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Posted by on Mar 14, 2011 in Science & Technology | 0 comments

Even The Worst Nuclear Power Plant Disasters Pale In Comparison To Fossil Fuels

While I’m not so happy about how the odds of disaster are presented, I think it is imperative that we put the safety of nuclear power in context. The truth of the matter is that coal power plants release much more destructive pollution into the environment than even the worst nuclear accident. This article in Slate cites 1 million annual premature deaths [or “500 Chernobyls”] from particulate pollution. Literally every nuclear plant in existence could have catastrophic failure and it would still not affect nearly as many people as coal. This is not even including the indirect contribution caused by global warming and its associated misery due to increased extreme weather events. And that is only particulate pollution!

As Tom Blees points out in Prescription for the Planet, “The Oak Ridge National Laboratory calculated in 1982 that the average coal power plant releases 5.2 tons of uranium (containing 74 pounds of fissile U-235, used in both power plants and bombs) and 12.8 tons of thorium….Worldwide releases totaled 3,640 tons of uraniums (containing 51,700 pounds of U-235) and 8,960….By the year 2040, cumulative releases of radioactive materials from these power plants will have reached the following levels: U.S. releases: 145,230 tons of uranium and 357,491 tons of thorium; World releases: 828,632 tons of uraniums and over two million tons of thorium” and of course the daughter products of those. The majority of these releases are concentrated in fly ash ponds that are truly hell on earth, especially when they break. I cannot fathom the disaster that would occur if there was a major quake in the midwest or south simply due to the release of this toxic sludge.

Yes, nuclear power produces waste that must be contained but it is done far more safely than fly ash. Even more to the point, that waste could be processed and reused for next generation plants that can be constructed much more safely than the reactors in Japan. [And as Slate points out, even the modern reactors are orders of magnitude safer than the design in Japan.]

Far from nuclear power being abandoned, it needs to be accelerated in order to transition to a post fossil fuel world. The key is that it needs to be done correctly and that includes active citizen engagement to ensure that corners are not cut. As the epilogue to Adam Curtis’ brilliant documentary states, the problem that society has in relationship to technology is that both its proponents and opponents have largely acted like the chosen implementation of technology is its only possible form. We sit and argue about whether science/technology is good and bad in theory by evaluating the function of designs that were chosen primarily for business and political reasons. In reality what we are seeing in this disaster (or the Gulf or GM foods or pesticides, etc.) is more of a referendum on our socioeconomic system rather than scientific understanding.

Like all too many scientists through the ages, I marvel at the possibility of what could be but am saddened by how our society has chosen to use its knowledge. While all generations face the fierce urgency of now, I believe ours is even fiercer, one in which we will have to decide whether to fall into the pit of despair and alarm or reorient to a more holistic approach that will avoid the worst. Nuclear power is the only conceivable cornerstone for such an approach, no matter how much wind and solar we install.