Posted by: Stochasticus Weber | March 27, 2011

Information about nuclear power‏ by U.S. PIRG Executive Director, Andre Delattre

Since I wrote to you last week about the crisis in Japan, I’ve gotten a lot of questions about nuclear power.

People across the country are clearly grappling with this contentious issue, so I wanted to provide answers to some of the most common questions that have crossed my inbox.

Q: Just how risky is nuclear power?

A: Very. Every operating nuclear power plant in the United States has a pool of spent fuel on site, and the possibility of a Fukushima-like loss of coolant—and ensuing release of radiation—is quite real. A worst-case accident involving one of these pools could make more than 2,700 miles of land unfit for human habitation, lead to as many as 143,000 cancer fatalities within 500 miles of the accident site, and cause more than $700 billion in property damage.[i]

Even minor exposures to radiation released during a nuclear accident can cause health problems, including cancer later in life.[ii] Radioactive materials stay dangerous for thousands of years.

Q: Wasn’t the disaster in Japan caused by a combination of events—the earthquake, tsunami, and subsequent power outage—that couldn’t happen here?

A: Between hurricanes, tornadoes, human error, the potential for terrorist attack, mechanical failure, the age of our nuclear reactors and yes—earthquakes and tsunamis—it’s not outrageous to think that a major incident could happen at any one of the 104 nuclear reactors operating at the United States. Each of America’s nuclear power stations share the same vulnerabilities as the nuclear reactors in Japan.[iii]

Q: Don’t we need nuclear power to keep the lights on?

A: Not necessarily. Nuclear power currently generates about 20 percent of the U.S. electricity supply, and it would be difficult to immediately shut existing reactors down. But we don’t need to continue to allow nuclear reactors to operate beyond the 40 years they were originally designed for, and we don’t need to build new reactors.

We have vast safe energy resources that can do a better job of keeping the lights on. And they don’t explode, spill, or contaminate food supplies with radiation. For example, if we improved efficiency, in the next 20 years we could free up as much electricity as 100 new nuclear reactors could generate.[iv]

And America’s entire electricity needs could be met by the sunlight falling on a 100 square mile patch of Nevada desert, or by the wind blowing across North Dakota.[v]

Q: But isn’t nuclear power cheap?

A: No, it’s expensive and a bad investment. Nuclear power is among the most costly approaches to solving America’s energy problems. You just have to look at the history of nuclear power to understand. Of 75 nuclear reactors completed between 1966 and 1986, the average cost was more than triple the original construction budget.[vi] In 1985, Forbes magazine wrote that “the failure of the U.S. nuclear power program ranks as the largest managerial disaster in business history, a disaster on a monumental scale.”[vii]

The industry instead turned to taxpayer support. Over the last fifty years, American taxpayers have subsidized nuclear power to the tune of $145 billion.[viii] That’s more than the entire value of the electricity produced.[ix]

Wall Street investors still won’t touch nukes because the technology is too risky and too expensive. In contrast, investors are lining up to support newer renewable technologies, because they are more cost effective. Per dollar of investment, safe energy solutions—such as energy efficiency and wind power—deliver far more electricity than nuclear reactors.[x]

Q: Isn’t nuclear power better for the environment?

No. Energy efficiency is better. So are wind and solar power. These energy sources are better at preventing the kind of pollution that comes from fossil fuel plants than nuclear reactors because they are cheaper. They also don’t pose any risk of contaminating land, water or food with radioactive pollution.

For more information, and to get regular updates, visit our blog.


Andre Delattre
U.S. PIRG Executive Director

P.S. Please feel free to share this message with your friends and family.
[i] (In 2011 dollars.) A Safety And Regulatory Assessment of Generic BWR and PWR Permanently Shutdown Nuclear Power Plants, Brookhaven National Laboratory for the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission, August 1997.

[ii] According to the U.S. National Academy of Sciences, a single dose of 0.1 Sieverts would result in approximately 1 person in 100 developing cancer over their lifetime. Lower doses produce proportionally smaller risks. For example, a single exposure of 0.01 Sieverts would cause 1 person in 1,000 to develop cancer during their lifetime. Health Risks from Exposure to Low Levels of Ionizing Radiation, National Academy of Sciences, 2006.

[iii] U.S. Nuclear Plants Have Same Risks, and Backups, as Japan Counterparts, New York Times, March 13, 2011.

[iv] The High Cost of Nuclear Power: Why America Should Choose a Clean Energy Future Over New Nuclear Reactors, U.S. PIRG, March 31, 2009.

[v] Wind: U.S. Department of Energy (DOE), Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy, 20% Wind Energy by 2030: Increasing Wind Energy’s Contribution to U.S. Electricity Supply[pdf], DOE/GO-102008-2567, July 2008.
Sun: Bernadette del Chiaro, Tony Dutzik and Sarah Payne, Environment America Research & Policy Center, On the Rise: Solar Thermal Power and the Fight Against Global Warming, Spring 2008.

[vi] This figure actually underestimates the degree to which nuclear projects exceeded budget targets. It excludes escalation and finance costs incurred by construction delays, and does not include data from some of the most over-budget reactors. See Congress of the United States, Congressional Budget Office, Nuclear Power’s Role in Generating Electricity[pdf], May 2008, based on data from U.S. Department of Energy, Energy Information Administration, An Analysis of Nuclear Power Plant Construction Costs, Technical Report DOE/EIA-0485, 1 January 1986.

[vii] J. Cook, “Nuclear Follies,” Forbes, February 1985.

[viii] Nuclear Power: Still Not Viable without Subsidies[pdf], Union of Concerned Scientists, February 2011.

[ix] Federal energy subsidies: Not all technologies are created equal [pdf], Renewable Energy Policy Project, July 2000.

[x] The High Cost of Nuclear Power: Why America Should Choose a Clean Energy Future Over New Nuclear Reactors, U.S. PIRG, March 31, 2009.


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