Many environmentalists are critical of nuclear power generation. They claim that there is an unacceptable risk of a catastrophic accident, and that nuclear power plants generate large amounts of unmanageable nuclear waste.
The U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission has strict requirements regarding the amount of radioactivity that can be released from a nuclear power reactor. In particular, a nuclear reactor can expose an individual who lives on the fence line of the power plant to no more than 10 millirems of radiation per year. Actual measurements at U.S. nuclear power plants have shown that a person who lived at the fence line would actually be exposed to much less that 10 millirems.
Thus, for a typical person who is exposed to about 350 millirems of radiation per year from all other sources, much of which is natural background, the proportion of radiation from nuclear power plants is extremely small. In fact, coal- and oil-fired power plants, which release small amounts of radioactivity contained in their fuels, are responsible for more airborne radioactive pollution in the United States than are nuclear power plants.
Although a nuclear power plant cannot explode like an atomic bomb, accidents can result in serious radioactive pollution. During the past 45 years, there have been a number of not-fully controlled or uncontrolled fission reactions at nuclear power plants in the United States and elsewhere, which have killed or injured power plant workers. These accidents occurred in Los Alamos, New Mexico; Oak Ridge, Tennessee; Richland, Washington; and Wood River Junction, Rhode Island.
The most famous case was the 1979 accident at the Three Mile Island nuclear reactor in Pennsylvania, which received a great deal of attention in the press. However, nuclear scientists have estimated that people living within 50 mi (80 km) of this reactor were exposed to less than two millirems of radiation, most of it as iodine-131, a short-lived isotope. This exposure constituted less than 1% of the total annual radiation dose of an average person.
However, these data do not mean that the accident at Three Mile Island was not a serious one; fortunately, technicians were able to reattain control of the reactor before more devastating damage occurred, and the reactor system was well contained so that only a relatively small amount of radioactivity escaped to the ambient environment.
By far, the worst nuclear reactor accident occurred in 1986 in Chernobyl, Ukraine. An uncontrolled build-up of heat resulted in a meltdown of the reactor core and combustion of graphite moderator material in one of the several generating units at Chernobyl, releasing more than 50 million Curies of radioactivity to the ambient environment. The disaster killed 31 workers, and resulted in the hospitalization of more than 500 other people from radiation sickness.
According to Ukrainian authorities, during the decade following the Chernobyl disaster an estimated 10,000 people in Belarus, Russia, and Ukraine died from cancers and other radiation-related diseases caused by the accident. In addition to these relatively local effects, the atmosphere transported radiation from Chernobyl into Europe and throughout the Northern Hemisphere.
More than 500,000 people in the vicinity of Chernobyl were exposed to dangerously high doses of radiation, and more than 300,000 people were permanently evacuated from the vicinity. Since radiation-related health problems may appear decades after exposure, scientists expect that many thousands of additional people will eventually suffer higher rates of thyroid cancer, bone cancer, leukemia, and other radiation-related diseases.
Unfortunately, a cover-up of the explosion by responsible authorities, including those in government, endangered even more people. Many local residents did not known that they should flee the area as soon as possible, or were not provided with the medical attention they needed.
The large amount of radioactive waste generated by nuclear power plants is another an important problem. This waste will remain radioactive for many thousands of years, so technologists must design systems for extremely long-term storage. One obvious problem is that the long-term reliability of the storage systems cannot be fully assured, because they cannot be directly tested for the length of time they will be used (i.e., for thousands of years). Another problem with nuclear waste is that it will remain extremely dangerous for much longer than the expected lifetimes of existing governments and social institutions.
Thus, we are making the societies of the following millennia, however they may be structured, responsible for the safe storage of nuclear waste that is being generated in such large quantities today.