The U.S. media has been dominated by news of mass shootings, terrorism, and the U.S. presidential election, yet a major piece of news flew largely under the radar this spring. A new U.S. nuclear power plant went online for the first time in two decades, officially bringing the nuclear sector into the 21st century.
On Monday, May 23, at 2:16 a.m. EDT, the Tennessee Valley Authority’s (TVA) Watts Bar Unit 2 reactor achieved a sustained nuclear fission. And on June 3, the energy produced by the TVA Watts Bar Unit 2 was hooked up to the power grid.
It’s the first new reactor to come online since 1996, and the first to meet the strict new nuclear guidelines passed after the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Plant disaster in 2011. While support for the nuclear sector is growing, albeit slowly, in the United States, the public remains deeply skeptical of this new technology, even as alternative energy from wind and solar farms becomes more popular.
Even though many people are terrified by the spectre of nuclear energy, meltdowns, and leaking radiation, the nuclear energy sector is relatively safe compared to other major industries.
Why Does Nuclear Energy Have Such a Nasty Reputation?
In 2013, the last year data was available, U.S. workers suffered 3,007,300 occupational illnesses and injuries. That might seem like a large number, but workplace accidents have actually been decreasing for decades. From 1972 to 2011, the rate of work injury accidents dropped from 10.9 per 100 workers to just 3.4 per 100 workers. And despite their reputation for mortal peril, because of the strict regulations at nuclear power plants, serious workplace accidents at such facilities are quite rare.
Workers are far more likely to be injured or killed on a construction site or while working in an oil field. One study from the Ohio Safety and Health Administration found that out of 4,585 workplace fatalities nationwide in 2013, 20.2% were caused by construction accidents.
A major OECD study on fatal accidents in the energy supply chain concluded that accidents, including severe accidents, were far less common in the nuclear energy sector. The study looked at 1,870 energy-related accidents between 1969 and 2000, which amounted to more than 80,000 deaths. In one particularly tragic accident, an estimated 30,000 people died when the Chinese Banqiao/Shimantan dam failed in 1975. In the nuclear chain, the study only found one major nuclear fatality event — Chernobyl.
When comparing results, the OECD study even removed Chinese accidents from the comparative results, because the number of fatal accidents was unusually high. Here are the results, measured in fatalities per Gigawatt-year of electric power (GWey):
- Coal: 0.157 1 fatalities/GWey
- Oil: 0.132
- Natural Gas: 0.085
- Liquid Petroleum Gas (Propane): 14.896
- Hydroelectric: 10.285
- Nuclear: 0.0
That’s right, the effective comparative rate of fatalities in the nuclear sector was zero, even including notorious incidents like the Three Mile Island accident in New York. Of course, while the number of fatal accidents in the nuclear industry are far, far below the rate of accidents in the rest of the energy sector, the nuclear industry has been held back by pervasive NIMBY attitudes — not in my backyard.
And it’s easy to see why. No matter what the numbers say, the name Chernobyl will forever be synonymous with disaster and death. Likewise, names like Three Mile Island and Fukushima still possess ominous overtones in the public imagination.
The Future of U.S. Nuclear Energy in the 21st Century
Proponents of nuclear energy say that with the threat of global warming, there is simply no other practical way to both meet our voracious energy needs and wean off fossil fuels.
Today, just 99 nuclear reactors at 61 power plants produce 20% of the domestic energy supply.
According to Westinghouse Nuclear, “A solar farm spread across 30 square miles produces essentially the same 1,000 megawatts of electricity generated by a single nuclear plant. Similarly, it would take 270 square miles of 50-story wind turbines, operating at 30 percent capacity, to generate 1,000 megawatts.
“For wind turbines to generate the 20 percent of U.S. electricity capacity provided by nuclear plants, an area the size of the state of West Virginia would be needed.”
Back in Tennessee, the workers who brought the new $4.7 billion reactor online are celebrating while also reassuring nearby residents that they always put safety first.
“While this achievement is important, safety remains our top priority and we will now move forward with fully integrating the seventh unit into the fleet with that focus in mind,” said TVA Nuclear Chief Joe Grimes in a statement.