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The Incredible Safety of Nuclear Energy Part One

This is part one of a three-part series on the amazing safety of nuclear energy. We will show that the hysteria over this form of energy production is unfounded.

It is incredibly safe and environmentally friendly. It is more so than all the other major forms of energy production.

We will start by looking at the issue and the hysterical paranoia over nuclear energy. Then we will show why this is largely unfounded.

Furthermore, we shall show why nuclear energy is often safer than the alternatives.

The Issue: Nuclear Hysteria

People widely believe that radiation of any kind is highly dangerous. Therefore, many members of the public have an irrational fear of anything to do with radiation. This assumption that radiation is dangerous leads people to assume that nuclear energy cannot possibly be safe.

Is this based on scientific data? No! The scientific data makes it clear that radiation is an inescapable part of life. It is an unavoidable product of biology and the natural world. There is no escaping some degree of exposure to radiation.

Most people believe that it is something only the smartest people can understand. But that does not stop most people believing that it is inherently highly dangerous.

Should we fear nuclear energy? If people handled nuclear energy without any restraint or concern for safety, then certainly we should be concerned.

But in real life, people manage nuclear energy in a very safe way, as we shall see later in this series.  The people designing and running these systems understand the dangers very well. They know how to manage these dangers to greatly minimize the chances of any critical failure.

Even when such failures occur, they know how to manage them to greatly reduce the probability of injury or death.

Exposure to radiation is not inherently harmful. We can easily endure small doses of radiation without any long-term or serious harm. Nuclear power plants typically expose workers to much smaller doses of radiation than required to create any serious risk of harm.

Yes, radioactive exposure can damage biological material and mutate cells. But this typically requires radiation exposure far beyond any realistic scenario or repeated exposure to smaller doses of radiation.

This might be why cancer rates in the nuclear industry are not, despite what the public might think, significantly higher than in other industries. And may not be higher on average than the average for other industries.

international pictogram for mutagenic
The international pictogram for chemicals that are sensitising, mutagenic, carcinogenic or toxic to reproduction.

People often believe that nuclear energy production is about as dangerous as nuclear weapons. But this could not be more false. It is not possible to use the nuclear material used by the nuclear energy industry to easily make a bomb. That requires time and resource intensive enrichment processes.

It is not difficult to grasp that radiation is not always dangerous. Especially when you consider that our bodies are not defenseless against it. Our bodies have developed all kinds of mechanisms to compensate for it and mitigate its potentially harmful effects.

Most people consider nuclear physics too hard for them to grasp. And so, they do not make any real effort to understand it. But it is not difficult to grasp the most crucial essentials as to what it is. Nor is it difficult to understand how we may immensely mitigate the risks of nuclear energy.

Later in this series, we shall see that the industry has a great understanding of such risks. We shall see that it is already acting on these so that the risks of nuclear energy are very low.’

Let us look at some of the reality of nuclear energy and why it is in fact incredibly safe. And why we should happily accept the statistically minuscule risk presented by properly managed nuclear energy plants.

The Exposure is Safe

It would be foolish to deny that nuclear power plants expose its employees to some radiation. Or that there is no trace of radioactivity in the immediately surrounding areas. The real question is, are the levels of radiation in question significant enough to be an issue?

It should be noted that not all radiation is inherently dangerous. Very small quantities of low-level radiation are perfectly safe. The environment around us, the concrete in our buildings and our own bodies constantly expose us to radiation.

And as mentioned before, our own bodies have protections against low levels of radiation.

Quantifying Radiation Exposure

What kind of radiation exposure can we expect living near nuclear energy production facilities? What kind of exposure would one expect if they worked in one of these power plants? Let us find out and compare this exposure to other forms of readily accepted radiation exposure.

We first need a way to quantify radiation exposure.  We will use the SI unit known as the sievert, usually abbreviated by the symbol Sv. This is named after Rolf Maximilian Sievert, the Swedish medical physicist.

He is well known for his work on radiation dose measurement. He is also known for his research on the biological effects of radiation.

Rolf Maximilian Sievert
Rolf Maximilian Sievert

The sievert represents the health risk of a given dose of radiation in terms of the probability of radiation-induced cancer. Such that one sievert represents a 5.5% chance of eventually developing cancer.

Radiation can cause other potential problems. But unless one is exposed to very high doses of radiation, cancer is what most people worry about.

Other complications can arise but are either less likely or highly circumstantial. Hence, we shall focus mostly on cancer.

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