This story was originally published by Undark and appears here as part of the Climate Desk collaboration

When Russian forces attacked the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant, Europe’s largest, back in March, many watched on in horror. “By the grace of God, the world narrowly averted a nuclear catastrophe last night,” said the United States ambassador to the United Nations the next morning. When power was cut to Chernobyl five days later, the Ukrainian Foreign Minister tweeted that its reserve diesel generators only had a 48-hour capacity and that radiation leaks were “imminent.” And several months later, in an August video address, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky discussed the ongoing occupation of Zaporizhzhia, claiming that “every minute the Russian troops stay at the nuclear power plant is a risk of a global radiation disaster.”

None of these statements were accurate.

Commentators, either through ignorance or wilful denial, misunderstood the layers of redundant safety systems built into nuclear plants like Zaporizhzhia. If power from the grid was cut, generators would turn on; if primary coolant was lost, a secondary system would kick in. A “catastrophe” or “disaster” would require a lengthy series of human errors and system malfunctions. Such a chain of events might hypothetically occur, as it did at Three Mile Island, but it couldn’t happen from shelling and loss of power alone. A reactor would not and could not go off like a bomb.

Meanwhile, the highly radioactive mass inside Chernobyl is basically invulnerable, surrounded by a huge cement and metal sarcophagus, as well as an even bigger, $1.6 billion, airplane hangar-like structure designed to withstand earthquakes and tornadoes. A recent International Atomic Energy Agency report concluded that, even without electricity, Chernobyl’s 25-year-old uranium fuel rods were covered with enough water to prevent them from becoming dangerous.

But the fact that so many people didn’t understand all the safeguards that were — and still are — in place is predictable. After all, nuclear power has always been overshadowed by rhetoric: overpromising techno-utopians on one hand, and fearmongering doomsayers on the other. These twin narratives have dominated public opinion since Marie and Pierre Curie publicized both the terrible dangers and wondrous benefits of radiation, and they have persisted through recent coverage of the war in Ukraine.

Both narratives date from a time when no one cared how much carbon dioxide was released into the atmosphere. Today, when emissions are of paramount importance, the way we value technologies has changed. And nuclear power has a previously unacknowledged upside: It emits practically nothing.

Like wind and solar power, nuclear generates electricity without burning fossil fuels. But the mining and manufacturing processes behind wind turbine blades, solar panels, and uranium pellets do have carbon footprints. Considering this, an analysis by Our World in Data concluded that nuclear generates three tons of greenhouse gases per terra-watt hour (TWh) of electricity produced, while wind generates four, and solar five.

Then there’s safety: The same analysis estimated the fatality rate for nuclear at 0.07 deaths per TWh, higher than wind, 0.04, and solar, 0.02. But lower than natural gas, estimated at 2.8 deaths per TWh, and much lower than coal power, at 24.6. Though risks can be complicated, and estimating deaths can often be speculative, there’s now plenty of evidence that, with climate impacts and other elements factored in, nuclear is way safer than many alternatives.

Nuclear energy is greener than renewables and safer than fossil fuels. But people seldom make decisions based on facts, writes freelance science journalist Tyler J. Kelley. #Nuclear

Yet, in a poll conducted by The Economist and YouGov, a market research company, shortly after Russia invaded Ukraine, 47 per cent of Americans said they didn’t think nuclear power plants were safe.

To be clear: nuclear power has real downsides. Uranium mining is destructive and toxic. Spent fuel has to be carefully and expensively sealed and stored. And, however small, there is the risk of radiation releases and meltdowns. The small amount of radiation that escaped from Three Mile Island — long dismissed as harmless by experts and the government — has led to localized increases in several kinds of cancer, according to a 2022 paper published in the journal Risks Hazards Crisis Public Policy. Wind and solar power may well be cheaper and less risky. But that doesn’t mean nuclear power is as bad as people think it is.

Rather than actual statistical risk, the majority of citizens rely on risk perception, according to Paul Slovic, a professor at the University of Oregon and an expert on risk and decision-making. In a 1987 article published in the journal Science, Slovic writes, “For these people, experience with hazards tends to come from the news media.” He cites a study from 1980, in which various groups were asked to rank 30 activities and technologies in order of risk. College students and members of the League of Women Voters assigned number 1, the highest risk, to nuclear power, ahead of hand guns and smoking. Experts ranked nuclear power at 20; motor vehicles at 1, smoking at 2, and hand guns at 4.

Slovic blamed this massive gap on “extensive unfavourable media coverage,” “deep anxieties” and a “strong association between nuclear power and the proliferation and use of nuclear weapons.”

Utilities worked hard to separate weapons from reactors by replacing the word “atomic” with “nuclear.” But activists re-conflated the two by coining the term “nukes.” A 1979 protest march in Washington, D.C. — held a month after the Three Mile Island accident, which occurred near Harrisburg, Penn. — used the slogan: “In every Harrisburg, there’s a Hiroshima waiting to happen.”

This surge in anti-nuclear activism corresponded to a market-driven decline in the power sector. Dozens of nuclear reactors then on order were cancelled. Three Mile Island took the blame, and activists took the credit. But, in fact, all kinds of proposed power projects were being cancelled, as the country entered recession following the 1973 oil crisis. When the U.S. again needed electrical generating capacity, in the early 2000s, policymakers chose to incentivize natural gas. As gas replaced coal, overall power sector emissions went down, but they could have come down farther if nuclear had taken coal’s market share instead.

It’s hard to tell the truth about radiation. There’s a lot we still don’t know — for example, how much radiation is harmful is hotly debated to this day. What’s needed is a clear-eyed assessment of costs and benefits, free from fear, free from corporate and institutional bias, and free — most of all — from hyperbolic political and media narratives. Strip away the fear and look at the facts, and we’d see that nuclear energy has always been relatively safe, while climate change is very dangerous.

Tyler J. Kelley is a freelance science journalist and who has reported extensively on nuclear power. He is also the author of “Holding Back the River: The Struggle Against Nature on America’s Waterways.”

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Every few years the nuclear industry raises its ugly head. None of the problems have been adequately solved. First, is what to do with the waste. So far, the only solution is the Stone Age bury it in a deep hole model. The other problem is that it works until it doesn’t. When nuclear systems fail, as all systems do eventually, the results are catastrophic. The sad truth is that if we want to see the earth revive and future generations survive, we need to massively cut down our energy use.
Lucretia Martenet

I suspect that those of us brought up during the horrors of nuclear errors and "demonstrated" lethality will never be persuaded that nuclear usage - weaponized or not, will ever be safe, will ever be without the risk of human error or malfeasance. However my generation is dying off and whatever personal losses or nightmares we harbored are dying with us. Has the nuclear industry learned anything from its dismal beginnings? Can we ever trust predatory capitalism to handle nuclear production, side effects, and waste with prudence? There is as yet, little evidence of any prudence and while profit shimmers in the air above the nuclear stacks, I doubt we ever will.

On the contrary, nuclear power is just as bad as I think, confirmed by this article. Individual inaccurate statements about how dire a particular nuke plant vulnerability is does not change this. Comparative analyses of carbon footprints mostly affirm that all energy alternatives to fossil fuels are preferrable. What this article mentions in passing, as if they aren't the game-changers they in fact are, are: the lack of secured storage of nuke waste (despite decades to do this), the huge but usually ignored cost of this, and the huge cost differential between ever-cheaper wind and solar and new battery storage energy generators and the escalating costs of nuclear energy. ALL studies, including by pro-nuke Ford gov't agencies, of Ontario's costs for nuclear plant refurbishments and energy generation show much higher costs for the foreseeable decades. These are facts, not emotionally driven false "risk perceptions". And, speaking of emotions, being afraid of the false economies and risks associated with nuclear energy is a correct, mature response to complex but foreseeable threats.

It doesn't matter how bloody green nuclear power is, it's ridiculously expensive and very, very, very slow to build.

Functionally, in green terms, it's like CCS: Advocating nuclear is a way for fossil fuel companies to kick the can down the road; they know by the time any serious amount of nuclear actually got built it would be way too late, and that in general it is one of the few green-type "solutions" which has no real chance of displacing fossil fuel power generation. So if they could just get green types to go for expensive slow nuclear instead of cheap fast solar and wind, they'd be golden--they could say bye bye to energy transition.

As to the risks . . . it's true that people are emotive about risk. At the same time, it's true that various authorities and vested interests have been very successful at pretending that actual risks and actual deaths from nuclear power plants do not exist. This can be done because, while on one hand people tend to be emotive about estimating risk, so mental patterns like (nuclear power = nuclear weapons = bad) can happen, on the other hand people tend to ignore deaths with invisible causes, that can only be established with careful epidemiology and long term studies. This is particularly so because epidemiology and long term studies are easy to bury and/or fake; it's very statistical, so it's easy to lie. So for instance, it's generally accepted that nuclear power plants impose zero danger during normal operation, that deaths only come from accidents, but it turns out this is not true--it's just rarely mentioned that there are increases in cancer around nuclear plants during normal operation, because the things do leak some radioactivity for various reasons even when they're working perfectly. Not a lot--still much safer than a coal plant, say--but not zero, and people don't know because it's easy to sweep that kind of long term invisible stuff under the rug.

Take for instance Chernobyl. Incidentally, I almost believed the author of this article was sincere, if irrelevant, until I realized that in discussing the risks of nuclear power he mentioned Three Mile Island, but mentioned Chernobyl only in the context of the plant being fairly indestructible so not a risk . . . now (and didn't mention Fukushima at all). But he didn't so much as mention the massive plume of radioactive stuff Chernobyl blew across much of Europe. And about that radioactive plume . . . so, proponents of nuclear power will claim that Chernobyl only ever killed a couple dozen people or something--basically, just the people who went in trying to fight the fire or whatever, and died within a few days. On the other hand, a careful epidemiological study by some serious scientists a few years later put the total excess deaths from Chernobyl, across Europe, from extra cancers and so on, at nearly a million. There's a lot of room between a couple of dozen and a million. At one end, nuclear power isn't very dangerous at all. At the other end, the potential risks are pretty dashed serious. Now if he'd mentioned Chernobyl but downplayed the deaths, that might just be based on what information he's heard about and found credible. But if you're writing an article about the risks, or lack thereof, from nuclear power, and you DON'T EVEN MENTION the deadliest nuclear power accident in history, even though you DO MENTION the place where it happened, you're not doing a serious article, you're doing propaganda.

Nuclear continues to be seen as a serious option partly because of a group of people with a certain attitude towards technology. I don't want to call them techno-optimists because I myself am far from a techno-pessimist. But there are people whose attitude towards technology is that the higher, the better and if the technology is high enough it must be great and shiny, no evaluation of the actual merits allowed. Nuclear power is great because it has the word "nuclear" in it so that must mean it's the highest tech of all.

People, a nuclear plant is LOW technology. It's a STEAM ENGINE. You take some stuff, that gets really really hot, and you have it heat up some water until it boils, and you use the steam pressure to spin some stuff and make electricity. Is simple like lead pipe to head, except the part where you try to get the really hot stuff not to explode. Solar panels are actually higher tech, it's just that greenies have always liked them, and that strand of techno-worshiper doesn't believe anything the hippies like can be REAL high tech. Heck, if they ever really did once and for all convince everyone that nuclear power was OK and green, they'd stop liking it.

I agree. It's an awfully expensive way to boil water. One day deep geothermal will perform the same function with very, very little risk from a never-ending source of free energy.

The other element is that nuclear, like hydro and geothermal, are centralized and thus must produce concentrated amounts of electricity. Solar performs well almost anywhere, from PV glass-clad 60-storey towers in the downtown of large cities to remote arrays. Renewables capable of both decentralized / distributed and centralized generation has the edge.

Hydro, geothermal and existing nuclear will be able to power up new Canadian green steel and cement. Ontario just opened two green steel plants that use nuclear power instead of anthracite coal. We need to stop exporting coal to China altogether, but that means Canada must follow up with a domestic economy that needs far more clean electricity to keep running.

There still remains the issue of what to do with the existing nuclear waste. I am going to maintain an open mind about SMRs that are supposed to be less dangerous and that can, some say, use the existing waste as fuel for several more decades and render it down to a fraction of its current radiation levels.

And there's also the defence of Canada's sovereignty in the Arctic Ocean to contend with. SMRs aboard icebreakers will be a game changer for year round monitoring of not just Russian and Chinese incursions on and under the ice of the Northwest Passage for whatever nefarious intentions they may have, to being able to adequately manage the sea traffic through the Passage in future. If given a choice between bunker fuel and diesel over SMRs in the Arctic, I'd lean toward the latter where refueling is necessary only every 30 years.

The alternative to no nukes is to have the courage to find an adequate deep repository site in the granite of the Canadian Shield (I can live with that), letting the defence of the Arctic continue to be a joke, or risk major spills of bunker fuel onto the ice when refueling -- or during any seaborne accident, for that matter, where the hull is breached.

Did National Observer post this just to generate reader comments? Here's one:
It's WORSE than we think. We haven't yet experienced the full consequences of nuclear meltdown, but the long-term odds are that we will. The whole boondoggle relies on the undistracted attention of a costly cadre of technicians including multiple generations of them, not yet born. We the living are mortgaged to their endless upkeep, lest a lapse in attention ten or forty years from now results in atmospheric or oceanic or terrestrial escape of life-shattering radiation.
But not to worry, your writer glosses that eventuality in one sentence. Maybe if we don't talk about it, the problem will just go away.

Okay. However, the was no radiation from Fukushima found on the BC coast. They monitored the ocean currents and beach sand for years. Just ordinary background radiation.

One gets far more dosage when one gets an x-ray at the dentist.

Having said that, Fukushima did have inadequate design attributes that failed to account for subduction-level earthquakes, though, being Japan, it was designed for lesser shakers. The seacoast and the site sank by a metre, and thus the tsunami wall was overtopped and the diesel backup pumps were rendered useless by the flood. If the pumps were located on higher ground with power cables running to the reactors, the word "Fukushima" wouldn't be synonymous with Chernobyl, which was one of the poorest designed reactors ever built.

The critics are absolutely correct about the issues of cost and radioactive waste, and proponents will need to address them as they move forward, or stop spending on nuclear altogether and search for a way to bury the waste. Not an easy choice, but fear mongering will not resolve it.

... and then there is the plutonium produced in every nuclear reactor. Because it can be made into bombs it has to be secured by the military. When Bruce Power decided to replace its steam generators we learned that there was enough plutonium in them to make up a significant fraction of that needed to make a bomb. When they planned to ship the generators across the Atlantic Ocean for reprocessing there was never any mention of a military escort. Some day a rogue state or group of people will get enough plutonium to make a bomb and use it. The most practical way to prevent this is to stop constructing nuclear reactors and decommission those in existence.

And yet the waste remains. You cannot decommission plutonium, which, incidentally, is contained in the spent fuel rods with the uranium and rests in huge vats of water on site outside of the reactor. You can only reuse it or bury it forever.

As for bin Laden or facsimile trying to get at the plutonium, let alone transporting it using small trucks, jackhammers, garbage bins, whatever, that's just not on. They will die within minutes. What IS dangerous is a rogue state like Russia selling theirs to another rogue state and along with it the knowledge of how to handle it, refine it and make the high tech equipment to build a bomb.

‘They’ will not be doing the chemical separation. ‘They’ will have no regard for human life and will be using disposable slaves for this work.

I intended to write about the high cost of nuclear power production, the still unsolved safe nuclear waste storage as well as the ACTUAL toll of nuclear accidents in the world but that has been nicely covered by those commenting already. What seems to be seldom considered is the risks and costs of mining and transporting uranium and how increased reliance on nuclear energy would magnify these. As a previous comment has stated - we need to use less energy - and that means all of us in the countries emitting most CO2/capita.

All good points. It would be especially relevant to have peer-reviewed independent professional analysis conducted on the actual toll of nuclear accidents and compare that to the actual toll of deaths caused by fossil fuels, especially coal. The evidence-backed reports from some quarters indicated that coal has killed hundreds of millions through its history of use than by nuclear, including Chernobyl.

The key is to establish an equitable analytic criteria to measure said deaths that does not rely on anecdote, hearsay, guesswork and hyperbole. It's a very complicated task. You'd have to determine which cancers were caused by radiation emanating from nuclear plants and which were genetic or resulted from some other environmental toxin. CAT scans and dental x-rays also dose the body with radiation, as does the electrical power lines running through one's house and the signals going directly into one's brain just millimetres away when yakking on a cell phone.

For every report produced that says nuclear power has resulted in X million deaths, you'll have experienced critics pulling apart the scientific methodology and credibility of the authors, and rightfully so. Ditto the opposite on reports written by proponents. The analysis and reporting must be infallible, and to date we don't have a lot of that as the planet warms.

The answer was "no" 40 years ago. It's still "no".

This writer belittles the very real and lethal risks of nuclear mining and nuclear reactors, is dismissive of the enormous financial costs (effectively everlasting for secure nuclear waste storage) and is oblivious to the huge environmental costs of nuclear construction. He fails to mention that nuclear power has only ever been feasible with massive financial support from government, support that was based on the industry being a source of plutonium for nuclear weapons programs as an inevitable product of uranium fission. Even with that massive support, the majority of commercial nuclear power operators are winding down their reactor business because it is hopelessly uneconomic, even against the costs of fossil fuelled power and much more so against wind and solar. Those operators are now faced with enormous costs for multi-year reactor decommissioning and nuclear waste disposal.

Here is what is what a nuclear expert with an informed and wide overview has said about nuclear power. Gregory B. Jaczko is a physicist who served on the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission from 2005 and was its chairman from 2009 to 2012.

(The original of this article is still available on the Washington Post behind a paywall.)

"About The Author
Tyler J. Kelley is a journalist who has written for The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and The New Yorker among other publications. Kelley currently teaches at The New School in the Journalism + Design program. His previous projects include the documentary film Following Seas, codirected with his wife Araby Kelley. They live with their son in Brooklyn."

[from his book publishers, Simon and Schuster]