Letter to the Editor of the NY Times, from Lloyd Mielke

(Reproduced with authorization)

Mr. Paul Leventhal wrote a piece in the New York Times on May 17, 2001 claiming that more reliance on nuclear power is too risky. He used the same old tired myths that have been used to attack nuclear power over the last 40 years. I am dismayed that these myths are still being presented as fact. Following are the myths followed by the facts.

MYTH: The public is concerned that the combination of human fallibility and mechanical failure can set off catastrophic accidents at nuclear power plants.

FACT: It is indeed remarkable that the combination of human fallibility and mechanical failure over the last 40 years has resulted in a nuclear safety record unsurpassed by any other industrial activity. The record is so outstanding that the comparisons are ludicrous. For example, commercial nuclear electricity in the United States has killed zero members of the public over the last 40 years. Compare this record with coal, which kills at least 10,000 members of the public EVERY SINGLE YEAR from respiratory ailments caused by the air pollution (World Health Organization). Nuclear electricity in the whole world (which includes Chernobyl) has killed less than 100 members of the public over the last 40 years (World Health Organization). That makes nuclear electricity (worldwide) at least FOUR THOUSAND times safer than coal. For Pete's sake, how much safer do we want it to be and how much are we willing to pay for such safety? Every time we build a natural gas plant instead of a nuclear plant, we are condemning at least 100 people to a premature death. Every time we build a coal plant instead of a nuclear plant, we are condemning at least 1,000 people to a premature death. This is what the public should be concerned about.

MYTH: The core at the Three Mile Island plant was within hours of an uncontrolled melt with Chernobyl-like consequences.

FACT: The core at TMI did, in fact, melt. Huge chunks of molten core were sitting on the bottom of the reactor vessel until cooling water could be restored. The worst case had already happened. Yet, no harmful amounts of radiation were released. There is no possibility of a Chernobyl-like failure at any Western power plant because the designs are completely different.

The maximum credible accident occurred at TMI and yet there were no deaths or injuries. This is a remarkable result considering that, every day, we accept deaths from natural gas explosions, gasoline explosions, the air pollution from burning fossil fuels, oil refineries blowing up, hydroelectric dams failing, and so forth.

MYTH: Older plants are more dangerous because of a rash of forced shutdowns due to equipment failures caused by aging.

FACT: The forced shutdowns are to repair the aging equipment so that it can be used for many more years to produce zero-pollution, zero-risk electricity. There's nothing wrong with that.

MYTH: Security is weak at nuclear plants because some plants have failed to repel mock attackers in N.R.C.-supervised exercises.

FACT: A would-be terrorist would be insane to attack a nuclear power plant. What would be the point? If it is to blow up the reactor and disperse radioactive material over a wide area, the consequences would not be terrible enough. Consider Chernobyl. In this case, the reactor DID blow up and disperse radioactive material over a wide area (excess radiation being measured as far away as Western Europe). But the actual consequences, although grim, were only 31 firefighters killed and 3 children dying from thyroid cancer. The major effect on the populace was millions of people exposed to excess radiation doses that were not any higher than natural background levels in many places of the world (World Health Organization). For example, Colorado has double the background radiation level of Florida because Colorado is higher in elevation and there is more cosmic radiation (200 mrems per year vs. 100 mrems per year). Such excess radiation has been shown to be harmless. After 40 years of study, the International Committee on Radiological Protection concludes that an acute exposure of 10,000 millirems or less has no harmful health effect. Furthermore, recent studies of radiation hormesis show that excess radiation stimulates the immune system such that it is beneficial to health at low levels. So there would be few civilian deaths and there is even a possibility that the health of the population would be improved. What kind of "terror" is that?

Or would the attack be aimed at stealing the fuel to make a nuclear bomb? Assuming the terrorists could get to the fuel, they would then have to steal it without killing themselves from the radioactivity. (Used nuclear fuel, before being allowed to cool for a few years, is highly lethal if not properly shielded). Once they were able to steal the fuel safely, they would then have to spend millions of dollars to extract some usable weapons material. It would be much cheaper (and safer for the terrorists) to simply build their own nuclear production facility to make the weapons material from scratch or to steal an existing bomb from a country that had one. Or better yet, to just drop some poison in the city water supply. How many mock attacks have been performed to test the security at major city water supplies?

MYTH: Increasing reliance on nuclear power would not help global warming anyway since two-thirds of the emissions of carbon dioxide, a major greenhouse gas, are from transportation or other sources not related to power generation.

FACT: New nuclear power plants would certainly extend the lives currently being lost to the air pollution caused by non-nuclear plants. And if reducing carbon dioxide from transportation is a goal, then we could build electric cars and produce the electricity from pollution-free, risk-free nuclear energy.

MYTH: Building nuclear plants to replace coal plants would enormously expand the risk that materials from nuclear power plants would be applied to making weapons.

FACT: Using the commercial nuclear fuel cycle to extract usable weapons-grade material is a dumb idea. The plutonium from used nuclear fuel is not pure enough to make good weapons material. It is simply much easier to build a nuclear production facility for that purpose.

MYTH: Instead of more nuclear power plants, we should use energy conservation and increase energy efficiency.

FACT: According to this argument, all we need is a law that requires our air-conditioners to run on 100 watts (the same as one light bulb). Unfortunately, the laws of physics get in the way. There is only so much "efficiency" available. If you need 1,000 kilowatt-hours to heat your house during the snowstorm or to air condition it during the heat wave, it really doesn't matter that your furnace/air conditioner/utility are all supplying the 1,000 kilowatt-hours at 100% efficiency. Of course, you can always "force" people to use LESS than 1,000 kWh and suffer the consequences. This is now taking place in California and everyone there is very proud of their government for limiting how much energy is available to them.

MYTH: There are better alternatives, such as using hydrogen recovered from fossil fuels after removing carbon to provide new, clean ways to generate power.

FACT: It takes energy to remove carbon from fossil fuels to extract the hydrogen. This energy is not free nor is it always clean. People who believe that "hydrogen" is some sort of free fuel that can be obtained at little or no cost need to take a basic physics course.

MYTH: We should use renewable energy sources such as solar, wind, and biomass.

FACT: The used fuel from nuclear power plants can be processed to recover even more fuel and is, in fact, "renewable". By closing the nuclear fuel cycle, we would have enough nuclear fuel to make electricity for thousands of years. Nuclear electricity produces no air pollution, kills nobody, and produces wastes that can be stored and handled safely. Radioactive waste toxicity dies off all by itself to non-lethal levels after only a few hundred years, unlike toxic chemicals that stay hazardous FOREVER. Renewable sources such as solar panels, windmills, and biomass generate secondary wastes that must be disposed of. For example, the manufacturing process for making solar panels generate a lot of toxic metal waste, which stays dangerous forever and never goes away. The solar panels themselves must be disposed of eventually. It is impossible to guarantee that solar panel toxic wastes can be isolated from human populations for the next million years. Since the solar panel toxic waste problem cannot be solved, then solar panels should not be made in the first place.

We have already seen the environmental destruction caused by windmills. Not only are they an eyesore and a blight on the landscape, they kill birds and other flying wildlife that happen to go near them. They generate a pitifully small amount of electricity for their size. One clean, zero-risk nuclear power plant can generate the same amount of electricity as solar, wind, or manure using raw materials and land area (including waste disposal) that is at least HUNDREDS, if not THOUSANDS of times smaller. Nuclear energy is the most environmentally benign source of energy available to us.

MYTH: We should not use nuclear power because certain nations disguise their nuclear weapons program inside their electrical generation facilities.

FACT: This is like saying we should discontinue the use of all gas and oil because some terrorist uses these materials to make Molotov cocktails. As indicated earlier, using nuclear electricity power stations to produce weapons material is a dumb and unethical idea. But if certain nations want to build their own weapons production facilities, there is nothing we can do about it. Instead, we should turn our own swords into plowshares and reap nuclear energy's benefits.