The key element in American development of nuclear energy has been public safety. Some 20 years ago, a Russian delegation visited General Electric's nuclear enterprise, where I worked. They felt the added costs of United States nuclear plants - because of safety features - were unnecessary. Chernobyl proved them wrong. Such a reactor could not have been built or operated in the United States.
I wonder, which safety standards applied to the first reactors build in the USA, which were used to produce plutonium for the Manhattan project. During the time of war, fast development was more important than safety. For example, to fine-tune parameters, tests were made, where a mass of plutonium or uranium was turned over-critical for a short amount of time. Because the calculations were wrong, the energy released during one such experiment was far more than expected - and the experimentalists were irradiated.
Even the difficult Three Mile Island nuclear accident was, in a sense, a success for American policy. No one at the plant was hurt, and people outside the plant's fence got less radiation than if they had spent a two-week vacation in Denver - where naturally occurring nuclear radiation is higher than in most of the U.S. Worldwide, not one person has been harmed by operation of nuclear plants built to United States standards.
That depends on the definition of "harm". It is a reality, that stress levels increased after the Three Mile Island accident. If that stress was self-made because of fear of radiation - or if it was radiation-made - does not really matter.
In fact, nuclear power is saving lives by reducing fossil fuel use. In the United States alone, it is estimated that tens of thousands of premature deaths occur yearly because people are breathing small particles emitted by the burning of fossil fuels.
We agree, that fossil fuel has its dangers, too. However, atomic power plants replace conventional power plants. And those have been equipped with very effective filters, so that the emission of particles from fossil power plants is almost non-existent.
A second advantage of nuclear energy is the small amount of waste it produces, easily contained compared with waste produced by fossil fuels. A hundred thousand times less solid waste than a coal plant, one can afford a very high cost per cubic foot to manage the wastes safely.
This statements compares eggs with apples. The waste produced by nuclear power plants include:
1) Waste from mining for uranium. Uranium is a scarce metal, unlike coal, so that mining for 1 kg of uranium produces over 100 time more waste than mining for coal. In addition, the uranium mining waste may contain high levels of radioactivity from decay products of uranium.
2) Waste from the enrichment process. This waste is mostly depleted uranium. Some people don't consider depleted uranium waste - they consider it a fine material to melt it into bullets. Several tons of depleted uranium have been spread all over Iraq und Kuwait during the Gulf War.
3) Low radioactive waste from the atomic power plant. Meassured by volume, the low radioactive waste is much more than the high radioactive waste. Low and medium radioactive waste includes:
4) Waste from re-processing, if performed.
5) Waste from the atomic power plant, when it is eventually scrapped.
The 1 : 100000 figure is *only* true, when comparing the high radioactive uranium waste from nuclear plants to filter dusts from coal plants
Disposal of nuclear waste is routinely protested, yet it has caused no harm. Technical evaluations have shown the centralized low-level waste repository proposed for Ward Valley, approved by the state of California, technical but political, initiated by anti-nuclear groups who tell the public there is no way to get rid of the wastes.
A low-level waste repository cannot take the high-level waste of burned nuclear fuel.
Fossil fuels, despite drawbacks, have improved living conditions. Nuclear energy can further improve the world's welfare while reducing problems and risks. It is the only available, widely practical means for substantially mitigating the threat of global warming, a projected side effect of burning fossil fuels.
Some states of Germany will soon produce 25% of their electricity from wind. If the energy of one hurricane like Georges could be made useable, that'd be probably enough for the US East cost for several months.
Nuclear power can provice an essentially unlimited supply of energy to meet increasing world needs and replace the fossil fuels we are depleting. It can let us avoid international hostilities over scarce supplies. It might one day let us bring our troops home from Saudi Arabia.
If used without breading reactor, the world's known sources of uranium contain less energy than the world's known sources of coal. The breading reactor changed that figure a little - but most breading reactors have been scrapped due to problems...
But power plants are not the only application of nuclear technology. A million lifesaving nuclear medical procedures are performed each month in reused to diagnose various disorders. Irradiation eliminates dangerous bacteria from food supplies. Industries use radiation to detect defective equipment and to make smoke detectors.
A couple of small research reactors is enough to produce the isotopes needed for all the applications described above.
Still, the no-nukes crowd has succeeded in making the public frightened of any kind of nuclear radiation. Decades of research show clearly that low levels of radiation, up to a hundred times natural background radiation, are not to be feared.
Hiroshima has definitely shown the opposite.
Natural radiation is around 0.5 rem/year. Hundred times that amount (50 rem/year) gives 3000 rem over a person's lifetime of 60 year - many scientists consider that dosis to be likely to cause one cancer.
Indeed, low levels of radiation, like low levels of sunlight, may be healthy - although high levels of either can cause cancers. People in Denver, and Japanese who received low levels of radiation from World War II atom bombs, are living longer than comparable groups exposed to less radiation. University of Pittsburgh Professor Bernard Cohen, who studied hundreds of thousands of people, concluded that those living in areas with the highest concentrations of radioactive radon live longer than people elsewhere. After completing his study in 1995, he turned off his home's ventilation system - which was intended to reduce radon concentrations.
Other people consider it healthy to regularly take heroine or eat extremely high amounts of vitamin C. The US is free - everybody may live up to the standards he wants.
Low levels of sunlight are healthy because the ultraviolett radiation helps with certain reactions in the skin. No reaction is known, yet, that is known to be helped by gamma rays.
In ancient times, the background radiation used to be higher, because more radioactive kalium-40 was present. Recently, I read a serious study, that relates the development of higher (multi-cell) life as opposed to "simple life" to the drop of background radiation while the kalium-40 decayed.
The nuclear paranoia can have devastating effects. At Chernobyl, fewer than 40 deaths were caused directly by nuclear radiation.
Other sources speak of over 10000 deaths by know. In some areas of Russia, leukemia and other forms cancer are several times higher than normal. The "fewer than 40 deaths" only lists direct deaths from radiation sickness.
But the International Atomic Energy Agency estimates more than 100,000 deaths in Europe resulted from abortions by women who were afraid of the effects of the spreading radiation from the accident. It was an unnecessary catastrophe: Actually, the radiation in Europe from Chernobyl was less than normal background.
Milk in Bavaria (Germany) rated at over 1000 Bq/kg. Milk powder even rated at 5000 Bq/kg and more. Some mushroom had over 100 000 Bq/kg.
Natural background for humans is 5000 Bq/kg due to carbon-14. However, the beta particles emitted by carbon-14 have only 1/8th the energy of those emitted from caesium-137.
In other words: some mushrooms were contaminated by 100 times their natural radiation.
The United States Energy Information Agency projects that if current patterns prevail, the nuclear plants that today provide 20 percent of America's electricity will be shut down as their licenses expire. Bureaucratic licensing procedures and court cases mean building a nuclear plant here takes a dozen or more years and exorbitant costs. There are no plans for new ones.
Yes. Part of the reason, is, that investors don't like risks - Three Mile Island cost several billion $.
A member of the Nuclear Commission of South Korea, which is expanding its nuclear energy capacity, predicts that soon Uncle Sam - the nuclear "godfather" - will have to rely on his "grandchildren" for nuclear energy technology. If so, we will lose our key influence on international safety and non-proliferation issues.
That's indeed a point. However, we don't need 100 commercial reactors to advertise safety standards - one or two research reactors should be enough for that.
In addition, safety standards in the US are still lower than they are in Germany, for example. The US accounts for the second worst accident, that happened in a non-military nuclear reactor so far.
As a nuclear pioneer I am proud of the development of peaceful nuclear power in the United States. It is reliable, practical, safe and clean, and our leadership has resulted in reactor safety and nuclear weapons limitations worldwide. But I am anguished that we nuclear technologists, and the media, are failing the American public. We have let the anti-nuclear, anti-energy, anti-industrial groups frighten the public and dominate the debate, impeding nuclear energy progress in the United States. As a result, our children and grandchildren may suffer devastating environmental effects and world energy shortages. It is not too late to reclaim the debate and to change our direction on nuclear energy. We owe it to future generations. Bertran Wolfe is a past president of the American Nuclear Society and a retired vice president of General Electric, where he ran the nuclear energy business. This commentary was prepared for the San Jose Mercury News and distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
Greetings Kai Petzke
Kai Petzke, Inst. fuer Theor. Physik,
TU Berlin, Sekr. PN 7-1,