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Worried About Nuclear Safety? Don’t Lose Sleep

Marlene Delaney, SE, PE

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Oct 23, 2019

After the release of the HBO miniseries “Chernobyl” and the accident at Fukushima seared in recent memory, there is an increased focus on the potential dangers of nuclear power and the environmental impact. More than ever, it’s important to address the misconceptions around nuclear safety and future of nuclear energy.

The 1986 nuclear disaster in Ukraine—the worst meltdown in history—resulted in at least 32 deaths and, for some, became evidence that nuclear energy was inherently unsafe. But Chernobyl happened because of the lax safety standards and poor design including:

  • Procedures were not followed
  • No containment building surrounding the reactor
  • The reactor was unstable at low power due to the control rod design

Lately, the debate about nuclear safety has been reinvigorated and fears that a similar disaster could happen in the United States are heightened by the nearly 100 nuclear reactors located near major cities.

Fortunately, no US reactors follow the same design or procedures as Chernobyl. These plants have comprehensive procedures for emergency preparedness including alerts and notifications for the public. Modern reactors have reinforced steel-concrete containments domes that would not be so easily penetrated by a steam explosion such as the Chernobyl one. Since the Chernobyl accident the International Atomic Energy Association (IAEA) has adopted many security-related legal instruments to increase nuclear safety and security on a global and domestic level.

After Fukushima event in 2011, the US nuclear industry underwent an extensive effort to provide for emergency back-up systems and equipment so that a disaster of even greater magnitude than Fukushima would not have an adverse impact on a plant.

The Future of Nuclear Energy

The United States generates the most energy using nuclear power plants followed by France, China, Russia, and South Korea. Nuclear energy supplies about 11 percent of the world's electricity. And, although nuclear energy isn't considered renewable energy, it does not emit any of the greenhouse gases that contribute to global warming. Currently, coal generates 44% of our electricity, and is the single biggest air polluter in the US. While wind and solar power are renewable energy sources, they are not always available and require back-up power to be online when the weather doesn’t cooperate. Nuclear power functions at a higher capacity than renewable energy sources or fossil fuels, making it extremely reliable.

US nuclear power plants need to constantly evolve to adapt to changing safety and security standards. We’re actively involved with industry policy and research to bring the most risk-informed decision-making to our clients. Whether it’s innovative software solutions to monitor hazards, physical security consulting or structural engineering – we’re here to help the nuclear power industry adapt to those changes.