Professor David Ruzic of the University of Illinois debunks the myths about nuclear energy in this live lecture he gave to high school seniors and college students, emphasizing the need for nuclear power and countering its common objections.

Prof. Ruzic’s other videos on his Youtube channel have much more detail on each topic and this lecture is meant as an overview.

Live Lecture: Dispelling the Myths of Nuclear Energy. July 26, 2021.
Professor David Ruzic, Abel Bliss Professor of Engineering
Department of Nuclear, Plasma, and Radiological Engineering, The University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

Lecture: Dispelling the Myths about Nuclear Energy

Here are some key points of Prof. Ruzic’s lecture.

The sources of the U.S. energy use

What percentage of the U.S. energy use is from solar and wind combined?

As of 2019, it’s only 3.6%.

What percentage of the U.S. energy use is from fossil fuels?

As of 2019, it’s 80%.

So there’s still a long way to go if we worry about global warming and want to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

Prof. Ruzic shows a table comparing the U.S. energy sources between 2006 vs 2019. Here are the numbers.

Energy Source, 2006 (%), 2019 (%)

  • Oil, 39.8, 36.9
  • Natural Gas, 22.4, 32.2
  • Coal, 22.5, 11.3 (x0.5)
  • Nuclear, 8.2, 8.5
  • Wind, 2.6, 0.26 (x10)
  • Hydroelectric, 2.9, 2.6
  • Wood (scraps), 2.1, 2.2
  • Ethanol/BioDiesel, 0.76, 2.3 (x4)
  • Solar, 0.07, 1.0 (x15)
  • Garbage, 0.40, 0.50
  • Geothermal, 0.35, 0.20

There are great improvements in the energy use from wind and solar, right?

Actually, no. Here are the last five years’ numbers below.

Energy Source, 2014 (%), 2019 (%)

  • Oil, 34.9, 36.9
  • Natural Gas, 27.5, 32.2
  • Coal, 18.0, 11.3
  • Nuclear, 8.3, 8.5
  • Wind, 1.7, 0.26 (x1.5)
  • Hydroelectric, 2.5, 2.6
  • Wood (scraps), 2.5, 2.2
  • Ethanol/BioDiesel, 2.1, 2.3
  • Solar, 0.4, 1.0 (x2.5)
  • Garbage, 0.50, 0.50
  • Geothermal, 0.20, 0.20

As you can see the progression has slowed down dramatically.

Prof. Ruzic asks “Nuclear power generates 20% of the electricity we use. And it produces no CO2. So why we don’t use more of this? It doesn’t depend on the wind blowing or it being daytime. What are the objections to nuclear power?”

The objections to nuclear power

  • Radiation
  • Accidents
  • Nuclear waste

And here are the myths around these:

  • Radiation: there will be dangerous mutations – we’ll end up with three eyes!
  • Accidents: the nuclear reactors could meltdown and blow up like atomic bombs!
  • Nuclear waste: theres no place to put nuclear waste. It will be a burden on society forever.

Debunking these myths about nuclear power

1. Radiation myth

Prof. Ruzic asks: “compared to background levels, how much radiation is given off by a nuclear power plant during normal operation?”

The answer is, none. Zero. No radiation is released at all, during the normal operation of a nuclear power plant.

In a nuclear power plant, all of the radioactive material is contained and extremely well shielded. Even a coal power plant gives off some radiation (not much to worry about, though), but a nuclear power plant does not.

Debunking the myths about Nuclear Energy: Nuclear Power Plant
Debunking the myths about Nuclear Energy: During the normal operation of a nuclear power plant, no radiation is given off compared to background levels. Image by Kurt K. from Pixabay

Prof. Ruzic then actually operates a Geiger counter (see notes 1) to show there’s always some amount of background radiation on Earth.

He says “we always live in the world in a bath of ionizing radiation. If you are worried about radiation, you should compare it to the background levels”.

An average of 15,000 gamma rays go through a human’s body every second.

You get 300 mRem (see notes 2) per year naturally. Much more if you live in higher elevations, or even fly on planes. Because there’s less protective atmosphere above you if you live in a city like Denver, U.S., or when you traveling in an aircraft.

Only 0.005% of the average American’s yearly radiation dose comes from nuclear power – 100 times less than we get from coal, 200 times less than a cross-country flight.

2. Accidents myth

Nuclear power plants have no radioactive emissions. Even in the event of an accident like the Three Miles Island, which was the most significant accident in U.S. commercial nuclear power plant history, people around received only 1.5 mRem of extra radiation.

For comparison, a chest x-ray typically gives a dose of about 10 mRem, and a full-body CT gives a dose of 1 rem (1,000 mRem) ionizing radiation to a human (source).

So, what about the Chernobyl disaster?

According to Prof. Ruzic, the worst nuclear disaster in history, the Chernobyl disaster can’t happen in the U.S. or any other developed country for two (very good) reasons:

  1. Containment buildings: a containment building is an extremely strong structure enclosing a nuclear reactor. All the nuclear power plants in the world have one. Guess what: the Cernobyl power plant didn’t has a containtment building around it (and also the other former Soviet Union nuclear power plants didn’t have any). These structures don’t break even a jet airplane crashes into them – and it has been tested (Prof. Ruzic shows a real test of a jet crashing into a containtment building). So, if something goes wrong inside, no radiation get out.
  2. Modern reactors are moderated and cooled by the very same water. If the water leaks or boils away, the reactor stops. The Chernobyl reactor (you guessed it) didn’t work in that way – it was cooled by water, but moderated by blocks of carbon.
Chernobyl nuclear reactor
Debunking the myths about Nuclear Energy: On 26 April 1986, Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant’s reactor No. 4 was exploded. It is considered the worst nuclear disaster in history and is one of only two nuclear energy disasters rated at seven (major accident – the maximum severity) on the International Nuclear Event Scale, the other being the 2011 Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster after the Tōhoku earthquake in Japan. There was no containment building enclosing the Chernobyl reactor.

The 2nd item above needs a bit more explanation.

To be able to achieve fission, you have to moderate (slow down) neutrons, otherwise, you can’t sustain the fission reaction. There you have a few options. You can use water or blocks of graphite (carbon) to slow down neutrons, for example.

We also need water to cool the reactor. Water also turns into steam that turns the turbines that produce electricity.

In modern nuclear reactors, the cooling water is also the moderator – it also slows down the neutrons. So, a meltdown like the one that occurred in the Chernobyl reactor is physically impossible. When the water is gone, the fission reaction stops.

In the Chernobyl reactor, they used blocks of graphite as the moderator. So when the water was gone, the chain reaction didn’t stop.

Can a nuclear power plant explode like an atomic bomb?

No, it’s physically impossible.

This is one of the most common myths about nuclear energy. Nuclear reactors don’t (can’t) explode and this is even true for the Chernobyl reactor.

To make an atomic bomb, you need the fissile isotope of uranium (U-235) to be 90%. To make a nuclear power plant, you only need it to be 3% (see the table below).

Isotope, natural, reactor, bomb

  • U-235, 0.7%, 3%, 90%
  • U-238, 99.3%, 97%, 10%

To make an atomic bomb, you have to enrich the U-235.

If the reaction continues when the coolant is gone, like in Chernobyl, you may get an explosion, right. But it won’t be a nuclear explosion, it’ll be a chemical explosion (like a dynamite explosion). That’s what exactly happened in Chernobyl. It was not a nuclear explosion, even the other reactor in the complex didn’t get affected by the blast.

The Soviet government built a containment structure around the reactor after the accident. If they built it in the first place, we wouldn’t be talking about Chernobyl now.

Fukushima

The disaster came after a giant 40-feet (13 meters) tsunami and that was beyond the design considerations. Despite that, the reactor defense systems worked as expected.

There was also a containment building and it survived the earthquake and even the tsunami. The problem was, the spent fuel that was kept in a pool was outside of the containment building.

The backup generators which make electricity to keep the pumps that deliver water to the pool going were designed to run for six hours. It is a long time enough in fact, but because of the horrible disaster, after these batteries died, the spent fuel got uncovered and got hot.

Because of the way spent fuel was being stored, some radioactive material was released after the tsunami.

But, the levels were quite low, and again, there was no nuclear explosion. And the operations to clean up the released radioactive material quickly started after the accident.

The giant earthquake and tsunami killed around 18,000 people. The Fukushima reactor killed no one.

The Fukushima reactor was quite old (it was about 40 years old at the time of the accident) and badly designed. The reactors in the United States or other places in the world are different. For example,

  • All the U.S. nuclear power plants have hydrogen absorbers since the Three Miles Island accident in 1979. Hydrogen explosions were one of the things that caused the release of the radioactive material in Fukushima were hydrogen explosions.
  • New nuclear power plants (Generation 3 or Gen-III, since 2000) are passively safe which means no water pumping (hence no batteries) needed – simple convection of air cools the reactor and spent fuel when the reactor stops.

3. Nuclear waste myth

The nuclear waste myth is one of the most prevalent myths about nuclear energy.

Do you know how much high-level nuclear waste has been produced in the U.S. in the last 63 years?

  • A. Enough to fill a small mountain
  • B. Enough to fill up a small town
  • C. Enough to fill up a large building
  • D. Enough to fill up a big room

The answer is D. The high-level nuclear waste produced in the U.S. in the last 63 years (since 1958) is only enough to fill up a big room.

The reactor vessel itself is radioactive true, but these kinds of waste are low-level nuclear waste, which means they typically short half-life.

96 % of nuclear “waste” can be recycled. Only the fission products in the nuclear waste are extremely radioactive, but

  • The amount made is very small
  • They are in sold form
  • They can be stored in a dry mountain – or just in “dry cask storage” right where they are.
Myths about nuclear energy: Dry cask storage
Myths about nuclear energy: Dry cask storage is a method of storing high-level radioactive waste. Image: Duke Energy Nuclear Information Center website
Zwilag Cask storage hall
Myths about nuclear energy: Zwilag Dry Cask storage hall. All the more than 50 years of Swiss nuclear waste is stored in this room. The dry cask storage hall, 68 meters (223 feet) long, 41 meters (135 feet) wide, and almost 20 meters (66 feet) high, lies at the heart of the interim storage facility. This hall is used to store vitrified high-level waste from the reprocessing plants and spent fuel elements from the Swiss nuclear power plants. The highly radioactive vitrified waste and spent fuel elements are stored in a tightly sealed transport and storage cask (TLB). At full capacity, this hall has room for around 200 standing casks. Image: zwilag.ch

Furthermore, the nuclear “waste” in these facilities might be considered valuable for the next generation of Nuclear reactors in the future.

Transportation of nuclear waste

Contrary to the popular belief, getting the spent fuel to the mountain (where they are being stored permanently) is extremely safe.

Prof. Ruzic shows a video from the 70s (about at the 30th minute in the video above). They strap some rocket engines at the back of the truck that carries the nuclear waste and crashed the truck into a giant cement block. The canister that contains nuclear waste survived – in fact, there was very little damage on it.

Then they repeated the test with a truck going 80 mph. Again, the canister easily survived.

What if after crashing the canister landed on a railroad track? They tested that scenario too, a rocket-propelled locomotive crashed into the canister, and again, the canister survived.

They made other tests – for example, they threw the canister into a pool of burning jet fuel. Even after being in the burning jet fuel for 1.5 hours, the canister survived.

Every time, the canister survived. It did not leak, it did not lose pressure. It was still intact.

Conclusion

  • Nuclear power plants may be expensive to build, but they are not dangerous to the public.
  • The common objections against nuclear energy are the result of the population is not educated on the subject.
  • When we talk about waste, we should compare it to other types of energy production i.e. coal and oil consumption.Praticularly the CO2 emissions from fossil fuels.
  • The energy use of developing countries is increasing greatly – so if they use fossil fuels (and they mostly do), the consequences will be horribble for our planet. Nuclear is a clean option to this. Solar and wind are still in very tiny levels compared to fossil fuels. If we really want to combat global warming, we need everything we’ve got, and we’re going to need nuclear power.

Notes

  1. A Geiger counter is an instrument used for detecting and measuring ionizing radiation.
  2. The roentgen equivalent man (or rem) is a large dose of radiation, so the millirem (mrem), which is one thousandth of a rem, is often used for the dosages commonly encountered, such as the amount of radiation received from medical x-rays and background sources.

Sources

M. Özgür Nevres
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