Radiation fears shouldn’t deter nuclear power

Rolf Westgard- Lecturer on energy topics, University's Lifelong Learning Program

In 2012, the UN General Assembly asked the United Nations Scientific Committee on the Effects of Atomic Radiation, or UNSCEAR, to undertake a “full assessment of the levels of exposure and radiation risks” regarding the Fukushima accident.

UNSCEAR is the independent international body set up in the 1950s to give impartial advice on the effects of radiation on people and the environment. Released this month, the UNSCEAR assessment concluded that “the rates of cancer or future hereditary diseases in Japan were unlikely to show any discernible rise in affected areas, because the radiation doses people received were too low.”

Although upwards of 20,000 people died or are still missing from the earthquake and tsunami, there have been no reported deaths from radiation at Fukushima. Prompt evacuations from the area around the nuclear plants helped ensure that radiation exposure was reduced to levels that were “low to very low.”

The report said lifetime additional radiation exposures to the public in the Fukushima region were expected to be less than what Japanese receive from natural background radiation.

Those conclusions were supported by a January report from the World Health Organization, which said for the general Fukushima area, “the predicted risks are low, and no observable increases in cancer rates above baseline rates are anticipated.”

As a result of Fukushima, Japan shut down nearly all of its 50 nuclear reactors, which supplied 30 percent of its electric power. Japan was then forced to switch to fossil fuels for electric power generation. Air pollution from fossil fuel power plants causes far more sickness and deaths from pollution per unit of electricity produced than carbon-free nuclear plants do.

There is no longer any chance Japan will meet its commitments in the 2009 Copenhagen Accord to cut greenhouse gas emissions from 1990 levels by 25 percent by 2020. The country’s 2012 total for greenhouse gas emissions was about 1.3 billion tons, making Japan now the fifth-largest emitter worldwide.

The Three Mile Island incident in Pennsylvania raised irrational fears about nuclear energy and interrupted nuclear expansion in the U.S., exposing us to additional pollution from fossil fuels. Xcel Energy is under increasing pressure to limit output at its Sherco coal plant, which burns more than 30,000 tons of coal per day, releasing 8 million tons of carbon dioxide per year, not to mention mercury and sulfur emissions. 

There are a dozen new generation Westinghouse AP1000 nuclear plants under construction in China, Georgia and South Carolina. One AP1000 could replace the Sherco facility with round-the-clock electric power, rain or shine, night and day, wind or calm.

It’s time to reconsider that possibility.