Nuclear Power BACK

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Comparing the Risks

Central to the debate about nuclear power is the question: How big of a risk do nuclear power reactors pose to power plant workers, the public, and the environment?

Advocates claim that nuclear power is one of our most benign large industrial operations,1 it produces much less pollution relative to other fossil fuel sources,2 and the public health threat posed by radiation has been greatly exaggerated by the mass media and dissident scientists.3 They also state that no member of the public has been injured or killed from a U.S. reactor accident at a commercial nuclear plant, and no plant employee has exhibited clinical evidence of serious injury from radiation.4

Opponents claim that the probability of a core meltdown accident occurring within the next 20 years is high,5 nuclear fission entails risks qualitatively different from those posed by other energy sources,6 and the public health threat posed by radiation has been greatly understated by nuclear power advocates.7 They also state that plant workers have been killed by accidents at commercial and government nuclear reactors,8 and that it is entirely possible that members of the public have died from cancer induced by radiation from a nuclear plant, because nuclear power's occupational hazards are manifested more in long-term cancer than in immediate lethality.9

All energy technologies present some level of environmental, occupational, and public health and safety risk:

Nuclear Fission

Accidents and sabotage at reactors, reprocessing plants, and waste repositories, and in waste transport, can release large quantities of radioactivity.

Routine emissions and exposures affect uranium miners, workers at reactors, reprocessing plants, and fuel-fabrication plants, and members of the public.

Fossil Fuels

Air pollution in the form of sulfur, oxides of nitrogen, photochemical oxidants, and particulate matter can cause and/or aggravate disease.

Water pollution from coal mines, oil refineries, drilling platforms, tanker accidents, and synfuel plants can damage wildlife recreation areas, commercial fisheries and domestic water supplies.

Acid rain can damage plants, kill aquatic life, accelerate leaching of nutrients, mobilize toxic metals, and alter microbial populations.

Carbon dioxide from combustion, accumulating in the atmosphere, can alter climate.

Accidents can injure and kill workers in coal mines, on drilling platforms, and at oil refineries, and can injure and kill workers and members of the public in gas explosions, and train and truck collisions.


Dam collapse through miscalculation, earthquake, or sabotage can kill thousands.

Lake filling destroys river ecosystems and fertile bottom land; dams block migratory fish and alter downstream ecological conditions.


Deforestation from over-harvesting fuel wood accelerates erosion, increases flooding, and reduces land productivity.

Soil depletion from removal of crop and forest residues reduces fertility and water-holding capacity.

Air pollution results from biomass combustion.

Water pollution from synfuel plants and pesticide and fertilizer runoff from biomass plantations has effects as listed under fossil fuels.

Accidents injure workers in harvesting, and the public in biomass transport.


Toxic substances used in cell manufacture are occupational hazards, can contaminate water in manufacturing areas, and can be released from overheated or burning cells.


Accident possibilities include toppling towers, flying blades, and falls during construction and maintenance.

Aesthetic intrusion on mountain ridges, passes, and coastlines is feared by some.


Water pollution by dissolved salts and toxic elements in geothermal water can affect streams, lakes, and domestic water supplies.

Hydrogen sulfide gas is a toxic and odoriferous air pollutant.

Energy Efficiency

Indoor air pollution can be caused by chemicals in insulation or aggravated by reduced ventilation, increasing concentrations of radon, tobacco smoke, and other toxic substances.10

Numerous studies have been undertaken to determine and compare the quantitative risks of energy sources.11 However, comparative assessments of the relative magnitudes of these risks is difficult both conceptually and analytically. Assessments of the expected damage to public health from fossil-fuel produced air pollution, for example, differ drastically as to the number of premature deaths that can be expected. A huge range of possibilities is also revealed in assessments of the impact nuclear-generated electricity can have on public health.12

Two important messages emerge from the above. First, one cannot conclude with any confidence either that the direct damages to public health from coal-fired and nuclear electricity generation are very large or very small. Second, the enormous ranges of uncertainty concerning the expected public health damages from the two energy sources mean that there is little basis for preferring one technology over the other on these grounds.13

Although scientists can provide information on the potential impacts of energy-source risks, in the end it is the public that will determine which risks are preferable, from which energy sources, and at what cost.14

1 Manning Muntzing, editorial, "There are Good Reasons to Defend Nuclear Power," Los Angeles Times, June 15, 1984, 11:7.
2 Ibid.
3 Bernard L. Cohen, "Exaggerating the Risks," in Nuclear Power: Both Sides, Michia Kaku and Jennifer Trainer (Eds.), op. cit., pp. 69-79.
4 Atomic Industrial Forum, Inc., "Nuclear Reactor Safety," information sheet, April 1983.
5 Commissioner James K. Asselstine, U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission, statement before the Subcommittee on Energy Conservation and Power, Committee on Energy and Commerce, op. cit., p. 2.
6 Denis Hayes, Nuclear Power: The Fifth Horseman, (Washington, D.C.: Worldwatch Institute, May 1976), No. 6, p. 29.
7 Fenn, op. cit., p. 172.
8 Wood, op. cit., p. 51.
9 Nader and Abbotts, op. cit., p. 165.
10 Holdren, op. cit., p. 141.
11 For example, see Herbert Inhaber, Energy Risk Assessment, (New York: Gordon and Breach, 1982); International Atomic Energy Agency, "Risks and Benefits of Energy Systems," Vienna, 1984; and Nuclear Regulatory Commission, "Reactor Risk Reference Document," NUREG-1150, February 1987.
12 Holdren, op. cit., pp. 142-143.
13 Ibid., pp. 144-145.
14 League of Women Voters, A Nuclear Power Primer, op. cit., p. 23.