Mention nuclear energy, and some think of danger. Images of Chernobyl, Fukushima and Three Mile Island — and fears of meltdowns and radiation and cancer — tell a cautionary tale of just how badly nuclear energy can go wrong.
But the question of nuclear safety is not as clear-cut as the popular narrative implies, as evidenced by the clashing views of experts at a panel titled “Nuclear safety in a post-Fukushima world.”
The January 29 panel was part of “The Promise And Perils of Nuclear Energy,” a workshop intended to help journalists gain a better understanding of nuclear power.
During the 90-minute talk, panelists argued over nuclear topics ranging from health risks, to power plant safeguards, to waste storage, invoking a myriad of differing statistics and interpretations of data.
Post-Fukushima nuclear safety
In 2011, a 6.6 magnitude earthquake created a tsunami that hit the Fukushima Daiichi power plant, cutting off its power supply and causing the cooling system to fail. This led to an eventual meltdown of three reactors.
John Keeley, spokesman for the Nuclear Energy Institute, stressed that the U.S. nuclear fleet has put a large investment in making an “already safe fleet” even safer after the events of Fukushima.
Out of this came FLEX, a response strategy for any number of possible disasters, ranging from earthquakes to tsunamis to tornados.
Keven Kamps, a radioactive waste watchdog for Beyond Nuclear, an anti-nuclear advocacy organization, said these safety measures are not enough.
Kamps said it “doesn’t take an accident” for nuclear energy to pose a risk to health and the environment. Kamps said the routine radiation release during a plant’s regular operations is dangerous enough.
Panelist Larry Criscione was a nuclear engineer at Ameren’s Callaway nuclear power plant, and became a whistleblower after discovering an unreported 2003 incident at the plant. Criscione now works for the NRC, but attended the panel to speak from his personal experience.
Criscione said the same cause was responsible for the incidents such as Chernobyl, Fukushima and Three-Mile Island: human error.
Panel moderator Roger Witherspoon, a journalist who has done extensive reporting on nuclear energy, said that while risk can be calculated for many factors, “what tends to be a wild card is the human factor.”
For example, Keeley said lack of foresight at the Fukushima Daiichi plant was reflected in a facility design not suited to withstand the tsunami. Keeley said the problem was aggravated by the plant’s chain of command, which was inefficient and unsuited for a quick response.
Criscione said another flaw is the human capacity for covering up incidents to avoid controversy.
Criscione said that many people in the nuclear industry “do not have the ethical backbone to safely handle the responsibility the public entrusts with them — and many do.” Criscione said it’s important to protect those in the industry committed to speaking out.
Fear versus danger
The health effects of radiation were another matter of contention among panelists.
Panelist David Ropeik is a Harvard instructor and former journalist who covered many nuclear energy stories. He now is an author and consultant on the topic of risk perception.
Ropeik said that the health effects of radiation exposure aren’t as severe as the public is led to believe. He cited the Radiation Effects Research Foundation’s Life Span Study, which focused on survivors of the 1945 atomic bomb drops on Japan.
Ropeik thinks that our perception of risk doesn’t match with the actual risk of nuclear power. “The fear is doing us more harm than the actual danger itself,” Ropeik said.
When asked the relative risk of nuclear energy compared to other energy, David Lochbaum, director of the Nuclear Safety Project for the Union of Concerned Scientists, said nuclear power incidents are more likely to scare people and remain in their memories. “It may be the relative risk in nuclear issues get blown out of proportion relative to the risk (of other energy sources),” Lochbaum said.
Kamps disagreed, saying that fear of nuclear energy was justified — a “healthy fear” that protects people from danger.
No consensus was reached at the end of the panel, but one message was clear to journalists in attendance: the nuclear energy conversation is complex.