Oil, oil, toil and trouble: As oil prices hover in the high $70's per barrel, market commentators wonder how long Americans can maintain their dependence on fossil fuels. Solar, Wind, Biofuels – all are touted as the next savior, but at this moment in time there is only one serious contender and although it may be unpalatable to some, Nuclear Power is the only realistic option available. We’ve all heard the horror stories of reactor meltdowns and other issues that plagued the nuclear industry in the past, but today, nuclear energy is safer and cheaper than ever before, making it a viable alternative to oil & coal.
Before we explain why, it’s important to look back at a time when nuclear power wasn’t always considered safe. On April 26, an explosion ruptured one of the reactors of the Chernobyl nuclear power plant in the Ukraine, which was then part of the Soviet Union. Further explosions and the resulting fire sent a plume of highly radioactive material into the atmosphere. It spread out over an extensive geographical area. In total, 400 times more radioactive material was released by Chernobyl than had been released by the atomic bombing of Hiroshima.
Nuclear energy has never been the same. The Chernobyl accident led to an increase in anti-nuclear sentiment, which led most nations to scale back on nuclear power. Perhaps the most significant was Sweden, which in a 1990 referendum decided to phase out the 12 nuclear power plants that generated half of its electricity. In fact, by 1989, France and Japan were the only two major industrialized countries that planned to expand their nuclear power plants.
Despite the perception that nuclear energy was more dangerous after Chernobyl, the accident actually made it safer—because world governments began investigating what made Chernobyl fail, and what made other plants safer.
To answer the first question, the accident at Chernobyl was the result of a severely flawed Soviet-era reactor design combined with human error. Such a combination is a rarity. In fact, Chernobyl is the only accident in the history of commercial nuclear power to cause fatalities from radiation.
To answer the second question, differences in reactor design and emergency preparedness make it unlikely that a Chernobyl-type accident could occur in a developed nation such as the United States.
In fact, there are three key differences between the Chernobyl disaster and today’s nuclear energy programs.
First, today’s nuclear plants have safer designs. The Chernobyl plant did not have the extensive containment structure common to most of the world’s nuclear power plants—and it was this lack of protection that allowed radioactive material to escape into the environment.
Second, today’s nuclear power plant operators have implemented stringent emergency preparedness and notification plans. Such plans could have averted much of Chernobyl’s environmental impact even given its poor reactor design. Instead, however, Chernobyl plant operators concealed the accident from authorities and the local population, so evacuations did not begin until about 36 hours after the accident. In the United States, nuclear power plant operators are required to alert local authorities and make recommendations for protecting the public within 15 minutes of identifying conditions that might lead to a significant release of radioactive material—even if such a release has not occurred.
Third, a significant impact of the Chernobyl accident was the consumption of contaminated food after the accident, which occurred because plant operators did not promptly disclose the accident. Today, that’s not the case. Under existing U.S. federal regulations, for example, if an accident occurs, the U.S. government will carefully monitor and test all food and water supplies, and remove from public consumption any that is unsafe.
In sum, as a result of Chernobyl, today’s nuclear energy is safer than ever before—and produces some of the cleanest and cheapest energy available. In fact, nuclear plants are the world’s lowest-cost producer of electricity: The average production cost of 1.87 cents per kilowatt-hour includes the costs of operating and maintaining the plant, purchasing fuel and paying for the management of used fuel.
That’s why many people believe nuclear energy is the energy source of the future. If statistics are any indication, they may be right. In 2008, America’s 104 reactors in 31 states produced 806.2 billion kilowatt-hours of electricity—around 20% of the U.S. populations needs. And that number is growing.