Is the jury still “out” on nuclear power safety? Or is it ready to issue a verdict? Nuclear power, in the popular imagination, is dangerous because of one of its potential applications: Nuclear weapons.
But for nuclear-generated electricity, should we be worried? A review in the U.K. medical journal Lancet, concludes that nuclear electricity is safer for workers than coal mining, for example.
In terms of fatalities, it’s five times safer for workers in the nuclear industry, including miners, than for those in the carbon-based fuel power industries. But for the general public it’s fifty times safer than the safest form of carbon energy- natural gas. How can this be? Don’t uranium miners have accidents comparable to coal miners? They do. But they extract much more usable energy in a day’s work than those extracting fossil fuels.
What about nuclear power plant accidents such as those at Chernobyl and Fukushima? Surely, workers and civilians living nearby were killed or harmed, but their percentages have been small. For conventional power, it is air pollution that is harmful. It is said to harm far more workers and civilians than mining accidents, power plant disasters, and disposal activities combined. So if you’re downwind from a coal plant, you won’t live as long as if you’re upwind. You should be happy. Uranium is your friend.
Then there is plutonium, a byproduct of uranium fission. Other byproducts of fission, usually called nuclear waste, must be considered as well. Plutonium is good if it is “burned” up in a nuclear reactor, but it can ruin your day if it is used by bad actors to make a nuclear weapon. It costs money to process/recycle nuclear waste and there is controversy over its economic benefits. Long term it probably makes sense to reprocess (and burn) the plutonium and use/dispose the remaining waste components in whatever cost-effective processes make sense. To do otherwise invites trouble.