With the pressing need to find carbon-free sources of electricity to address climate change, some environmental groups that once opposed nuclear power now see it as essential. While policymakers have dismissed nuclear facilities for safety reasons, the new calculus is that the risk from nuclear power plants is far smaller than generally perceived. Policymakers who write-off nuclear as being too dangerous are doing a major disservice to the public by warding off a safe, effective carbon-free technology.
Severe nuclear accidents are rare and extremely unlikely to cause any near-term off-site radiation fatalities or radiation sicknesses. A review of four major nuclear power plant accidents—the fire at Browns Ferry plant, the Three Mile Island accident, the Fukushima accident, and the Chernobyl accident—confirms that no off-site, near-term fatalities or radiation sicknesses occurred. In Chernobyl, the worst nuclear power plant accident in history, there were cases of thyroid cancers in children who consumed radioactive, iodine-contaminated milk from the surrounding area. This would not happen in the United States because there is a food interdiction plan as part of the overall emergency response plan, which includes a 50 mile zone around each nuclear plant to deal with preventing the ingestion of contaminated food stuffs, should there be a release of radioactive material into the environment.
Even if hit by a weather disaster or act of terrorism, nuclear power plants do not pose a significant threat to society. Sandia National Laboratories performed studies where scenarios revealed that in these cases, even if all active safety equipment failed and no protective actions were taken by plant personnel, nuclear accidents release far less radioactive material into the environment than previously thought. When this radioactive material is released, it enters the environment much later and more gradually than thought before. While it is very unlikely that all safety equipment would fail, the scenarios prove that even if they did, the radioactive material would not represent a serious threat to public safety.
Nuclear energy is safe, clean, and ripe for innovation. If policymakers continue to leave it out of the carbon-free equation, they will make it far more difficult to address climate change.