Oh, the things we think we know
that are not so.
Making electricity from nuclear energy is a fascinating process. How in the world can we generate electricity to operate a microwave oven from the nuclei of atoms -- specks of matter so tiny that 10,000 billion of them would still be invisible? This book is about nuclear power -- electricity made from specks of uranium and plutonium.
Nuclear power is important to Americans for jobs, a high standard of living, and clean air. Because it emits no pollutants to the atmosphere, it is estimated to save thousands of lives every year in the United States alone; it could save tens of thousands more. It may be crucial for preventing catastrophic consequences of global warming and for preventing wars over the world's supply of petroleum.
Polls indicate that a majority of Americans support nuclear power, but a vocal minority has opposed it. That minority includes people who are sincere and well-meaning; people who do not understand it; environmental groups, some of which use opposition to it as a fund-raising tool; and antinuclear groups that oppose both advanced technology and large industry in general.
A lack of understanding of nuclear power is a major cause of opposition. Some people believe radiation from nuclear energy is new and man-made, although the earth has been bathed in it since the dawn of time. The public has feared radiation since the two atomic bombings in Japan in 1945; however, although the radiation effects were severe, radiation accounted for only 20% of the deaths there. The mass media contribute to misunderstanding through the use of frightening headlines, frequently to attract readers or listeners. A New York newspaper reported "over 20,000 dead" a few days after the Chernobyl nuclear power plant failure in Ukraine in 1986, although the number of known deaths is 34. Individuals make outrageous statements. An antinuclear activist has said that one pound of plutonium could kill eight billion people; however, 10,000 pounds have been released into the earth's atmosphere from weapons tests in the last 40 years -- enough by his estimate to kill all the people on earth several thousand times.
There is also misunderstanding about nuclear waste. Antinuclear groups and some political leaders state repeatedly that the nuclear waste disposal problem is unsolved, and the public comes to believe this. However, most of our scientific and engineering societies believe the waste can readily be disposed of by deep-underground burial -- where it will be harmless. Even if the waste-disposal statement were true, it could be quite misleading; it is intended to imply that other technologies do not have significant waste-disposal problems. The groups rarely mention that there is no solution for handling the several million tons of carbon dioxide that every large coal or natural gas power plant discharges each year -- other than to release the gas to the atmosphere where it becomes a major contributor to the greenhouse effect and potential climate change. Nor do we have an easy solution for handling particulate pollutants that coal plants discharge into the atmosphere -- where they are estimated to cause tens of thousands of deaths yearly.
This book's major goal is to present facts about nuclear power and to eliminate as much misunderstanding about it as possible. The book is addressed to adults who have forgotten their high school science courses and to ninth and tenth grade high school students who haven't; brighter students in grades as early as the fourth or fifth will also understand it. Each of you will learn more about the subject than most scientists, engineers, government leaders, and representatives of industry and environmental groups know. The book doesn't provide the intricate details of the design and operation of a nuclear plant because that takes years of study. Nevertheless, it gives "the big picture" on which decisions are made about the use of nuclear energy.
We will compare nuclear power with its alternatives, just as everybody compares alternatives in real-life situations. If you intended to buy a car, you would compare prices, styles, gas mileages, trade-in values, and colors of different makes and models. You wouldn't simply walk to the nearest automobile dealer and buy the first car you saw in the window. Similarly, we must make comparisons in deciding the best ways to make electricity. The primary alternatives are to make it from burning fossil fuels -- coal, natural gas, and oil (petroleum). Of course, we first have to decide whether we want electricity.
I will present considerable data for making comparisons. This is partly because most readers don't have time to find the needed information by themselves -- the data have to be dug out from many books and technical magazines. A second reason is that those books and magazines are not easily available for most people. Some data will surprise (shock?) you, and you may doubt the accuracy of some statements. Good. You are urged to check all the information presented, and a Suggested Reading list is given at the end of the book to help. Your public or school libraries should be able to obtain these references.
Chapters 1 through 10 cover the following:
What is nuclear power and why is it important?
What is nuclear energy?
What is a nuclear reactor and how does it work?
How is electricity made from nuclear energy?
What are the health effects of radiation?
Are nuclear power plants safe?
How do we dispose of radioactive waste?
What is the possibility of theft of uranium or plutonium by terrorist groups to make explosives?
What kind of advanced reactors are being developed?
What is the cost of nuclear power?
Chapter 11 describes the enormous benefits that nuclear energy promises the world. Chapter 12 gives recommendations on what we can do to help realize those benefits.