Energy and the Environment Public Concerns with Nuclear Power

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Shannon Woods

May 5, 2005

Energy and the Environment

Public Concerns with Nuclear Power

Splitting the atom is like trying to shoot a gnat in the Albert Hall at night and using ten million rounds of ammunition on the off chance of getting it. That should convince you that the atom will always be a sink of energy and never a reservoir of energy.

- Ernest Rutherford (1871 - 1937) [1]

By all accounts, Rutherford was very wrong with this assessment of atomic (or nuclear) energy. Any discussion of energy alternatives to fossil fuels today usually mentions nuclear energy. Opinions about it can range from the belief that it is the only thing that can provide us clean reliable energy to the belief that it is very dangerous and should not be used at all. Currently over half of the American population does not want to see a new nuclear power plant built. [2] Why the opposition? People are against nuclear power plants, sometimes very vocally, for reasons ranging from the possibility of accidents and problems with waste disposal, to the high cost of the electricity produced.

One of the main problems with the image of nuclear power is its relationship to nuclear weapons. “Nuclear power plants have encountered especially intense hostility, it is felt within the industry, because of their association with the image of the mushroom cloud.” [3] It was on August 6, 1945 that the United States bombed Hiroshima. The bomb, made of uranium, caused about 60,000 civilian deaths within two weeks and injured 70,000. The bomb, made of plutonium, that exploded over Nagasaki on August 9 killed 33,000 and injured 25,000. [4] This was the world’s introduction to the power of nuclear energy. Although many more people were killed throughout the war, the large scale of destruction in such a short time span had never been seen. After the war, the American government feared that other countries would gain the technology to build nuclear weapons. The United States tried to keep the knowledge of how to make the bomb a secret and promote the nonproliferation of the weapons. However, in 1949, when Russia exploded its first atomic bomb, the idea of limiting the number of bombs became ancient history. Both Russia and the United States attempted to increase the quality and quantity of their weapons. There was some hint that people were trying to look at nuclear energy in a non-military way during the 1950s. The Atomic Energy Act of 1954 discussed the “Atoms for Peace” plan. This “opened up relevant portions of the U.S. monopoly on nuclear power-producing reactors, while preserving the U.S. monopoly in matters relating to weapons production and submarine propulsion.” The Nonproliferation Treaty of 1970 was one attempt to create a world-wide agreement prohibiting the development of weapons in exchange for materials and technology of nuclear power plants. [5] There is still the fear that a nuclear power plant could be a front for nuclear weapon factory.

Part of what the nuclear bombs showed the country was how dangerous the materials produced when using nuclear energy can be to humans. For the public, the big concern is the radiation. “Statistically significant excesses of various kinds of cancer have been observed for the Hiroshima and Nagasaki survivors.” [6] Radiation causes injuries to living cells by forming reactive ions and free radicals through interactions with atoms. The resulting injury from this indirect effect may take years to express itself. Radiation can also directly affect cells. This may cause the cell to die, prevent division, or cause a mutation that is passed onto the daughter cells. The overall effect depends on the penetrating power of the particle and whether or not it has been inhaled into the body. [7] Although it is known how the survivors in Japan reacted to radiation exposure, the effect of nuclear power plant radiation exposure is unclear. The Japanese were exposed to short-term, high doses while a nuclear power plant would be emitting long-term, low doses. In reality, the dose from a correctly running nuclear fuel cycle is less than one mrem. This is much less than the approximately 300 mrems that the average American receives from natural sources (radon, cosmic, terrestrial, and internal). [8]

For most of the public, knowing that a correctly running nuclear fuel cycle releases vary little radiation would not make them less afraid of nuclear power plants because there is still the possibility of a nuclear accident. This is prompted partly by the fear that a power plant would explode like a nuclear bomb, but more so because there have been numerous nuclear accidents in the past. A major accident, assuming containment failure, could kill many and cause a lot of damage. The following is a list of major nuclear reactor accidents before 1987.

Major Nuclear Reactor Accidents

  • November 1955: Experimental Breeder reactor (EBR-1) at the National Reactor Testing Station in Idaho Falls, Idaho, partially melts down because of operator’s error during test.

  • October 1957: The Windscale plutonium production reactor, north of Liverpool in Great Britain, catches fire, spreading about 20,000 curies of radioactive iodine across Britain and northern Europe.

  • May 1958: Fuel elements burst in an experimental reactor at Chalk River, Ontario, Canada’s leading nuclear research establishment. Environmental pollution is slight, but the reactor itself is severely contaminated.

  • January 1961: The SL-1 experimental reactor at Idaho Falls goes out of control and ruptures the building. Although the environmental pollution is slight, the local effects are gruesome. The damaged core emits radiation at a rate of more than 500 rems per hour.

  • October 1966: The sodium cooling system in the 200 megawatt Enrico Fermi experimental breeder reactor near Detroit fails, and the core partially melts. A runaway reaction is prevented, but the reactor is permanently disabled. The incident is considered an uncomfortably close call.

  • October 1969: Partial meltdown occurs because of a fuel-loading error at a gas-graphite commercial in Saint-Laurent, France.

  • November 1973: A sodium-water explosion causes a fire at the 350 megawatt fast-breeder reactor at Shevchenko on the Caspian Sea.

  • March 1975: A technician checking fore air leaks with a lighted candle causes a fire directly under the control room at the Browns Ferry reactor near Decatur, Alabama. Electrical controls are burned out and water falls to a dangerously low level.

  • March 1978: A technician drops a tiny light bulb into the control panel at the Rancho Seco plant near Sacramento, California, short-circuiting the main electrical supply and scrambling the input from instruments to the plant’s computer. The reactor is barely under control for one hour.

  • March 1979: Equipment failures and human error cause accident at Unit 2 of the Three Mile Island reactor near Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. Even after cleanup operations have been underway for five years, the sequence of events in the accident is still imperfectly understood.

  • April 1986: Runaway reactions during a test at Unit 4 of the Chernobyl reactor near Kiev in the USSR cause a series of explosions that rupture the containment and send massive amounts of radiation through the Northern Hemisphere. The area is evacuated, semipermanently, and troops are brought in to help fight the fire and to stop and contain the reactions in the melted core. The following year the managers are convicted of negligence. [9]

Three Mile Island is the most well known accident in the United States while Chernobyl is probably the best known one in the rest of the world. In America, after Chernobyl “as many as 75 percent of those questioned in some polls opposed construction of nuclear power plants within five miles of their homes. Some 55 percent believed it likely that there could be an accident in the United States similar to that at Chernobyl.” [10] Even before Three Mile Island, it was understood that there needed to be some sort of insurance in case of an accident. Though private insurers had agreed to provide some money, most realized that it would not be enough. The push for government help was towards indemnification rather than governmental insurance. The Price-Anderson bill, introduced in May of 1956, provided for limited indemnity of $500 million. This number was “not based on any reliable scientific evidence or calculations.” Instead, it was chosen as number that would indicate to the public that something was being done while not so large as to frighten people. [11]

Even if the nuclear power plant runs perfectly, there is still the issue of waste. There are three types of waste:

uranium mill tailings, which are a byproduct of uranium mining; low-level wastes, which are materials and equipment that have been slightly contaminated in reactor and fuel-cycle operations; and spent fuel. If spent fuel is reprocessed - that is, if plutonium and uranium are separated out for reuse in reactors or for use in atomic bombs - the extremely radioactive residuals are known as high-level wastes. [12]

In America, the fuel is not reprocessed because of the concern that the plutonium may fall into the wrong hands and be used to make a nuclear weapon. After the spent fuel is removed from the reactors, it is place in a pool full of water where it is allowed release its decay heat. Once the heat and radiation are low enough, it can be transferred to a dry cask for storage. At this time, the waste is typically stored at the nuclear power plant site. The amount of waste that the United States had in 1998 was 38,500 metric tons and if the currently running plants all got 20-year extensions to their original 40-year licenses as some are trying to do, there would be around 105,000 metric tons of waste in total assuming no new plants are constructed. [13] The question becomes where to permanently and safely put all of it. There is much debate about this topic because the fuel will remain radioactive for thousands of years, so many people want a long-term solution. Presently, the most popular option is geological depositories. One fear, though, is that the waste would be able to leech into the ground and contaminate the groundwater. The contaminated water would be able to spread and might enter into the local population’s drinking water or enter into the food cycle through the local animal population. The Yucca Mountain in Nevada is now the focus of the United States as the most probable depository, but Nevada is trying to block this from happening. Critics argue that it is not geologically sound because it sits between two active earthquake faults and is located upon a major aquifer. They also say that the choice seems politically motivated since the two other sites that went before Congress were located in the states of the speaker and the majority leader. Its proponents claim that it is geologically sound and that it is best option of those sites that were studied. [14]

While the above concerns are related to human health or the environment, another reason why some dislike nuclear energy is the cost. Part of this high cost is due to the construction of the plant itself. “Largely as a result of concerns about safety, nuclear plants have grown steadily more expensive … this is partly because planning and building a plant can take twelve to fourteen years, during which the utility has to pay interest on the money borrowed to start the process … [Also,] regulatory hurdles and court challenges from environmental groups” cause uncertainty in the construction timeline which adds to the cost. [15] Advocates of nuclear energy claim that nuclear energy is more expensive than fossil fuels because it includes the indirect costs while the others do not. The cost of the electricity from a nuclear power plant includes the cost of regulation, decommissioning, and waste disposal. “The plant owner is required to maintain a decommissioning fund … [and] had to pay the government 0.1 cents per kilowatt-hour to support a nuclear waste fund, which has cost the total nuclear power industry about $16 billion to date.” [16] Opponents to nuclear energy maintain that the nuclear industry has received subsidies from the government and that the high costs indicate that other energy options should be explored.

In addition to looking at why people oppose nuclear power plants, it is interesting to see some of the actions that people have taken to prevent or hinder nuclear power plants from being built and put into operation. California, a state that currently has running nuclear power plants, once had an initiative on the ballot that some claim would have essentially prevented any new power plants from being built and result in the shut down of existing plants. The initiative consisted of three main conditions:

  1. There must be a removal or waiver of the liability limitation as described in the Price-Anderson Act.

  2. The state legislature must find that all nuclear reactor safety systems are effective.

  3. The state legislature must find that the nuclear wastes can be stored with no reasonable risk of negative effects on the people or environment.

All power plants would have been required to operate at no more than sixty percent of their licensed power level if requirement one was not met by June of 1977. If all three conditions were not met by June of 1981, the operation level of every plant would drop to sixty percent with a decrease of ten percent every year, effectively shutting down the nuclear power industry in California. [17] None of this actually occurred however because the initiative was voted down with a margin of two to one in June of 1876. [18]

The world has also seen the formation of antinuclear groups. One such movement can be seen in Mexico, which began in response to the Chernobyl accident in April of 1986 and the announcement by the current president that the nuclear power plant in Laguna Verde was to be completed and put into operation. 1986 and 1987 saw the formation of many groups while other environmental groups choose to turn their focus onto the Laguna Verde plant. Their complaints mirror those discussed above. People were worried about nuclear wastes and the possibility of accidents. They were also concerned with the fact that the technology used to build the plant (it took twenty-three years) was obsolete. The building was also located near a fault line and a volcano which would probably increase the chance of an accident. The motivation for the opposition was not only concern for the environment. Some cattlemen were worried that people would not buy their meat and dairy products if consumers knew that the cattle were raised near a power plant. Others were simply worried that they would lose their homes if an accident like Chernobyl happened there. The groups used a range of actions to show their desire to see the plant closed. This included setting up highway blockades and organizing voluntary blackouts. Some even wrote “notes of protest on their electrical bills.” [19] They also demanded meetings with public officials. For the villagers of Palma Sola, who lived less than two kilometers from the plant, there was intense fear of what might happen if Laguna Verde went online. Doctors noted that the number of people with stress-related illnesses increased dramatically as it seemed more and more likely that the plant would be put into operation in spite of the protests. School attendance dropped because the evacuation procedure pamphlet (Plan de Emergencia Radiologica Externo) told parents that they should not pick up their children at school in case of an evacuation because the government would take them directly to shelters. Parents were afraid of being away from their children in a disaster situation so they did not let them go to school. This apprehension was not helped by the fact that the government planned to evacuate eight thousand residents just before the reactor was loaded. [20] The antinuclear groups continued to verbally attack everything from the technology to the evacuation plans and the government occasionally used the military to control protests and blockades. On October 15, 1988, the government announced that Laguna Verde was going to be put into operation. As tests began at the site, the antinuclear groups continued their demonstrations and protests, and also worked to report on problems at the plant. As time went on, however, many groups ceased to exist and only one group, Madres Veracruzanas, continues to protest.

While Laguna Verde is Mexico’s only power plant, other countries rely much more on nuclear power to satisfy their energy needs. The following describes the nuclear power use for a few countries:

Current Status of Nuclear Power in Western Europe as of 1987

  • Austria: National referendum in 1978 terminated nuclear program, abandoning a plant nearly ready for operation.

  • Belgium: No plants under construction or planned; 8 mid-sized plants operating.

  • Denmark: Nonnuclear. Has requested Sweden to close down its plant 30 miles outside of Copenhagen.

  • Finland: 4 plants operating, none planned.

  • France: 49 plants operating, 14 under construction. Slowdown from 6 orders per year to 1, due to overcapacity. No construction starts in 1986-1987.

  • Italy: Safety concerns and strong local opposition have led to abandonment of new construction. Only 3 plants operating.

  • Netherlands: 2 small plants in operation; plans for 2 others indefinitely postponed after Chernobyl; strong opposition movement.

  • Spain: 8 plants operating, 2 under construction; 5 nearing completion were mothballed or canceled in 1983 at a cost of $8 billion. Socialist government and public oppose heavier reliance on nuclear power.

  • Sweden: Public referendum in 1980 mandated a gradual phase-out of the nation’s 12 operating plants. None planned or under construction.

  • Switzerland: 5 mid-sized plants operating, none planned or under construction. Public opposed to more.

  • United Kingdom: 38 plants operating, 4 under construction, but only 1 ordered in the 1980s owing in part to strong political opposition, including that of the Labour Party.

  • West Germany: 21 plants operating, 4 under construction, but mounting political opposition and slowed demand have imposed a moratorium in the 1980s. [21]

Of the above countries, the current trend in France (and Japan) is towards using much more nuclear energy to meet their demands. This may be because they have so little in the way of domestic energy supplies. For them it may be more costly to try to import foreign oil than to develop a nuclear program. Another suggested reason is the nature of their political systems. “The massive shift to nuclear power was announced by the president of France in 1974 ‘as a fait accompli, leaving no room for meaningful parliamentary debate.’” Similarly, the Japanese government did not invite any input from its citizens on its energy policy. [22] Another policy difference in these countries compared to the United States is that both countries have chosen to use reprocessing and fuels with plutonium. [23] For nuclear power advocates, these countries are usually cited as examples of places than have successful at implementing a nuclear power-fueled society.

Although many people agree that there should be a shift away from fossil fuels, less than half see nuclear energy as the next best possible source of energy. Some are concerned about the health issues while others are worried about the economics. A number of people are just plain afraid of the technology. While the health concerns are valid, advocates of nuclear energy try to argue that the probability of an accident happening is very small. They also claim that the cost would be less if the industry had more support. Overall, it remains to be seen if the world as a whole will move towards nuclear energy or something else.


[2] MIT Study. Page 81.

[3] Sweet. Page 65.

[4] Kraushaar. Pages 301 and 302.

[5] Imai. Pages 7 to 11.

[6] Kraushaar. Page 303.

[7] “radiation” (Biological Effects of Ionizing Radiation)

[8] Heaberlin. Pages 138 to 141.

[9] Sweet. Page 92.

[10] Morone. Page 4.

[11] Duffy. Pages 41 to 42.

[12] Sweet. Page 80.

[13] Heaberlin. Page 183 to 188.

[14] Smith. Page 343.

[15] Morone. Page 4.

[16] Heaberlin. Page 229.

[17] Reynolds. Pages 1 to 3.

[18] “Proposition 15 Defeated”

[19] Garcia-Gorena. Pages 18 to 23.

[20] Garcia-Gorena. Pages 51 to 54.

[21] Morone. Page 13.

[22] Morone. Page 17.

[23] Heaberlin. Page 194.

Works Consulted

Duffy, Robert J. Nuclear Politics in America: A History and Theory of Government

Regulation. University of Kansas: Lawrence, Kansas, 1997.

Garcia-Gorena, Velma. Mothers and the Mexican Antinuclear Power Movement. The

University of Arizona Press: Tucson, 1999.

Heaberlin, Scott W. A Case for Nuclear-Generated Electricity (or why I think nuclear

power is cool and why it is important that you think so too). Battelle Press:

Columbus, 2004.

Imai, Ryukichi and Henry S. Rowen. Nuclear Energy and Nuclear Proliferation:

Japanese and American Views. Westview Press: Boulder, Colorado, 1980.

Kraushaar, Jack J. and Robert a. Ristinen. Energy and Problems of a Technical Society.

Second Edition. John Wiley & Sons, Inc.: New York, 1984.

Morone, Joseph G. and Edward J. Woodhouse. The Demise of Nuclear Energy?:

Lessons for Democratic Control of Technology. Yale University Press: New

Haven, 1989.

Reynolds, W. C. Editor. The California Initiative: Analysis and Discussion of the Issues.

Institute for Energy Studies, Stanford University: Stanford, 1976.

Smith, Gar. Editor: Thomas A Easton. “A Gift to Terrorists?” Taking Sides: Clashing

Views on Environmental Issues. McGraw-Hill/Dushkin: Dubuque, IA, 2005.

Sweet, William. The Nuclear Age: Atomic Energy, Proliferation, and the Arms Race.

Congressional Quarterly Inc: Washington D.C., 1988.

“List of Nuclear Power Plants in America.”

“Proposition 15 Defeated.”

"radiation." Encyclopædia Britannica. 2005. Encyclopædia Britannica Online. 3 May


The Future of Nuclear Power: An Interdisciplinary MIT Study.

The Quotations Page. (May not be

attributed correctly to him).

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