Joe Biden has capitulated to his party’s hard left and focused his $2 trillion climate change plan almost entirely on renewables. He gives a relatively minor shoutout to nuclear in his plan, but a far stronger expression of support is now necessary. He must now have the courage to make it clear that he completely opposes anti-nuclear Democrats and hard-left nuclear-phobic pressures groups such as the coalition of 100 who sent an open letter to U.S. senators on November 30, vehemently opposing S. 4897, the American Nuclear Infrastructure Act of 2020.
In a recent speech, Joe Biden said that, while he was “a proud Democrat,” he “will govern as an American president. I’ll work as hard for those who didn’t vote for me as those who did.”
If Biden is serious about this, he will have to reduce his focus on renewables and promote made-in-America nuclear power.
Contrary to the open letter’s assertion that “Nuclear power is too dirty, too dangerous, too expensive…”, it actually provides a viable and safe means for satisfying the world’s growing need for electricity. While the U.S. is truly awash in oil, gas, and coal, the rest of the world is not so lucky. Fortunately, outside of the U.S., there is renewed interest in building nuclear power plants.
Let’s examine the nuclear power issue more closely.
Misunderstood safety concerns are beginning to fade from memory. The once well-known event at Three Mile Island in Pennsylvania resulted from faulty instrumentation that gave erroneous readings for the reactor vessel environment. After a series of equipment failures and human errors, the reactor core was compromised, and it underwent a partial meltdown.
Even so, radioactive water released from the reactor core was safely confined within the containment building structure, and very little radiation was released into the environment.
The Three Mile Island incident actually underscores the relative safety of nuclear power plants: The safety devices worked as designed and prevented any injury from occurring to humans, animals, or the environment anywhere near its location.
Moreover, the accident directly resulted in further improvements in procedures, instrumentation, and safety systems. U.S. nuclear reactor power plants are now substantially safer as a result. Three Mile Island’s Unit One is still operating with an impeccable record.
Chernobyl an Anomaly
The worst nuclear power plant disaster in history occurred when the Chernobyl reactor in Ukraine experienced a heat (not nuclear) explosion. If such an explosion were to have occurred in a Western nuclear power plant, it would have been contained because all Western plants must have a containment building—a solid structure of steel-reinforced concrete completely encapsulating the nuclear reactor vessel.
The Chernobyl plant did not have this fundamental safety structure, and so the explosion blew off the top of the reactor building, spewing radiation and reactor core pieces into the air. See animated gif here.
It was not the explosion, however, but the subsequent fire that spread radioisotopes around the area. The graphite reactor burned ferociously—which could not have happened if the plant had included a containment building from which oxygen could be excluded.
The design of the Chernobyl plant was inferior in other ways as well. Western power plant nuclear reactors are designed to have negative power coefficients of reactivity under operating conditions. This means if control of the reaction is lost, the reaction slows down instead of speeding up, making such a runaway accident impossible.
The flawed Chernobyl nuclear power plant would never have been licensed to operate in the United States or any other Western country. The accident that occurred there simply could not occur elsewhere. In many ways, the accident circumstances were the worst possible, with an exposed reactor core, an open building, and poorly trained operators. Forty-nine plant workers and firefighters died directly from radiation exposure at Chernobyl.
Public Effects Were Minor
In September 2000, the United Nations’ Scientific Committee on the Effects of Atomic Radiation’ (UNSCEAR) published its Report to the General Assembly, a document of some 1,220 pages that deals with exposures and effects of the Chernobyl accident. Apart from about 1,800 thyroid cancer cases registered in children and in some adults—of which more than 99 percent were cured—the U.N. report concluded there is no evidence of any major public health impact attributable to radiation exposure after the accident.
Indeed, no deaths directly attributable to exposure from the Chernobyl radiation have been found in the contaminated regions’ population. In fact, cancer incidence rates over the most-contaminated Ukraine regions near Chernobyl have been consistently lower than rates in the country. The incidence of solid cancers among Russian recovery operation workers have also been lower than among the general population. This is why radiation therapy exists in medicine. While a lot is awful, a little can be very good.
The whole-body radiation dose due to the Chernobyl fallout received during the past 25 years by individuals in the most contaminated parts of the former Soviet Union (about 1 mSv per year) is 10 to 100 times lower than the dose of ionizing radiation from natural sources received by individuals in many regions of the world. Neither radiation-induced diseases nor any genetic disorders have ever been found in these regions.
At Fukushima, Japan, in 2011, while as many as 20,000 people died from flooding and pollution from the tsunami, not one died from radiation exposure. There has been no increase in overall cancer incidence or mortality or non-malignant disorders related to radiation exposure. The incidence of leukemia, which is a good indicator of radiation harm due to its short latency time, has not been elevated among the approximately five million inhabitants of the contaminated regions, nor among the evacuated persons or recovery operation workers.
This is consistent with studies from the World War II atomic bomb blasts. Small doses of radiation received far from ground zero produced lower cancer rates than among the general population. It is also consistent with medical research indicating low-dose radiation actually serves to protect at-risk individuals from the development of cancer.
While clearly there have been fatalities related to mining coal, drilling for oil, and burning natural gas, it turns out that nuclear power has, surprisingly, been the safest way to produce electricity. However, in the U.S., it can no longer compete economically with fossil fuel due to unnecessary, redundant safety requirements. This is not the case in other countries like France, Korea, and China, which are producing nuclear power safely at much lower costs.
Biden would also enhance national security by expanding the building of nuclear plants and getting America more back into the international nuclear power market. Russia and China currently dominate foreign markets for new nuclear plant construction, and, according to this Forbes article:
“China even appears to be working with long-time U.S. ally Saudi Arabia to enrich uranium, which rightly alarms national security analysts, since uranium can be enriched to low levels to make electricity or high levels to make weapons.”
While Republicans are somewhat more pro-nuclear than Democrats (a Pew Research Center survey from late 2019 showed that 59% of Republicans and 41% of Democrats support expanding nuclear power plants), the issue has sufficient bipartisan support that it offers Biden an opportunity actually to fulfill his promise to bring Americans together.
Madison Czerwinski, the founder of a new group, Campaign for a Green Nuclear Deal, makes the point well in the Forbes article.
“If Biden wants to unite Americans, he should seek legislation to raise nuclear energy from its current 19 percent of electricity to 50 percent by 2050… Given the longstanding popularity of nuclear energy on the Right and the desire for bold action by the Left, it’s hard to imagine a better energy policy for overcoming our partisan divide.”
So, the real question is: will Joe have the courage to stand up to the irrational anti-nuclear extremists in his base? Let’s hope he does.