Quick Study: The Facts on Nuclear Energy

Nuclear energy is on the front burner again. Here's what you need to know.

By Lisa Goff from Reader's Digest | August 2008

Sabotage or accidents — Spent fuel is now stored on-site at nuclear plants. If the containers holding this radioactive material were to lose their coolant, land could be contaminated for hundreds of miles. If an operating reactor lost its coolant, thousands could die from acute radiation within days or weeks, and tens of thousands could die from cancer in the long term. There are 161 million Americans living within 75 miles of the Department of Energy’s 121 nuclear-waste storage sites.

Meltdown — On March 28, 1979, the cooling system at Three Mile Island malfunctioned. Within hours, the core of the overheated plant essentially melted. Remarkably, no one was hurt.

Explosions — Chernobyl, the reactor in the then-Soviet Union (now Ukraine), experienced a power surge and explosions in April 1986. A botched test caused the accident that killed dozens and sentenced thousands to cancer after they were exposed to radiation.

Health — New research has linked living near a nuclear plant to childhood leukemia.

Nuclear holocaust — Critics fear that the countries now seeking nuclear energy capabilities, including Iran, are just looking for the back door to nuclear bombs. Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad announced in January that his country would bring a nuclear plant online by 2009. These same critics also point to the terrorist threat posed by transporting nuclear waste, now stored at dozens of sites, to a new centralized repository like the one planned for Yucca Mountain.

Forward Thinking

Snazzier reactors — The next generation of nuclear reactors are simpler and, according to the industry, less prone to meltdown because they rely on natural processes like gravity and evaporation instead of big valves and pumps manned by human beings. So far, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission has certified four new reactor designs and is reviewing an additional four.

Recycling — A pipe dream in the United States even a few years ago, the goal of recycling spent nuclear fuel has today been embraced by the Bush Administration, which in 2006 made recycling the centerpiece of its Global Nuclear Energy Partnership. GNEP countries would provide nuclear fuel to developing nations, who in return would promise not to generate their own. Spent fuel would be reprocessed so that weapons-grade plutonium is kept out of dangerous hands. The GNEP aims to advance recycling and reactor technologies.

Central dumping ground — Opponents of a centralized, underground repository for high-level nuclear waste argue that Yucca Mountain is too close to Las Vegas (90 miles) and an earthquake fault line. And transporting waste cross-country, they say, could create “mobile Chernobyls.”

Another way to store spent nuclear fuel: Dry casks on-site mean no transport.

Arguments for Nuclear Power

‘We’re in the early stages of a renaissance for nuclear energy. Just look at the numbers. Nuclear energy is reliable and affordable, and it’s a carbon-free energy source.’
Steven Kerekes, spokesman, Nuclear Energy Institute

“What the nuclear industry is selling as the ‘nuclear renaissance’ has the same problems that plagued the industry from the start: safety, security, no place to put radioactive waste, lack of skilled engineers and craft labor, cost of materials, weak supply chains, cost of capital, and lack of investors.”

Jon Block
, formerly of the Union of Concerned Scientists

“Some environmentalists are still stuck in the 1970s, [when we feared] being fried by nuclear weapons. Nuclear energy is simply the only nonpolluting energy source that can replace fossil fuels. It’s a fairy tale that wind and solar can do the job.”

Patrick Moore
, cochair, Clean and Safe Energy Coalition (CASEnergy) and cofounder of Greenpeace

“Today’s reactor designs are safer than before. But they’re costly, and we don’t have very good regulatory enforcement. We’re creating proliferation risks and kicking them down the road to our children.”

Arjun Makhijani
, author and president, Institute for Energy and Environmental Research