Nuclear Reactions 2.1

IN THE FIRST INSTALLMENT OF THIS SERIES, I spilled most of my ink exposing what I perceive to be the agenda of much of today’s commentary on nuclear energy in the United States: Sabotage.

Not literal sabotage, of course — though any discussion of atomic power must at least touch on this subject (I will in the third installment of this series). No, I’m talking about political sabotage through spin, fear-mongering and misinformation. These things have marked the nuclear debate in America since well before the Three Mile Island “disaster” in 1979…

More on that in just a moment. But right now, I want to tell you everything I know about nuclear power in America. It isn’t much, but at least it’s objective — with no fog of left-coast Kool-Aid dust to cloud the issue. And hopefully, it’s enough to force any thinking opponent of nuclear power to reconsider the matter without prejudice.

Where Are All the Bodies Hidden?

As I said in Part One of this series (and as several of you pointed out when you wrote in response to it), I’m not an expert on nuclear power. Aside from the fact that 2008 marks the 50th anniversary of nuclear power in the United States, there are really only four other things I know about nuclear energy…

  1. ONE DEATH IN A HALF-CENTURY — As far as I can ascertain from fairly extensive research, only one person has ever died as a direct result of radiation exposure from the generation of atomic power in the U.S. (several more have died from power-plant accidents unrelated to radiation or nuclear reactions). It happened in 1964, when an employee at a Rhode Island nuclear fuel facility was exposed to lethal levels of radiation from some liquid uranium he was working with. It’s also fair to note that a small number of Americans, mostly military personnel and scientists, have died or been sickened by nuclear mishaps in various military and research capacities, but not from power generation.
  2. ZERO CASUALTIES IN “AMERICA’S WORST” — Not one person or animal died from the 1979 partial reactor core meltdown at Pennsylvania’s Three Mile Island, dubbed by the media as “America’s worst nuclear disaster.” According to reports from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission and the results of a special investigation ordered by President Carter (himself a former Navy nuclear engineer who’d taken part in nuclear accident clean-up), the few who were most exposed in the TMI accident experienced a dose of radiation roughly equal to the amount the average American absorbs in a year from environmental “background” sources. The 25,000 or so Pennsylvanians living within a 5-mile radius of TMI were exposed to no more radiation than they would have sustained from a typical chest x-ray. Many follow-up studies have been conducted by all kinds of entities, with no credible proof of a link between this mild exposure to radiation and any deaths or long-term illnesses.
  3. CANCER MORTALITY: NO LINK — Increased adult cancer and childhood leukemia risk is often mentioned by anti-nuke activists as inevitable to the adoption of nuclear power. Yet a number of large-scale North American and European studies have found no link between rates of cancer and proximity to nuclear power facilities. The biggest of these was a 1991 study conducted by the National Institutes of Health and the National Cancer Institute. This research analyzed mortality rates of 900,000 people from 16 types of cancer, and found no increased risk of death from cancer for those living in the shadows of 62 U.S. nuclear power facilities. Further, the study found no increased risk of death from childhood leukemia in the counties surrounding these nuclear plants in the years following their start-up.

Aside from these three facts, I know only one other thing about nuclear energy in America: That it’s a deeply and irrationally polarizing topic.

Energy: An All-Around Deadly Game

For the longest time, I’ve wondered why it seems like everyone’s so knee-jerk against nuclear power. The only thing I could come up with is simple fear. Fear of a Chernobyl-type disaster. Fear of water or air contamination. Fear of disease in ourselves or mutation in our children…

These are natural concerns that I share with all thinking Americans. However, as far as the history of nuclear energy production in the United States goes, these fears seem not to be supported by much in the way of facts. According to everything I could gather, the “body count” for U.S. nuclear power generation is absurdly low compared to other forms of energy. Take, for instance…

  • COAL MINING — According to the U.S. Department of Labor and other sources, approximately 8000 people have been killed in coal-mining accidents in the last 50 years (the time period since nuclear power came on-line in the U.S.). But when you add the 75,000 or more miners that have died prematurely from black lung during this same period, you’re looking at a body count of around 83,000 Americans! This is nearly 10 times the International Atomic Energy Agency and World Health Organization’s projections of possible long-term mortality from the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear disaster. And this figure doesn’t even include serious injuries, which could realistically number around 56,000–80,000 over this same period. Coal mining is statistically among the most hazardous ways to earn a living.
  • OIL & GAS — Department of Labor statistics reveal that over the last five years, the domestic oil and gas industry has annually averaged more than 20 deaths and around 500 injuries severe enough to require job transfer or duty restriction. If these numbers are roughly representative of the last 50 years, if follows that America has sustained at least 1000 deaths and 50,000 debilitating injuries from oil and gas drilling over that time period. However, the real mortality and injury numbers for the domestic oil and gas industry are likely far higher than this. The only stats I could find were recent, and industry practices have no doubt gotten steadily safer over the last half-century (especially since the creation of OSHA in 1970).

My point is this: Power generation is hazardous, both to those who work in the energy industries and, sometimes, to the people near the sites and machines related to those industries. That’s just an unpleasant fact of life. I, for one, am reluctant to make much of a distinction in terms of the human costs associated with the implementation of any form of energy — dead, sick, or injured Americans are all of equal value to me, whether they work in the various energy industries or are simply living in proximity to them…

And as far as I can ascertain (granted, I’m not an expert), nuclear energy is among the safest — if not the safest — of all the ways in which America powers its vast electrical grid. Not just in human terms, either.

Dirty Little Energy Secrets and the Carbon Catch-22

Much is made of the potential environmental downsides of nuclear energy. One of my favorite TV shows — and since 2007, a movie — The Simpsons, regularly satirizes these hazards by portraying multi-eyed fishes, glow-in-the-dark rodents, giant spiders and other such things in proximity to the dilapidated nuclear power plant in which Homer Simpson works. For years, American pop culture has seized on the idea of nuclear mutation in both humans and animals (see Spiderman, The Toxic Avenger, Modern Problems, The Hills Have Eyes, etc.)…

Of course, it’s true that a certain percentage of the spent radioactive fuels atomic power is derived from remain highly hazardous. Also, the risks of leakage of radioactive coolant, material or fuel can’t be overlooked. Obviously, safeguarding against and contending with these things in a low-impact way is one of the biggest challenges facing nuclear energy (more on this in the third installment of this series). As an outdoorsman and conservationist, I don’t want to minimize or be dismissive of these risks — they worry me as much as they would the greenest eco-terrorist…

However, I would like to contrast the highly-hyped hazards of nuclear energy — which so far in the U.S. seem to exist on the screen far more than in life — with the very real environmental downsides of many of the other ways in which America generates its electricity, some of them so-called “green” or “alternative.” Consider:

  • MINING WASTE AND RUN-OFF — Strip-mining, open-pit mining, and “mountaintop removal” (MTR) mining all cause major environmental havoc. The muddy run-off from these operations can transform formerly cool, rocky creeks ideal for trout and other cold-water fish species into shallow, silt-filled, slow-moving runs where nothing but carp can survive. According to the EPA, MTR mining has literally buried 724 miles of streams in Appalachia between 1985 and 2001, and routinely changes the ecosystems of area streams that do survive. Also, the open-air blasting necessary for MTR mining launches sulfuric coal-dust and other nasty stuff into the atmosphere. And all of these coal-mining processes produce millions of gallons of watery coal “slurry” that must be contained indefinitely on-site in vast, dead reservoirs of toxic sludge. Problem is, this stuff doesn’t always stay contained. In 1972, a coal slurry impoundment dam holding back 132 million gallons of deadly slurry burst along Buffalo Creek in Logan County, WV, annihilating the town of Saunders, killing 125 people and injuring more than 1,100 others. In 2000, a similar impoundment broke in Kentucky, spilling 306 million gallons of slurry into two tributaries of the Tug Fork River and polluting hundreds of waterway miles. Water supplies for 27,000 Kentucky residents were contaminated, and all aquatic life was extinguished from Wolf Creek and Coldwater Fork.
  • ACID RAIN — Another environmental downside of the combustion of coal is the release of sulfur and nitrogen oxides into the air. These compounds react in the atmosphere to form acidic precipitation. When this falls to Earth, it has been demonstrated to be harmful to vegetation, fish and other aquatic life, and even man-made structures. Acid rain is blamed for the reduction of brook trout populations in Appalachia (a phenomenon I can attest to first-hand as a life-long fisherman). The problem is especially severe in China, Eastern Europe, Russia, and areas downwind of these pollution giants.
  • DAMS — It’s been a while since the Snail Darter made headlines, but by now everyone should know that hydro-electric dams pose great threats to fisheries, especially trout, salmon, and shad. Salmon populations on both the Atlantic and Pacific coasts have taken a nose-dive because of hydro-electric power plants, despite the presence of fish ladders and other measures. Also, hydro-electric dams typically discharge much warmer water than is found upstream of the reservoirs feeding them. This can permanently alter the ecosystems of major waterways, making them less suitable for desirable cool-water fish species like trout, salmon, shad, pike, muskellunge, but perfect for “trash” species such as carp, chubs, suckers, and gar. (To be fair about the comparison, nuke plants cause warm-water discharge as well.)
  • WINDMILLS — Many people tout wind as the perfect low-impact energy source, but it isn’t without its costs to American wildlife. Though their impact on bird populations is negligible, wind-turbines actually are quite deadly to another of our flying friends: Bats. In one 2004 study, just 63 turbines at two eastern-U.S. sites mowed down 2,200 of these furry insectivores in six weeks. The massive blades of wind-turbines don’t discriminate, either. They mince up the endangered species (like Indiana bats) just as readily as the more common varieties. If wind power takes hold in a serious way, it could have a disastrous effect on bat populations, which are already in decline.
  • OIL/GAS SPILLS AND DISCHARGES — I shouldn’t need to get too specific here. Crude oil and natural gas consumption accounts for around 21.5 percent of America’s electricity. And everyone reading this remembers or has seen pictures of Prince William Sound after 1989’s Exxon Valdez oil spill or other similar events (not that this wouldn’t have happened if the U.S. had gone nuke — most imported oil is refined for vehicle fuels and the like). This disaster is emblematic of the destruction that petroleum spills can wreak on the environment.
  • FARMING — It’s important to remember that farming isn’t without its environmental downsides, especially now that demand for false-panacea ethanol has caused a boom in corn farming. Because of the demand for maize, American farmers have reclaimed for agriculture thousands of acres of natural CRP (Conservation Reserve Program) lands. These are huge tracts of privately-owned lands the government paid farmers NOT to plant on, so that pheasants, quail, turkeys, deer, and other animals could have more habitat. Now, these critters are being plowed under, chewed up in combines, or displaced by the million so that a net-negative-CO2 “clean” technology can be mass-implemented. Also, let’s not forget the tremendous negative impact that fertilizer run-off from farms has on creeks, streams and estuaries.

Oh, and one more thing: If you believe CO2 is killing the planet, nuclear power totals up a fraction of the carbon dioxide emissions that coal- and gas-fired electricity generation does — or even that farming does (airborne nitrous oxide from fertilizer manifests many times more of a “greenhouse effect” than an equal volume of CO2). Quite the Catch-22 for nuke-hating Gaia-lovers, huh?

Bottom Line: Search as I might, I could find scant evidence of any nuclear accident, disaster, or long-term effect which has wrought any significant degree of mortality, mutation, disease, endangerment, or extinction of ANY species on U.S. soil, humans included. The same cannot be said of other, “cleaner” forms of energy.

I’m not saying that atomic power generation has no impact on plants, animals, or people. What I am saying is that as far as I can gather, every one of America’s large-scale energy technologies (including some “clean” alternatives that are growing in scope) carries a demonstrably greater impact on our nation’s flora, fauna, and folks than nuclear power historically has…

In the third and final installment of this series, I’ll show you a global example of nuclear power that’s working, address concerns about terrorism and accidents — plus expose you to a little-discussed solution to the problem of nuclear waste. Stay tuned.

Thinking, not Kool-Aid drinking,

Jim Amrhein
Freedoms Editor
March 13, 2008