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[Gwyneth Cravens] Nuclear power wins it over fossil fuel romance

Amid all the hysteria about nuclear meltdowns and radiation poisoning, here’s something to consider: U.S. commercial reactors have never caused a single death.

Worldwide, nuclear power has the lowest accident rate based on the amount of energy generated by any source. Compare that record with the havoc caused by dam failures and the disease and deaths wreaked by fossil-fuel pollution and explosions.

Because uranium provides so much energy relative to its mass, the volume of reactor fuel is small. The roughly 70,000 tons of nuclear fuel from many decades of delivering trillions of kilowatt-hours of power could fit in a single Best Buy store. If the fuel were recycled, as is done in France, the residue could fit in the TV department.

In terms of the environment, nuclear power emits about the same carbon-equivalent per kwh as that of wind power, and less than solar. These renewable sources, however, are weak and intermittent providers. As many climatologists and environmentalists agree, nuclear power, which now provides 20 percent of U.S. electricity, is the only large-scale way to replace deadly, global-heating fossil-fuel combustion while providing steady, reliable electricity.

Among a plethora of horrors, the March 11 earthquake in Japan caused an explosion at a huge oil refinery. The conflagration continued for 10 days, releasing thousands of tons of toxic particles. Early on, images of the blaze were shown on television and misleadingly coupled with bulletins about the tsunami-impaired Fukushima nuclear-power facility, where no fires raged. In the aftershocks, gas tanks continued to explode in the rubble of shattered towns, and huge numbers of smashed vehicles with gasoline tanks and lead batteries are still washing around in tidal water.

The story is still unfolding, but in the end, pollution of air, water, and soil from fossil fuels pose a greater risk than the relatively low-level radiation from Fukushima.

If Japan and other countries decide to ban or curtail nuclear power, reliance on fossil energy will grow even faster than is now the case.

The media have relayed a steady stream of scary and inaccurate reports to an understandably worried audience. Contrary to dire headlines, radiation exposure to the public has been very limited and diluted ― insignificant relative to the natural radiation that bombards us or to CT scans and dental X-rays. The spraying of water on the plant and other efforts by heroic workers are helping to inhibit the spread of radioactive particles. Electricity and coolant systems have been restored.

True, much still remains unknown about the extent of damage, but all fuel appears to be contained. Compared with the staggering tragedy unleashed by the large-scale destruction of life and property by natural forces, even the worst problems at Fukushima will not leave behind the lethal legacy some commentators predict.

No, the far greater risk is from a slowly unfolding, less pictorial calamity: the tremendous price exacted by our romance with burning hydrocarbons. They power our civilization.

When coal, gas, and oil burn ― providing 73 percent of U.S. electricity ― they release transparent gases that combine with water vapor to form fine particulates. These lodge in our lungs, killing 13,200 Americans annually and sickening thousands of others. In addition, unconfined fossil-fuel residues include soot, mercury, radon, ozone and, in the case of coal, 100 million tons a year of fly ash laced with heavy metals. Health costs: $120 billion a year.

Continuous low-dose radioactive emissions from coal combustion, which concentrates isotopes in the fly ash and flue gases, expose residents within a 50-mile radius of a plant to low-level radioactivity that is 100 to 400 times greater than a nuclear plant would.

What about natural gas? In 2010 alone, its power-related explosions killed 14 Americans. Extraction pollutes the water supply, sometimes with radioactive material ― low-dose, but sometimes far greater than the level allowed by the Environmental Protection Agency.

Nuclear energy, which worldwide maintains a better safety and public-health record than fossil-fuel plants and hydroelectric dams do, is essential if we are to reduce deaths and curb carbon and greenhouse emissions that are accelerating global warming and ocean acidification. (Acidification compromises the basis of the food chain ― the phytoplankton that produces half of the world’s oxygen.)

The technical community will review the Japanese nuclear crisis and recommend improvements. Although the reactors properly shut down with the first jolt, the cascade of difficulties brought by the tsunami overwhelmed the site.

In any case, that 1966 plant is outmoded. Modern ones have redundant passive-safety features that would have ensured Fukushima’s stability. These innovations are partly thanks to lessons learned about oversight and human engineering from the meltdown at Three Mile Island. U.S. plants are continuously upgraded, and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission will be instituting new improvements and encouraging other countries to follow suit.

We are all suffering from a health and environmental catastrophe being unleashed by hydrocarbon combustion. By 2030, power demand is expected to almost double. If we are to keep the lights on while reducing harm to humans and the planet, nuclear power must grow and fossil-fuel power must shrink.

By Gwyneth Cravens

Gwyneth Cravens is the author of “Power to Save the World: The Truth About Nuclear Energy.” The opinions expressed are her own. ― Ed.

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