposure. Yet high-dose exposure to radiation is very rare indeed. In today’s world it only really happens during cancer treatment. Yet large numbers of cancer patients survive. They should all die according to William Schlesinger’s theories. Many health physicists and radiation experts disagree with the author on the dangers of radioactivity. We all agree high doses are dangerous, but the trace amounts of plutonium supposedly covering 1000 square miles just trace amounts. Most of the Chernobyl exclusion zone in now habitable.

Professor Wade Allison has two fine books on radiation and nuclear power: “Radiation and Reason”, and “Nuclear is for Life: A Cultural Revolution”, where he argues the dangers of radiation and nuclear power are totally exaggerated.

Dr. Alex Cannara – Linear No-Threshold Radiation Lies :
Prof. Wade Allison Radiation and Reason :
Prof. Wade Allison: “The Fukushima nuclear accident and the unwarranted fear of low-dose radiation” :

Comment by Mark Pawelek on January 28, 2016 8:12 am

Mr. Schlesinger failed to mention there are absolutely no Chernobyl type reactors in the U.S. because the design was determined to be inherently unsafe and was banned. Therefore, an accident of that type and magnitude in the U.S. is virtually impossible. He also failed to mention that commercial nuclear energy facilities have been operating in the U.S. for more than half a century (almost 5,000 reactor-years of combined operation) and including the accident at Three Mile Island, there is no medical or environmental evidence indicating that anyone or the environment has been harmed by the radiation associated with the facilities. (I know people who have received more radiation exposure from a couple CAT scans than I did from working 23 years at a nuclear power plant.) The accident at Fukushima displaced thousands of people from their homes and land, but there have been no deaths attributed to radiation, while over 19,000 people perished from the earthquake and tsunami.
Misleading information carries persistent risks too.

Comment by Tom Kauffman on January 28, 2016 3:32 pm

Thank you for your comment; this is a guest blog post so we cannot reply on behalf of the author. The piece is not about whether a Chernobyl could happen in the U.S. or what the exact outcomes were from TMI or will come from the Fukushima nuclear disaster. Rather, it’s about the significant, inherent risks that nuclear power poses and that consideration of those risks, which many other energy generation choices do not pose such as wind, solar, energy efficiency, should be taken into account when deciding how best to deal with global climate change. Of note, TMI was a complicated situation — we’d urge readers to view information from Beyond Nuclear, found here:

Comment by Sara Barczak on February 25, 2016 9:20 am

Thank you for your comment. Again, as stated in a reply earlier, the author in this guest blog post is considering global climate change and how it can be addressed by the energy sector. The inherent risks nuclear power poses to health, public safety, security and the environment should be taken into account along with acknowledgement that there are many other choices that are no- or low-carbon technologies that don’t pose such risks and are far more affordable.

Comment by Sara Barczak on February 25, 2016 9:23 am

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