You Decide

Produced by KQED

photo montage: containment buildings and cooling towers against red and green backgrounds, child looking into the distanceImage CreditShould the United States build more nuclear power plants?

  • Yes? But have you considered...
  • No? But have you considered...

… nuclear reactors are accidents waiting to happen?

Don’t let the nuclear lobby fool you: The world learned precious little from the 1979 episode at Three Mile Island.

A mere seven years later, in 1986, the Chernobyl meltdown caused 56 direct deaths. That’s to say nothing of the 4,000 people experts estimate will likely die of Chernobyl-related radiation exposure. Residents in neighboring Sweden continue to die from cancers thought to be linked to Chernobyl, and environmentalists warn the accident’s death toll may eventually climb to 100,000.

Certainly, the Chernobyl reactor did not have the radiation containment structure found in every U.S. reactor, but that is not to say that a Chernobyl-style meltdown couldn’t happen here.

In fact, we’ve already come dangerously close. In 2002, for example, inspectors at the Davis-Besse nuclear reactor in Ohio discovered a large hole in the head of its reactor vessel. Experts contend that had the plant operated for another 150 days, the core would likely have melted, causing nuclear fuel to breach the reactor’s containment structure—its last line of defense—resulting in a homegrown nuclear disaster.

But the Davis-Besse event is problematic in another way: It illustrates the laissez-faire safety culture that pervades the U.S Nuclear Regulatory Commission. One year earlier, in 2001, NRC staff had withheld a shutdown order for the facility after the plant’s operator, FirstEnergy Nuclear Operating Co., complained it would lose too much money if the plant were shut down.

It was hardly an isolated incident. In March 2008, inspectors at California’s San Onofre nuclear plant discovered that an emergency battery responsible for powering the plant’s safety systems had been inoperable for four years. And in June 2008, inspectors with the U.S. Government Accountability Office announced that many of the country’s nuclear plants had yet to comply with fire safety rules.

…nuclear power is safer than burning coal?

Nuclear detractors often point to the partial meltdown of the Three Mile Island nuclear power plant as proof positive that nuclear is unsafe. The problem with this view, however, is that the accident at Three Mile Island, still considered the most serious in U.S. history, is in fact a safety success story.

On March 28, 1979, the plant’s feedwater pumps, which supply water to cool the reactor, began to malfunction. As the plant began to overheat, metal tubes holding nuclear fuel pellets ruptured, causing the pellets to melt. But damage from the event was greatly limited by the plant’s containment structure—an airtight system of concrete walls reinforced with steel—that kept radiation from leaking into the atmosphere.

To this day, no fatalities have been directly linked to radiation exposure from to the Three Mile Island accident. As noted by Patrick Moore, formerly of Greenpeace, even though the event was precipitated by technical and human errors, ultimately the plant did what it was designed to do in an emergency: It prevented radiation from leaking into the surrounding area.

And the lessons of Three Mile Island were not lost on the nuclear industry or the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC). Regulators and industry leaders overhauled their safety programs immediately following the accident. The NRC also adopted stronger requirements for radioactive containment, upgraded equipment and strengthened the ability of plants to automatically shut down. In addition, the agency revamped its training programs for nuclear plant operators, established emergency drills and expanded its safety inspection programs.

The net result is that today’s nuclear reactors are much safer than Three Mile Island ever was. Accordingly, we should expect that a newly built reactor would include any and all safety practices developed over the past half-century.

True, the 1986 nuclear meltdown at Chernobyl directly caused 56 deaths—and potentially 4,000 more from subsequent radiation exposure—but we must remember that the Chernobyl reactor did not have a containment structure, which is standard issue in the United States.

In fact, since making their U.S. debut in the 1950s, nuclear reactors have not caused a single death due to accidental radiation exposure. Compare that with the approximately 24,000 people who the American Lung Association says die each year from breathing coal-induced air pollution.

Concerned about safety? Shut down coal and power up nuclear.

Considering this, should the United States build more nuclear power plants?

Nothing about the issues facing America today is black and white. With these You Decide activities, you can explore both sides of an issue, put your own critical thinking to work, and discuss the pros and cons with others. In the end, perhaps you will ask different — and better — questions than those presented here.


Resources and credits

Funded by Corporation for Public Broadcasting