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Nuclear Energy Radiation

QUESTION: Nuclear Energy -- What about Radiation?


If there was no such thing as a safe level of radiation then it would be dangerous to breathe air or eat food. Every human being is continuously exposed to different forms of radiation every moment of their life. Multiple studies have established that the risk associated with low-dose radiation from natural and man-made sources, including nuclear power plants, is extremely small. Radiation is strictly monitored and controlled at all U.S. nuclear power plants to minimize plant emissions and worker exposure.

But doesn’t the whole idea of monitoring and controlling radiation emissions mean that radiation is actually escaping? Is that acceptable at any level?

Nuclear Energy Radiation – Power Plants vs. Natural Sources
The Nuclear Regulatory Commission reports that people living close to a nuclear power plant receive, at most, an additional one “millirem” of radiation exposure a year. To put this in perspective, one millirem is one thousandth of the radiation exposure from a single whole-body CT scan. The average American is exposed to 620 millirem of radiation every year. About 300 millirem come from natural sources, such as cosmic rays, uranium in the Earth’s crust, and radon gas in the atmosphere. Most of the rest comes from medical procedures, such as x-ray machines, and a variety of consumer products we use every day, including glass, ceramics, jewelry, furniture, fertilizers, cigarettes, and foods. Here are some other causes of radiation that we all encounter in our everyday lives:
  1. A diagnostic x-ray machine (patients average 39 millirem on a series of x-rays that actually use radiation to look inside your body / x-ray technicians average 500 millirem per year);
  2. A commercial airline flight (passengers average 1 millirem per 1,000 miles flown because of high altitude cosmic/particle exposure / flight crews average 220 millirem per year); and
  3. A job at Grand Central Station in New York (employees average 120 millirem per year from the radiation in the granite walls / According to PBS Frontline, the U.S. Capitol Building “is so radioactive, due to the high uranium content in its granite walls, it could never be licensed as a nuclear power reactor site.").
How about this one? We can get up to 2 millirem of radiation for every 8 hours that we sleep next to someone, due to exposure from the naturally radioactive potassium in the other person’s body. Again, for dramatic comparison, living near a nuclear power plant will give you only one millirem of extra radiation – per year. Returning to what happened at Three Mile Island over three decades ago, there is no evidence that the worst nuclear power plant accident in the United States harmed a single person or had any negative effect on the environment. More than a dozen health studies and continuous environmental monitoring have found no effect on the health of the people or the environment around the Pennsylvania plant. In fact, Three Mile Island is still operating today with broad support from the local community.

Content created in association with the Nuclear Energy Policy Group at The Heritage Foundation, and ColdWater Media, Inc. Copyright 2011 – All Rights Reserved in the Original.

Facts derived from the Nuclear Energy Institute,, including specifically, “Myths and Facts about Nuclear Energy” (August 2010).

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