Are nuclear power plants safe?

Let me put it this way:

People bicker of the exactness of data suggesting that nuclear power kills fewer people per terrawatt-hour versus Solar and Wind that it should be rather telling that if you can even have that argument, it’s gotta be pretty freaking safe when most people’s first question is “How in the world can it be safer than solar or wind?”

The answer is “Regulation.” Politicians don’t think to regulate solar or wind specifically, so it doesn’t really get regulated beyond what laws were already in place.
As a result, you experience occasional fires, fall hazards, et cetera. Nothing super concerning (except the industries don’t know how much waste they are producing because no one bothers to record it!). Now, solar and wind are safe! They’re also relatively cheap (due to lessened regulation – not that they need as much regulation as nuclear, but more would be nice in some areas).

Nuclear power, on the other hand? We’re regulated as hell. That’s where most of the cost comes from once you get past initial construction. Just the other day we had OSHA tell divers they couldn’t go over the safety railing into the water without a life jacket and safety line… (the divers reacted in a great way – they just ignored them, and rightly so.) But its that sort of reason why nuclear power plants are safe, and expensive: regulation is followed to the letter until it is proven that the regulation does not apply in a specific situation.

We can’t take water from the river to wash off bird poop back into the river. That’s how regulated we are.

As a result, the slightest sign of potential injury, and major freakouts occur. Someone accidentally bumps their head on something? Gotta spend tons of money turning the area into a padded room. (Not literally).

And unlike Chernobyl, American plants are designed to withstand a pressure detonation.

Fukushima had issues, yes, and they didn’t follow proper safety culture. But Fukushima still has yet to kill anyone. As much as I hate TEPCO, they still did do some things right.

That wind turbine fire killed two, compared to Fukushimas zero. I’m not keeping score. I want us to use wind. But I’m putting things in perspective.

Nuclear power is ridiculously safe.

What’s that, terrorists you say? What are they going to hit it with? A plane won’t dent the containment. They don’t know enough of the layout of the plant to do anything. We’ve tested this. If you question this:

  1. Planes are flimsy and made of aluminum.
  2. 2 meter thick reinforced concrete walls can withstand just about anything, and that’s not even the reactor yet; the reactor itself is made of thick steel; it might as well be a battleship.

And nuclear power security forces are top-notch – and entrenched. Good luck on that.

“But it’s so much more expensive?” Oh, I thought we wanted to save the environment, not save money. There are plenty of ways we could make it cheaper. Like get rid of the Coal Lobbyists. You know, the guys who are promoting a form of energy generation more than 10,000 times deadlier than nuclear.

I will say this: They are safe for the general populace. Our old plants are hardly killing anyone at all, the ones we are building now are half a century more advanced in some cases. Compare that to computers, and you’ll see why I consider it ridiculous to use “Chernobyl” as a reason to argue against building new reactors. (Aside from the fact that few nuclear power plants operate like Chernobyl).

They are not so safe for the operators. One of my supervisors likes to remind us on at least a weekly basis “This place will kill you if you let it.” Rotating machinery, places to fall, danger of electrical shock, et cetera.

“But what about waste?” Well, we need to take care of that, but we have plans, but I suspect the Coal-lobbyists that shot down high-temperature (therefore higher efficiency, therefore higher energy and lower cost – thanks for forcing some validity to that “reactors cost a lot” argument, Coal) reactors are also shutting down things like the TWR and other reactor designs that would make nuclear power the first and only form of energy generation to reuse it’s own spent waste.

As it stands, that waste isn’t going anywhere – which is good. We can contain it, regulate it, and monitor it until we can store it. We’ve got a while… now if only anti-environment fearmongers would let us do something with it.

Well, they certainly can kill people, but…wait a minute, lots of things kill people. You wouldn’t let your kids ride in an unsafe car, but cars kill 30,000 Americans a year, even with airbags and anti-lock brakes.

But think of the radiation. Why, at Fukushima alone, radiation has killed….no one. Zip. Well, okay, there was recently a plant worker who participated in the cleanup who came down with leukemia, and that might be due to his radiation exposure. And that’s terrible, sad, tragic, but you know, Japan doesn’t have an army, and it’s nuclear industry has been instrumental in keeping the country clean, safe, and prosperous, and in the US, we give folks who die in service to that sort of thing a military funeral with honors. It’s very much the same thing.

Even so, nuclear power plants are not anywhere close to the biggest emitter of radiation—that would be coal, followed by oil. Both release naturally occurring radioactive materials on a truly industrial scale, but don’t get too worried. The idea that there is “no safe dose of radiation,” is a myth.

We know for a fact it’s a myth, because there are people in Iran, India, and Brazil (among other places) who are naturally exposed to over ten times the normal background radiation—and scientists can see metabolic evidence of their cells reacting to radiation damage—yet they do not have any statistically significant increase in cancer risk. So clearly, there IS a safe dose, and we all need to stop worrying about the tiny radiation emissions diluted throughout the whole biosphere.

However, coal fired power plants emit radon, a heavy, radioactive gas that settles to the ground and gives people living downwind an increased risk of lung cancer. That one, we have no trouble measuring.

But you can’t just look at radiation. You have to look at the big picture, deaths from all causes, radiation, fire, pollution of various kinds, etc.

So here are those numbers, as compiled by the NAS::

Are nuclear power plant safe? Well, not as safe as they ought to be. Chernobyl NEVER should have happened (it was built without proper containment). Fukushima also should never have happened, and an NRC report had warned of exactly this sort of tsunami risk just a couple of years earlier. These older second generation plants need to be shored up, closely monitored, and expedited into retirement. But if you replace them with anything other than nuclear, more people will die. Instead, they should be replaced with third generation, passively safe designs. Then, in a couple of decades, we will have fourth generation designs, including traveling wave reactors that can consume the spent fuel waste accumulated over that last fifty years, and when they run out of that, run on unenriched, naturally occurring uranium-238 — for the next few tens of thousands of years.

Meanwhile, we just relax just a bit, knowing that worldwide, poor as things are, nuclear power is over a thousand times safer than coal.

Most are safe, but some are horribly unsafe. The Davis–Besse Nuclear Power Station – Wikipedia had a particularly awful history, including a football-sized hole all the way through the 6-inch thick primary containment vessel, caused by boric acid erosion occurring for years without being detected by inspectors.

The complicated physics and chemistry of nuclear reactors makes the technology inherently risky – you need to have a large amount of fuel, with an ever-changing combination of radioactive isotopes, operating at high temperatures and pressures, and with mechanical structures also subject to high levels of radiation. The control systems can take the reactor below criticality, but they can’t quickly turn off the heat produced by the decay of unstable fission products, so active cooling is needed for days or even weeks after a shutdown.

And the savage conditions inside the reactor make it difficult to measure precisely what is happening. Reactor control systems are notoriously complex and hard to understand, and this was a major factor in the Three Mile Island accident, where a stuck valve and a faulty indicator totally confused the operators.

The excellent safety record of the US Navy’s reactors suggests that it is possible to operate reactor power systems safely. But that’s in a culture where training and regulation can be excruciatingly strict, and the operators can be totally insulated from economic forces. In contrast, attempts to build and operate reactor power systems for profit seem to be highly problematic, since operators are inevitably reluctant to take safety measures which might be expensive.

The outcome in the mostly-safe-but-highly-regulated US nuclear industry has been economic failure. No-one wants to build reactors unless they can get loan guarantees and other subsidies from the government, because meeting the safety standards makes them too expensive to build and operate, compared to other alternatives. And there’s always the risk that a particular plant will be a total lemon which suffers many shutdowns and is retired long before its planned lifetime.

If you compromise on regulation and safety, you risk events like the Fukushima disaster, where multiple meltdowns have left a large surrounding area unsafe for decades, with huge economic costs. It’s arguable that few people actually died as a result, but it’s certainly not a good outcome.

[Update: Cost of electricity by source – Wikipedia gives recent estimates of the levelized costs of electricity.

Nuclear $97–136/MWh, Solar PV $46–61, Wind $32–61, Gas CC $48–78]

Yes they are.

But ok lets say that nuclear power is slightly less safe than solar and wind. Lets even throw in a bonus, lets say its slightly more expensive than solar and wind including backup and energy storage. Why would we still want nuclear power? Two worlds – climate change.

What’s more devastating, climate change or a few nuclear plant meltdowns? Well you can move all the affected people from a nuclear meltdown. Its a little harder to move all affected people away from climate change effects.

The current world strategy is lets demonize nuclear and keep on building solar and wind. Has it made an effect on a global scale?

People have claimed that non nuclear low carbon energy sources have done a lot to help control carbon emissions. However by some metrics, the improvement is small on a global scale, even if we look as recent as 2015-16 data.

These ‘missing charts’ may change the way you think about fossil fuel addiction

So all those gigawatts of solar and wind that were built that nuclear deniers are so proud of? Looks like very little effect. Wind and solar seems to just replaced nuclear on a world average. Even if developed nations decreased their CO2 emissions, its more than made up for by increased emissions in developing nations. Outsourcing CO2 intensive manufacturing to countries with cheap labor then shipping the goods to rich countries is a very good way to fool people into thinking that you are reducing CO2 emissions if you only look at your own country. But the earth as a whole is not fooled.

Look at history and you see 2 times when the percentage of world energy that comes from fossil fuel dropped a lot. The first was the oil crisis of the early 1970’s. The second was the late 70’s to 80’s. Definitely not caused by solar or wind.

Fossil fuel energy consumption (% of total)

I might come off as biased because I design nuclear power plants, but really it’s more of the opposite — many years ago I decided to dedicate my skills to the nuclear power industry as a result of my knowledge that nuclear energy is extremely safe and humanity’s current best bet at generating carbon-free base load energy.

Nuclear power plants in the US are extremely safe, with layers upon layers of incident prevention at the core, surrounded by layers upon layers of severity mitigation.

Although the above description applies to all US-based and US-designed plants, the next generation is even more encouraging. I would urge you to go to my company’s website to take a gander at the AP1000 description (AP1000 Pressurized Water Reactor). Also, to be fair, my company’s competitors are also developing similar products. In this forum I’m not trying to sell anybody on the product that I offer, but rather on the concept of the inherent safety of the plants.

Hope this helps, despite the brevity.

Most of the answers expand on explaining how extremely safe US nuclear power plants are and how coal power plants are bad in comparison. Two answers basically saying the nuclear power plants aren’t safe have been collapsed by downvotes.

Every technological artifact can fail or be destroyed by overwhelming natural forces, human errors, wars, sabotage, material or conceptual defects. Dams, bridges and buildings collapse, trains derail or collide, wind turbines can burn, airplanes sometimes crash, tankers and passengers liners happen to sink, buses, trucks and cars regularly crash… and nuclear power plants had meltdowns.

Yet, according to the most upvoted answers, the US ones are totally safe. Sure, none of the 99 reactors in 61 power plants suffered a catastrophic failure – except Three Miles Island, which was contained. Extraordinary safety measures have been implemented ever since. But can we assume that what happened at Chernobyl and at Fukushima will never happen in the US? Take 99 airliners: out of these 99, probably no one ever crashed. Can we assume that no one will ever crash? We can only hope so.

We were told that a reactor catastrophic failure is likely to happen only once in a million years. Yet, already 3 major disasters happened in the 38 years since 1979.

After the Chernobyl catastrophe, we were told that this could never happen with the Western technology and safety measures, because all reactors are inside a containment. With the Fukushima disaster, I learned that the spend fuel pool is not included in the containment. Now we are told here that such catastrophes would never happen in the US.

What about nuclear power plants in other countries?

The Zaporizhia Nuclear Power Plant in Enerhodar, Ukraine, is the largest nuclear power plant in Europe and among the top 10 largest in the world. In May 2014, 40 armed members pretending to be representatives of Right Sector allegedly tried to gain access to the power plant area. The men were stopped by the Ukrainian police before entering into Enerhodar. The real intentions of the armed members are unclear as the Right Sector claimed they had, “no plans to storm the Zaporizhia nuclear power plant.” The Zaporizhia power plant is located around 200 km away from the war in Donbass combat zone, where fighting has become very severe in 2014. On 31 August 2014, a Greenpeace member, Tobias Münchmeyer, expressed concerns the plant could be hit by heavy artillery from the fighting.

What would have happened if the war had extended there?

The guy in charge of the French nuclear safety doesn’t conceal his worries in an interview titled «Il faut imaginer qu’un accident de type Fukushima puisse survenir en Europe» which translates into “We have to imagine that a Fukushima type accident can happen in Europe”.

Nuclear safety now a ‘worrying’ issue

A concerned Pierre-Franck Chevet, the president of the French Nuclear Safety Authority (ASN), told the press on Wednesday (20th January), that “in the current context, the issues of nuclear safety and radiation protection are worrying. What is new is that the French nuclear operators are now having technical and economic difficulties,” And the problems are piling up. Anticipating the avalanche of work in the pipeline, the safety authority had called for extra resources during the energy transition debate. “Of the 200 extra staff we requested for the ASN and IRSN, the government gave us 30,” Chevet said. But penny-pinching has never been the best way to guarantee nuclear safety.

Nuclear power stations underestimate risk of cyber attack

Protecting nuclear installations may appear to be a largely physical issue, but Chatham House has published a report highlighting the growing cyber threat to the nuclear industry. Journal de l’Environnement reports. In a 50 page report, Chatham House (officially known as the Royal Institute of International Affairs) explained how the risks faced by the operators of nuclear power stations, enrichment facilities and other nuclear installations grow in line with the digitalisation of the sector.

For the report’s authors, Caroline Baylon, David Livingstone and Roger Brunt, the common perception that nuclear installations are isolated from the public internet is a “myth”. Many nuclear installations have private networks installed, sometimes without the knowledge of the operator, and search engines can identify parts of the infrastructure that are connected to the internet. For a hacker, finding and exploiting the weaknesses of certain systems can be fairly simple.

The report’s authors also warned of the risks of underestimating the cyber risk posed by lax security on internal systems. In 1992, a technician at the Ignalina power station in Lithuania introduced a virus into the control system of one of the two RBMK reactors (the type at the Chernobyl power station).

More recently, in January 2003, a virus from the First Energy Nuclear company’s computer system infected the computers at the Davis Besse nuclear power station in Ohio. For five hours, the operators of the American power station were unable to access data on the pressure and temperature within the reactor. Fortunately it was not active at the time.

‘Game of drones’ highlights France’s nuclear vulnerability

Unidentified drones have made flights over 11 French nuclear power stations since the beginning of October. French authorities and nuclear experts are becoming increasingly worried about this activity, which Libération has dubbed the “game of drones”. “These are very serious events! I do not understand why they are not taken more seriously. One issue is the unknown origin of these drones, but there is also the potential danger demonstrated by this kind of occurrence,” said Mycle Schneider, a French nuclear expert and author of the World Nuclear Industry Status Report.

Report: Nuclear power on the decline

Nuclear power seems on its way out, as construction of only one new nuclear reactor was undertaken in 2017, according to the World Nuclear Industry Status Report 2017 . Nuclear power is phasing out but hasn’t disappeared yet. According to the annual study of the sector conducted by Mycle Schneider, the expansion of nuclear power plants seems concluded.

But the sector’s inherent inertia means that despite the slowdown, some projects are still being developed. “The nuclear sector’s inertia means that projects launched before the Fukushima disaster five years ago are still running”, explains Schneider.

Nuclear Power Plants are very safe except when they are not. You are much more likely to be injured working on a windmill then at a nuclear power plant. Windmills however, are not a threat to the public or entire national economies. Windmills do not produce radioactive waste thst has to be isolated and guarded fo 10’s of milenia lest they poison the population. As I write this the bill for the nuclear meltdowns at Fukushima stands at $188 billion and they are just getting started. 87,000 people may never return to their homes and land contaminated by the meltdown. Japan’s people have lost faith in nuclear power. A shift in the wind during the worst days of the disastor could have ended Japan’s existence as a country and would have required the evacuation of 24 million people in Tokyo and its surroundings.

I understand that now they are very safe. But that wasn’t always the norm.

My sister was a Manhattan banker with a billion dollar portfolio. Her specialty was utilities and mining financing, and she was very successful at her job.

Then the Three Mile Island incident happened.

I told her that I was sorry for her, that her business in financing nuclear power plants was probably forever done. She told me she couldn’t give the money away fast enough!

Turned out that most of the nuclear power facilities were pretty shoddy in their construction, and they all needed funding to come into compliance. And her bank was more than happy to supply the money to do so.

Deficiencies were corrected, and every power plant in the US was essentially rebuilt with updated technology and materials.

It’s impossible to know just how many nuclear power plants were at risk of something catastrophic happening, but perhaps Three Mile Island was, in fact, a blessing.

Three Mile Island accident – Wikipedia

Incredibly safe. Safer than driving your car 5 mph. Safer than being in a car at all most likely. Even the people living around in Japan near Fukushima which expirenced reactor meltdown, most likely won’t have serious long term health outcomes much different than the general public. Think about it, people survived the Hiroshima and Nagasaki nuclear bombs. People who were inside those two cities. A not insignificant number of survivors lived full lives afterwords.

Obviously you can get acute radiation poisoning, which will kill you very quickly in the short term if your acutely exposed to a truly massive dose of radiation.

Outside of that, most people need to be chronically exposed to incredibly high dosages of radiation to end up with long term(think cancer) health consequences that are directly caused by the radiation exposure.

Lastly, nuclear reactor meltdown is a rare, rare occurance. Nuclear is by far one of the safest and cleanest energy sources we use in modern society.

Not safe at all. Nuclear power plants are ready to melt down if they lose grid power and the emergency backups fail as 1/3 of them did in tests. NPP are terrorist targets. and far more vulnerable than advertized. You don’t have to penetrate the containment vessels to break the grid connection.

Every year, every nuclear power plant requires 2 million tons of toxic mining for fuel. Not just the 27 tons of uranium. It takes 100,000 times as much as that in mined material. Uranium is running short in 2025 according to IAEA data. As it does, more toxic mining is required till at about .01%, which mines are getting near to, it takes more energy to mine and refine than it will ever produce. Meanwhile the environment is being destroyed by the toxic mining and many deaths and poisonings happen from the mining.

Nuclear power plants constantly leak tritium and other radioactive isotopes. Several studies have found elevated cancer rates around nuclear power plants.

We have had several majority disasters that have sent radiation around the globe and are calculated to be caused million of deaths using LNT.

But the Nuclear power pr agency: the IAEA, says it’s all safe, and you can’t prove the cancers came from nuclear power. You can’t prove it. The cancers might have come from something else. The IAEA is in charge of vetting UN research on radiation deaths and cancers, on first responding to nuclear disasters, but they are chartered to promote nuclear power and get industry money as well.

It’s as if the tobacco Institute’s was in charge of all tobacco related research on health effects.

The AP1000 name is a deception. It meant Advanced passively safe reactor. Well it’s not passive, it’s a rube goldberg pneumatic system that a flood or earthquakes will demolish.

Anonymous’ answer to Why do we need nuclear energy?

The nuclear wastes will be deadly for a million years, yet the nuclear pr folks claim it will be kept safely away from people the environment for longer than Homo Sapiens have existed.

If Indian point were to melt down and have a typical hydrogen oxygen explosion like Fukushima, and the wind carried that over NYC, it would kill millions eventually with cancers and other health effects, it would render NYC uninhabitable, it would crash the world economy. All for an expensive old dirty power plant we don’t need anymore.

Nuclear power plants (with a few notable exceptions) have been very safe. So far. The concern many people have is the long term effects of nuclear waste. There should also be some concern about what happens with decommissioned nuclear power plants.

The thing about nuclear power is that the term (time period) of long term is so fantastically long – longer than recorded history. Even the period between when a nuclear power plant is shutdown and when it can be disassembled is a very long time period where it needs some (expensive) maintenance yet generates no revenue.

If nuclear power is deregulated (because the government doing the regulation is undergoing budget cuts) and the company that owns the plant starts cutting corners, we could see more events like Chernobyl where a significant fraction of the planet is contaminated.

Long term storage of nuclear waste hasn’t been successfully addressed in the US, and very few nuclear power plants have been decommissioned – and the long term issues involve very, very long terms.

Depends on the details. Lithium deuteride and a neutron source in a sub critical reactor is supremely safe. Radio isotope generators are also safe. Neutron sources that produce radioisotopes are also safe.

Supercritical reactors operated in an environment of secrecy under conditions wher inadequate care is taken not so much.

1961 Fords second atomic car. A RTG powered atomic electric hybrid.

Not to repeat the great answers above, nuclear power plants are usually considered very safe. I mean, the plants themselves are safe. Are they totally harmless to the environment? NOPE. Nuclear reactors produce a huge amount of waste that must be handled under special conditions and even that way they are devastating to the environment.

I have recently made an infographic about this topic, so feel free to have a look at it:

Nuclear power plants are causing millions of cancer deaths and other health problems around the world calculated using LNT and known doses.

Yet the Nuclear power PR agency, the IAEA, and yes they are a pr agency, that’s their charter, denies LNT and does not calculate the expected cancers, but only the cancers that can be traced legally back to the disaster or nuclear power. It’s a lawyers argument and the same one Tobacco made. Cancers don’t carry a source label.

The US and the nuclear 5 that rule the UN wanted to make the world safe for nuclear weapons, so they created atoms for peace to convince people nuclear was good for you.

Anonymous’ answer to Why do we need nuclear energy?

Statistically safer than any energy form ever devised. So safe that I live in the evacuation zone of one and never think about it. That goes for the majority of plant workers. So safe that the triple meltdown at Fukushima has only made the majority of the surrounding area comparable or lower than Finland or Denver in terms of dose rate.

Are nuclear power plants safe?

Nope. Neither is your house. Nor wind turbines

The solar system is not safe in any absolute sense. Safety is relative.

We know how to make safe nuclear power plants. We also know that plant owners prefer to buy from the cheapest builder and do not question questionable practices because short term savings lead to short term profits, and they gamble that they would have gotten the money and ran before problems become manifest.

So who knows.


And in the event of a country or world wide catastrophe, or a zombie apocalypse, I’m heading for the nearest operating nuke plant.