Nuclear Power: The Promise and Disappointment

Updated on May 14, 2018
Rupert Taylor profile image

I've spent half a century (yikes) writing for radio and print—mostly print. I hope to be still tapping the keys as I take my last breath.

Lewis Strauss was appointed chairman of the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission in 1953. A year later, he gave a speech in which he said “Our children will enjoy in their homes electrical energy too cheap to meter.” Mr. Strauss turned out to be spectacularly wrong.

As the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) puts it: “… we have learned that nuclear power is, instead, too expensive to finance.” Although, once the enormous debt incurred in building a nuclear plant is paid off, it is a relatively low cost way of generating electricity.


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Massive Costs

The Levy Nuclear Power Plant in Florida carried a cost estimate of $3.5 billion to build. That was in 2006. But, the cost estimates kept rising as construction began. By October 2011, Synapse Energy Economics, Inc., had put a price tag of “between $22.5 billion and $29.3 billion.” Public opposition to the development grew with concerns about cost and environmental damage.

In August 2017, construction was halted and the plant may never be completed.

A nuclear power project in nearby Georgia is running into similar problems. The expansion of Georgia Power’s Plant Vogtle in Waynesboro “has been plagued by delays and spiralling costs, compounded when the main contractor filed for bankruptcy” (CBS News).

There’s history here, as pointed out by UCS “the first two reactors built at the site exceeded their original cost projection by a whopping 1,200 percent.”

The costs are passed on to consumers on their electricity bills.

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How Nuclear Power Plants Work

Uranium is an element that occurs in several different forms called isotopes; U-235 is the form used in nuclear power plants because it can be easily split. The uranium, in the form of rods, is placed in a containment vessel; this is the reactor core.

In the core, U-235 atoms are bombarded with neutrons causing them to split in a process called fission. Other atoms spin off and collide with each other in “much the way billiard balls can continue striking other ones after the cue ball has stopped moving” (Canadian Nuclear Association).

A by-product of these atoms crashing and banging about is heat. The high temperature turns water into steam. As water is heated it expands and builds up pressure in a boiler. The high-pressure steam is piped to a turbine where it turns a generator shaft to create electricity.

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Eventually, the fuel rods wear out and have to be replaced. However, the “spent” fuel rods will generate heat for decades and are still highly radioactive. This radiation destroys the cells of living organisms and causes death if the exposure is big enough. For this reason the spent fuel must be stored safely.

The Union of Concerned Scientists explains the rest of the process, “The fuel assemblies, which consist of dozens to hundreds of fuel rods each, are moved to pools of water to cool. They are kept on racks in the pool, submerged in more than twenty feet of water, and water is continuously circulated to draw heat away from the rods and keep them at a safe temperature.”

This is not a permanent solution. As yet, there is no permanent solution. The fuel rods will remain dangerous for thousands of years.

The most talked about permanent storage is deep-rock burial. Obviously, this can’t be in an area where an earthquake might occur, and no community is keen to have it nearby.

For now, the temporary storage pools get bigger, fill up, and new ones are built. As long as the cooling water keeps flowing, the danger from the spent fuel is contained. But, if the cooling process ever fails because of terrorism, human error, war, asteroid strike, or some other catastrophe there would be a massive and lethal release of radiation.

Safety Concerns

The Nuclear Energy Institute aims to paint as pretty a picture as it can of nuclear power. It points out that working in a nuclear power plant is safer than working in an office. That’s true but it conceals the fact that when things go wrong, they go wrong spectacularly.

In March 1979, human error and mechanical failure struck the nuclear plant at Three Mile Island, Pennsylvania. There was a partial meltdown and dangerous radioactive gases were released into the atmosphere. The situation was contained and no known health effects were recorded.

Cleanup at Three Mile Island.
Cleanup at Three Mile Island. | Source

Seven years later, a much worse disaster unfolded.

The Chernobyl nuclear plant was in northern Ukraine, which at the time was part of the Soviet Union. In April 1986, technicians made a series of mistakes. A chain reaction in the nuclear core went out of control and a series of explosions blew the roof off the containment vessel. A huge cloud of radioactive gas was released and it drifted over Europe; it was detected as far away as Japan.

Tens of thousands of people were evacuated from communities nearby and have never been allowed to return. Many people have died, some in the explosion others later of radiation sickness.

Encyclopedia Britannica adds that “Millions of acres of forest and farmland were contaminated, and, although many thousands of people were evacuated, hundreds of thousands more remained in contaminated areas. In addition, in subsequent years many livestock were born deformed, and among humans several thousand radiation-induced illnesses and cancer deaths were expected in the long term.”

Newsday reports (June 2017) “At least 30 people were killed directly, but some reports project more than 9,000 deaths related to Chernobyl radiation - and other groups put the number 10 times higher.” As well, birth defects are showing up in increasing numbers.

The wreckage of the plant is now contained inside an enormous steel and concrete tomb because it is still dangerously radioactive. “The area won’t be safe for human habitation for at least 20,000 years” (Live Science).

In March 2011, a very powerful earthquake occurred on the floor of the Pacific Ocean 130 kilometres off the coast of Japan. It triggered a tidal wave, called a tsunami, that was 15 metres high.

The tsunami smashed into the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant and knocked out its emergency power supply. This meant that the reactor cores could not be cooled. As the heat built up a bubble of hydrogen grew until the pressure blew off the reactor roof. First it was Reactor 1, then Reactor 3, followed by Reactor 4; this caused a release of radioactive material, and then Reactor 2 started leaking radiation as well.

Hundreds of thousands of people were evacuated. Nobody died directly as a result of the Fukushima nuclear accident but The International Business Times reported in March 2016 that “116 cases of thyroid cancer in children [have] been reported since the nuclear disaster, in March 2011. That is roughly 20 to 50 times higher than the national average.”

The plant is still heavily contaminated and its owners, the Tokyo Electric Power Company says the clean up will take 30 to 40 years. However, that estimate is based on developing technology that doesn’t yet exist.

Bonus Factoids

In 1987, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission ordered the Philadelphia Electric Company to shut down its nuclear reactors at Peach Bottom because of disregard for the safety of nearby communities. Technicians who should have been monitoring the reactor core were found sleeping, having rubber band and paper ball fights, and playing video games.

In July 2014, The Canadian Press reported that “China is on track to become the most nuclear-powered nation on earth, with plans to build more than 350 nuclear reactors in the coming decades.”

In 1978, Romania agreed to buy five CANDU reactors from Canada. The signature on the deal was that of Nicolae Ceausescu, one of the most brutal and corrupt dictators of the communist era in Eastern Europe. Romania was essentially bankrupt and Canada agreed to receive part of the payment in surplus products from the country such as jam and wine. Also Canada didn’t actually sell the reactors, but simply the plans for building and a licensing fee. Romanians undertook the construction. The site was described by journalist Jennifer Wells as “a hazardous, ill-lit disaster. The workmanship was faulty, quality and safety standards non-existent.” This led to the deaths of many labourers.

According to The Ontario Energy Board the cost in cents per kWh in the province in 2016 was:

  • Solar: 48.1
  • Natural gas: 14.0
  • Wind: 13.3
  • Nuclear: 6.8
  • Hydro: 5.7


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Sources

  • “Nuclear Power Cost.” Union of Concerned Scientists, undated.
  • “Ontario Rejects Ottawa’s Stand on Using Candu Nuclear Reactors.” Karen Howlett, Globe and Mail, March 25, 2018.
  • “Myths About Nuclear Energy.” Center for Nuclear Science and Technology Information, undated.
  • “Chernobyl Nuclear Disaster 32 Years Later.” Newsday, April 29, 2018
  • “Fukushima Disaster Facts and Figures: What Happened and What Were the Effects of the Nuclear Meltdown?” Matt Atherton, International Business Times, March 8, 2016.
  • “$25 Billion Nuclear Projects at Georgia’s Troubled Plant Vogtle to Continue.” CBS News, December 21, 2017.
  • “Nuclear Energy Is Cheap Energy.” Canada West Foundation, April 18, 2017.

Questions & Answers

  • The protocols used to check for thyroid cancer changed for the affected Fukushima group and this gave rise to the higher rate which is an aftereffect of this change and is not real. Did you check on these details before quoting your numbers, and if so why did you not reveal these significant details?

    The numbers quoted, and duly credited, were from an article in International Business News, a usually reliable source. In the research I did for this article, and it was quite extensive, no mention was made that the incidence of thyroid cancer in children was under question. It seems likely that in the shadow of Chernobyl, Fukushima would produce similar results. The incidence of thyroid cancer post Fukushima does not appear to be a settled matter. Here is a quote from The Lancet (December 2016).

    "The possibility of a causal association between radiation exposure and thyroid cancer in Fukushima, Japan after the 2011 nuclear disaster is a controversial topic. In The Lancet Diabetes & Endocrinology, Noboru Takamura and colleagues1 prematurely and misleadingly dismiss the radiation effect in attributing cases of thyroid cancer detected in Fukushima as 'an effect of screening caused by the use of modern, highly sensitive ultrasound technology.' ”

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    • Miebakagh57 profile image

      Miebakagh Fiberesima 

      3 months ago from Port Harcourt, Rivers State, NIGERIA.

      Hello Rupert, thank you for exposing this to the public.

      I read the Three Mile Island and the Ukraine nuclear distaster in the Tmes and Newsweek Margines.

      That was many years ago. But, it is good of you to remind us of such events. I hope the science world is listening too.

      The health of the community and the environment is what matters much. Not much is done on it as a first priority.

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