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Nuclear Energy Safety

QUESTION: Nuclear Energy Safety -- Are Nuclear Power Plants Really Safe?


Let’s face it, there’s a fright factor when it comes to nuclear energy. Some think of devastating accidents such as the Fukushima nuclear plant in Japan. Some think of “China Syndrome” meltdowns popularized in the movie of the same name. Some think of Homer Simpson at the controls of the Springfield Nuclear Power Plant. And some think of the horrific effects of atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki at the end of World War II.

After more than 50 years of nuclear energy generation in the U.S., including more than 3,500- reactor-years of operation, there are no radiation-related health effects linked to the industry. Numerous studies show that U.S. nuclear power plants effectively protect the public’s health and safety.

Nuclear plants are also safe for their workers. In fact, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, it’s safer to work at a nuclear power plant than in real estate, at a grocery store, or at a fast food restaurant.

What about those terrible accidents at Three Mile Island and Chernobyl? Can’t those types of accidents happen again?

It’s impossible for nuclear power plants in the U.S. to have an accident like Chernobyl. As we’ve learned, unlike Chernobyl, all U.S. reactors are designed to be self-limiting. This means that when the temperature within the reactor gets too high, the nuclear fission process is automatically suppressed so the energy level cannot spike -- under any circumstances. In addition, reactors in the U.S. and other countries have containment structures designed and tested to contain any force of energy released in any accident situation.

Nuclear Energy Safety– Nuclear Reactors and Nuclear Cores
It is physically impossible for a U.S. commercial reactor to explode like a nuclear bomb. The concentration of uranium within the reactor fuel is far too low to be explosive and all U.S. commercial reactors are designed to shut themselves down. Not even a “rocket scientist” with unfettered access to a commercial reactor or its nuclear fuel can make it explode like a nuclear bomb.

OK, instead of an explosion, what about damage to the nuclear core? Isn’t that what happened at Three Mile Island?

The probability of nuclear core damage in a U.S. commercial reactor is extremely low. Because of the lessons learned and additional precautions taken after the accident at Three Mile Island, assessments performed for the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission determined that the risk of core damage for an individual plant is approximately once in 100,000 years. For new reactors with enhanced designs, the risk of core damage is once in a million years.

And remember, a nuclear accident does not mean nuclear calamity. As previously discussed, every nuclear plant has an extremely strong pressure vessel and containment building that encloses the reactor. In addition, there are multiple safety features designed to limit the damage and radiation exposure from any type of nuclear core failure.

Many people are surprised to learn what really happened at Three Mile Island. In that event, half of the nuclear fuel in the reactor melted and the rest was severely damaged. However, the containment worked, and no one inside or outside the plant was harmed in any way.

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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