What “Chernobyl” Gets Wrong About Nuclear Power

With HBO’s hot new show Chernobyl, nuclear power has been thrust into public discussion. While many talk about whether the show overplays the dangers of nuclear; a more important discussion people should be having is about the viability of nuclear power to generate electricity. In an age where many worry about climate change, why do so many Americans oppose nuclear power when it’s a zero-emissions source of electricity?

Part of the problem is nuclear technology’s past, it was a weapon first, and power source second. Historical meltdowns like Chernobyl and Three Mile Island don’t help either. Many know the names of these historic events, but few know the details. For example, the worst nuclear power plant accident in the U.S. was Three Mile Island and many who have heard of the incident likely assume there were many adverse health impacts on those living nearby. But the Nuclear Regulatory Commission found that adverse effects from radiation on those nearby could not be directly correlated to the accident. While it doesn’t necessarily mean there were no health impacts, it shows the dangers of living near a nuclear power plant are vastly overstated.

Nuclear meltdowns, for all their fanfare, are extremely rare. For commercial nuclear plants generating electricity the main incidents have are Three Mile Island in the US in 1979, Chernobyl in 1986, and Fukushima in 2011. The Chernobyl incident was caused by a poorly designed reactor and a culture that meant mistakes and problems were swept under the rug instead of being reported. The deputy chief engineer at Chernobyl, Anatoly Dyatlov, conducted a stress test while the fail-safes were off. Then the worst-case scenario happened; the reactor had a fire and a meltdown which caused massive amounts of radioactive material to be released. This entire problem was due to Soviet culture. Problems in soviet culture weren’t reported because of fear and the demand for perfection in the pursuit of the communist ideal. Supervisors were simply expected to fix their problems and report that all was well. Information about problems wasn’t shared between plants, meaning the flawed reactor designed that plagued Chernobyl and other Soviet plants at the time wasn’t acknowledged until after the meltdown. This is why Chernobyl happened. In the US, there is a much greater culture of transparency. Nuclear plant engineers share information related to design, can criticize flaws, and learn from one another. Moreover, the U.S. has strict regulatory oversight and accountability from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.

Millions of Americans already live near nuclear plants. Using 2000 census data, 184 million people already live within 50 miles of one the 99 nuclear power plant in the US. While it’s something that many fear, nuclear produces 20% of the US’s power, showing that it is mostly a problem of misunderstanding the risks of nuclear power, which is easy to understand given shows like Chernobyl. However, one of the problems that shows like this introduce into the discussion of nuclear power is the problem of radiation.

The TV show Chernobyl presents its depiction of the dangers of nuclear power and radiation as realistic. However, radiation in that show works more like magic than anything else. It’s not normal for people to immediately become disfigured ghouls in the presence of radiation, nor do they leak it as a source of contamination as if somehow becoming a reactor themselves. Radiation is not a magic zombie maker. Radiation does pose a danger if a person is exposed at high doses for long periods of time, but its primary impact is a higher chance of developing cancer years later. A good example of how the show gets radiation poisoning specifically wrong is when a pregnant woman walks into the hospital room of a firefighter at Chernobyl and the baby later dies from absorbing radiation from him.

So nuclear isn’t as scary as we thought, but is it a viable source of power in the modern-day, and does it stack up to other sources of power that we have the US?

Nuclear does not have air emissions like coal and natural gas power plants. However, it does produce radioactive material that needs to be contained and stored in a secure location. Transportation and storing nuclear waste have consistently been a challenge, just look at the proposed storage facility Yucca mountain. Technologies are emerging for it to be recycled. In some cases, up to 97% of the 27 tons of waste can be recycled back into fuel.  But for a zero-emissions source of electricity, it has benefits over wind and solar. Nuclear is a dispatchable source of electricity, meaning the plant can choose when to generate electricity. Wind and solar rely on the mercy of weather conditions. Nuclear power also benefits from scale, being the smallest in terms of acres of land used per megawatt. It’s 12 acres pales to the volume of solar power’s 43, and wind power’s 70 acres per megawatt.

Another challenge for nuclear has been cost. The Votgle plant in Georgia has faced numerous cost delays. Taking 13 years and 27 billion dollars, Votgle is an example of the problems with setting up a nuclear plant. A nuclear plant is a long process and a large upfront investment, and continually having setbacks can seriously cripple a project that requires so much time and money, as well as hopping through the bureaucratic hoops of building such a thing.

At the end of the day, nuclear powers’ characteristics of no emissions and reliability make it a desirable source for electricity generation. But is there a way to mitigate the downsides of nuclear waste? Thorium is a metal that, like uranium is radioactive, but is also a potential nuclear fuel. Unlike uranium, thorium is fertile, meaning it absorbs a neutron to create power. This means it’s safe, as to stop a meltdown would be to remove the reactive material, which is a small amount of uranium or plutonium. It also creates less waste than other forms. So then, a nuclear source, with all the benefits of nuclear power, with none of the problems, being easy to refine, easier to mine, and safer than uranium, has to have a downside.

The problem with Thorium is that it’s a relatively new technology and still needs development. Organizations like Breakthrough Institute are making strides to implement stable and safe forms, but because it is a nuclear device, regardless of its inherent safety, time and care must be taken. This, as well as the fact that government regulations slow the process in the name of safety, ensures that. Inevitably this kind of development will be slow, but it is progressing.

`Thorium reactors show the future of electricity generation can be reliable with zero emissions. Even without the danger of uranium reactors either from waste or from being another Chernobyl.

In Depth: Energy

It is difficult – and perhaps even impossible – to overstate the relationship between readily available access to safe, affordable and reliable energy and individual prosperity and economic wellbeing. This is because energy is an input to virtually everything we produce, consume and enjoy in society. Think for a minute…

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