The Science and Fiction Behind Nuclear Energy

Graphic by Jacob Jardel
Based on 2011 statistics from Next Big Fixture. For more information, visit www.nextbigfuture.com/2011/03/deaths-per-twh-by-energy-source.html

Payton Williams
Staff Writer

On March 30, 2016, independent presidential hopeful Jill Stein tweeted, “Nuclear power plants = weapons of mass destruction waiting to be detonated. Time to shut them down.”

To many people, this sentiment probably does not come as a surprise. Nuclear energy is often considered volatile and dangerous, and it would very likely be no one’s first choice for a non-carbon energy substitute.

In many ways, then, Mrs. Stein’s answer could be seen as popularly correct, the right move at the right time for a far-left politician with presidential aspirations and a base that will automatically distrust nuclear energy, given its many widely reported and well documented failures. This is a power source that shares much of its origin with the atomic bomb, after all.

But is this popular opinion necessarily the case? When comparing the environmental costs and damage to livelihood of nuclear energy versus the carbon energy sources commonly used now, the answer is nearly unanimous: absolutely not.

In order to establish why this misconception exists, we should first determine how it started, and the answer is fairly simple: science fiction.

During the early days of popular sci-fi sometime around the early 20th century, the science of harnessing radioactivity from elements was a fairly new one. As such, few people understood this highly-technical concept.

So, radioactivity was seen as mysterious and unpredictable. As a result, authors often used radioactivity as a harbinger of doom. Much like electricity giving life to Frankenstein’s monster in the 18th century, radioactivity gave birth to any number of imagined mutants and monsters in the first part of the 1900s.

Then came the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945. These events showed the incredible destructive power of nuclear energy, and after that, no one could be blamed for immediately associating radioactivity with instantaneous annihilation. The science was, after all, already little trusted, popularly.

This reputation is not earned, however. At least, not in relation to coal.

Coal is the most major supplier of energy in the US, with mines producing upwards of 8 million tons of the stuff for domestic use, plus some for export purposes. It is a massive business with a powerful lobby in the United States government.

The greatest testament to this lobby’s power may very well be that most Americans would consider it to be at an equal danger level to the production of nuclear energy.

That belief is fantastically untrue.

Coal is a contributing factor in environmental damage surpassing the potential of nuclear plants, with mines acting as agents for acid rain and ground water pollution. Further, according to recent scientific studies, coal ash actually sends more radioactive material into the environment than the waste disposed of from nuclear plants.

More specifically, according to a 2007 article in the Scientific American, a particular coal byproduct, fly ash, can send out up to 100 times more radioactivity than the waste found in a nuclear disposal pool.

And even in the case of this fly ash, the amounts of coal-based radioactivity are trace and show little discernible impact on the surrounding population.

According to a study from NASA, if reliance on fossil fuels worldwide were traded for a reliance on nuclear energy, over the next 35 years, upwards of 6 million lives could be saved.

Now, it should be noted that this is a comparison between nuclear energy and fossil fuels. In no way is nuclear energy a safe energy source. It has the power to do great damage to human life and to the environment, as was the case in Chernobyl in 1986 and in Fukushima in 2011.

However, popular opinion grossly misrepresents the safety levels associated with nuclear energy for very little reason. Nuclear energy, when compared to fossil fuels, is an absolute wonder of an energy source demonized simply because it sounds scarier than it is.

Even in the worst occurrences of nuclear disaster, death tolls are often greatly exaggerated. In the case of Fukushima, for instance, no deaths were directly linked to the meltdown of the facility, and the World Health Organization predicts that the increase of cancer as a result will likely be at statistically undetectable levels.

To put it in perspective, the Fukushima disaster is the second-worst nuclear disaster in the whole history of nuclear energy production so far. When compared to the conservatively estimated 100,000 deaths per year attributed to the generation of coal energy, these results are positively miraculous.

It’s not just something to be passively denied by a politician, regardless of how many votes it may earn them.

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