Myths & facts about nuclear energy


centrale nucléaire

Fear is a great motivator. It sells papers, it creates grant money, it makes reputations. Nuclear fear caused the Japanese to surrender and kept the Soviet army at bay. It was a motivator for ecological protection and it stopped nuclear power construction in its tracks.

But fear can be an obstacle in the search for Truth when it turns nuclear benefits into mythical problems: 

Myth: Man created radiation. It’s unnatural, little-understood, an unprecedented threat to the earth.

Facts: Radiation has been with us since the dawn of time. Life evolved in a sea of radiation. Our soil, our water and our bodies are naturally radioactive. Radioactive processes light the sun and the stars, keep the earth’s core molten and our environment livably warm. Radiation is better understood than most environmental challenges. Tests show it is probably essential to life.

Myth: We’re fouling our nest and degrading the gene pool by continually adding to the earth’s radioactivity.

Facts: Fission changes long-lived uranium into shorter-lived fission products, ultimately decreasing earth’s radioactivity. All the radioactivity we produce is less than the natural decay that continually decreases earth’s radioactivity each year.

Myth: The quantity of nuclear waste is so great! What can we do with it?

Facts: Nuclear plants produce less than a millionth of the volume of waste from an equivalent coal-fired plant, so it can be put into sealed drums and controlled, rather than dumped into the environment. The 50,000 tons of radwaste destined for Yucca Mtn was produced by all 103 U.S. nuclear plants over the past 40 years. This is less than 2 pounds per person served. This is small compared to wastes produced by most other industries, or even our homes. The waste volumes associated with construction and operation of solar, wind, and other renewables are larger, on a per-kilowatt-hour basis, than nuclear wastes.

Myth: Radwaste stays toxic for thousands of years. Humanity has never faced such a long-term hazard.

Facts: Radioactive wastes continually decrease in toxicity, whereas other toxic wastes like mercury, lead, arsenic, selenium, cadmium, chromium, etc. retain full toxicity forever. After 500 years, you could eat a pound of it. We bury it 2000 feet underground. The top 2000 feet of U.S. soil contain millions of times more lethal doses of natural poisons than all the nuclear power waste together. We make 10,000 times more lethal doses of chlorine each year, and put it in our drinking water to kill germs.

Myth: Shipping these “Mobile Chernobyls” (spent fuel casks) past schools and homes is a terrible risk.

Facts: These casks pose no significant risk. They are nearly indestructible, being tested by collision, explosives and fire. They contain no liquids and can’t “go critical” like a reactor. In tests, armor-piercing missiles blew a hole in one side, but the small amount of radioactivity released was not harmful.

Myth: Nuclear power is an especially unforgiving technology. A momentary slipup, and it’s catastrophe.

Facts: Just the opposite. Nuclear plants are uniquely robust. They can resist earthquakes, hurricanes, power loss, sabotage and operator errors. Even if the core were to melt, even with containment breached, analyses and tests show that few, if any, persons would be seriously injured or killed. Hundreds of nuclear plants worldwide, operating for decades, have confirmed this.

Myth: But Chernobyl killed thousands of people and disabled millions.

Facts: Not true. Thirty workers and firefighters at the plant were killed. But a 16-year investigation by the UN and WHO concluded that there were no public radiation deaths or injuries No significant increase in any illness resulted except for 2000 cases of childhood thyroid cancer, a highly treatable disease from which there have been few if any deaths. But fear of radiation led to unnecessary evacuation of large population groups, causing unemployment, depression, alcoholism and suicides. In the year after the accident, there were 100,000 additional abortions downwind of the accident, presumably in unwarranted fear of bearing a “nuclear mutant.” Deformed “Chernobyl victims” used to raise money for relief were later found to be unrelated to the accident. Some were from far away, others were deformed before the accident. 

Many people maintain contradictory beliefs about nuclear matters. For example.:

1. The UK applies a carbon tax to fossil fuels, to encourage power sources that do not generate global warming gases. When asked if this tax would be applied to nuclear plants that generate no such gases, the Energy Minister replied, “Of course! Otherwise nuclear would have an unfair advantage over coal.”

2. Many patients at the Taipei Municipal Hospital are given a diagnostic “radioactive cocktail,” assured that it will not hurt them. After some hours, some of the cocktail is excreted in the urine, which is collected in a tank to allow the 8-hour half-life to decay before disposal. On Jan 14, 2003, some of this urine was spilled, creating a “radioactive contamination emergency.” The treatment center and the intensive care unit were shut down and sealed off, the press reported the “health scare,” and a formal incident investigation was performed. The radioactivity was deemed not harmful when all of it, fresh, was inside a person’s body, but was a full-blown public health emergency when a small portion of it, decayed for many hours, was spilled.

3. The European Community has been struggling with the fact that many substances are naturally radioactive, some in excess of regulations for nuclear facilities. Current regulations address this by requiring that materials released from nuclear facilities be less than 1% as radioactive as materials with “natural” radioactivity, even when the radioactivity is from the same radioisotope.

4. Soil over most of the earth contains uranium, some in quite high amounts. Careful studies show that this has not harmed the health of inhabitants. When this uranium is processed for use for in nuclear power, most of the radioactivity, is removed, leaving “depleted uranium.” This depleted uranium is thereafter falsely characterized as a special health hazard.

5. In many diverse cultures world-wide, natural radon spas have been used for centuries to treat a variety of illnesses. Patients are often sent there by physicians, with the treatment paid for by the national health insurance. The evidence for benefit is impressive. Yet, while spas boast of their high radon, elsewhere “radon police” warn people that radon in their homes, although much lower than at the spas, is a health hazard.

6. Nuclear power plants are forced to go to great extremes to reduce any potential environmental pollution to far below natural levels. Yet when it is suggested that coal miners should stop pushing the tops of mountains into pristine streams, it is objected that this would make coal plants uneconomical.

7. Europeans are particularly concerned about the safety of their food. Luxembourg prohibits the import of any irradiated food and inspects it at the borders. But the only sure test that food has not been irradiated is the presence of pathogens, So they test to sure there are pathogens.

8. An intensive program during the 1970s and 80s, in which the federal government participated, measured the release of radioactivity from molten reactor fuel and monitored its dispersion in the air. It was found that nearly all the radioactivity stayed bound in the fuel, or dissolved in the water, or plated out on adjacent structure. Very little escaped into the air, and that did not remain long in respirable form. This confirmed results of the Three Mile Island and Chernobyl accidents, where few if any fatalities occurred among the public. Yet government-sponsored “studies” are repeatedly released, claiming tens of thousands of deaths would result from such accidents, even hundreds of miles away.

9. The only way one can “predict” large numbers of deaths from a nuclear accident is to multiply the expected trivial individual radiation doses by very large populations assumed to be exposed. This practice has been called scientifically indefensible, even by the organizations who recommend it as a “prudent course.” Yet emergency plans are all based on such “predictions.”

10. ALARA, the practice of requiring that cumulative radiation dose by As Low As Reasonably Achievable, restrains workers from performing inspections (e.g. for leakage and corrosion) and preventive maintenance in radiation zones, decreasing assurance of plant safety in the name of “prudence.”

Kit de bienvenue – 01


Kit de bienvenue - 01

L'énergie nucléaire en mots simples

L'EFN répond aux questions des étudiants

“Hello, I am doing a project for science, which requires me to interview someone who is an expert on nuclear power. Can you give me information on nuclear power and why it is a clean energy if it is well managed? Thanks.”

EFN often receives questions from students, from school to university, preparing reports on nuclear energy and requesting information. This document is intended to answer student’s most frequently asked questions, and to help them prepare their reports about nuclear energy.


1. How were nuclear power plants discovered?

The first existing natural reactor was located at OKLO in Africa, long ago, almost 2 billion years ago. It was a natural reactor in Gabon, Africa. A nuclear reaction happened there naturally, and continued for thousands of years, with a nuclear chain reaction : the natural fission of uranium. Fifteen similar natural reactors have been found in Africa. Probably, there have been more such natural reactors in other areas of the world, which have not yet been discovered. This natural nuclear reaction was possible 2 billion years ago, but would not be possible today anymore because the proportion of uranium 235 in nature, which generates the natural fission, slowly decreases with time. The amount of natural radioactivity today is much smaller than it was when life first appeared on the planet, because natural radioactivity slowly decreases.

–> See answer to next question as concerns man-made nuclear reactions and power plants


2. Who were major contributors to nuclear power ?

– 1896 Henri Becquerel discovers radioactivity

– 1898 Pierre and Marie Curie discover uranium ore

– 1905 Einstein formulates the equivalence of mass and energy

– 1932 Chadwick discovers neutrons

– 1934 Irene and Frédéric Joliot-Curie discover artificial radioactivity

– 1934 Zsilard takes the first license on nuclear energy production

– 1938 Lise Meitner, Hahn and Strassmann show evidence of uranium fission

– 1939 Halban, Joliot-Curie and Kowarski take a French patent on nuclear energy production

– 1942 construction and start-up of the first critical assembly, by Robert Moon and Enrico Fermi (power 0.5 Watt)


3. What different kinds of nuclear reactors are there?

Actually and essentially (about 80% of the world nuclear electricity production) :

– PWR (Pressurized Water Reactor)

– BWR (Boiling Water Reactor)

– CANDU (heavy water moderated, light water cooled reactor)

– Research reactors (more highly enriched fuel, pond reactor)

Other technologies such as sodium fast neutron reactors (example : Monju in Japan, BN300 and BN600 in Russia, Phenix and Superphenix in France), lead reactors, helium reactors, graphite reactors (such as RBMK in former USSR), high temperature reactors (such as the PBMR being constructed in South Africa, the HTTR in Japan, and the GT-MHR being developed), and reactors operating with plutonium or thorium instead of uranium, have been used in the past, or are being developed for the future. The nuclear technology is now quite mature, especially for the water reactors, and is also constantly evolving and improving. Adding up the total number of years that nuclear reactor have been operating, gives more than 10 000 cumulated years of experience : quite a long experience of many of the basic types of reactors has now been accumulated.


4. What are the advantages of nuclear power?

It is a form of energy which :

– respects the environment (no contribution to the green-house effect)

– is highly dense (a small quantity of material produces a very large quantity of energy), therefore it uses only very small amounts of uranium or thorium which are very abundant in nature, in the Earth, and even in the ocean

– it produces very small quantity of wastes, which are confined, not rejected in nature like exhaust fumes of cars, and these waste decay with time, they are very radioactive only in the beginning, and afterwards, their radioactivity is quickly reduced as time passes

– has reserves of fuel for a long time and will be able to produce energy for long period (reserves of oil are only of a few decades) even with mass production, especially if fast neutron reactors are developed. Taking into account the amount of energy required by populations for a decent lifestyle, so called alternatives sources (wind and solar) are not at all able to produce the quantities needed, and in addition, at comparable cost (they are much more expensive and unfortunately too diluted).


5. What are some disadvantages of nuclear power?

If mis-handled some accidents, such as Chernobyl, may occur. However, Chernobyl was a major accident, but not the catastrophe related by the media.

Just some figures concerning release of radioactivity to atmosphere :

– military tests (USSR, US, …) Curies

– Mayak accidents (USSR) 120.000.000 Curies (medias never talk about it)

– Chernobyl (USSR) 65.000.000 Curies (42 died, but almost all of them were firemen having received very high doses without adequate protection INSIDE the building shortly after the accident)

– TMI (US, with better plants) 8 Curies (no one was injured nor died in this accident)

– Tokai Mura (Japan). 2 workers who made a major mistake received very high doses and died (and a third standing nearby in the same room was badly burnt), but no radioactive particles were released outside the site.

– France : no major accident in 40 years, 80% of its electricity is nuclear


6. What are some interesting facts about nuclear power ?

Essentially, I would mention two subjects :

– we are citizens of the world and we have to think about the future of the developing countries. If we assume that the future need of energy in these countries would be satisfied with fossil fuel (oil or coal), the atmosphere of our planet would be rapidly polluted to a non acceptable point for the future of humanity. From another hand, it is impossible to refuse the development to those countries : so, we have to develop small and safe nuclear reactors for the equipment of third world countries.

– in the 1960’s, radioprotection authorities decided to take into account the LNT theory (Linear No Threshold theory) for the development of radioprotection rules. This theory, based on the existing knowledge at that time, and by precaution, assumed that there is no radiation at all without harmful effect, and that even very small doses of radiation can affect our health, but proportionnally less. This decision leads to theoretical calculations about the effects of low doses of radiations, and to the possibility of frightening peoples even about very small doses of radiation, although such small levels of radiations have never been proved harmful (under 100 mSv received one-shot). Today, there are more and more scientists to say that, at natural levels that were already in nature before humans and any industry ever existed, radiations are not harmful. As an example, peoples living in Kerala (India), where natural radiation are over 30 to 50 times more than the average in the world, have an average life-time longer than other people in India (see the Kerala document in the “documents in english” section of EFN’s web site). An increasing amount of evidence even suggests that reasonably small natural doses of radiation could even be useful and necessary for our health. This phenomenon is called hormesis and is explained by the fact that our species has always in an environment of constant natural radiations and that our body’s chemistry has therefore adapted over millions of years to these radiations. Recent research suggests that natural amounts of radiation may be especially useful for the stimulation of our immune defenses and cell-repair mechanisms (see the LNT document in the “documents in english” section of EFN’s web site). However, this does not mean that we should be careless about nuclear energy, because very high doses of radiation are of course dangerous, can even be lethal, and should therefore be avoided.

I hope to have answered, briefly but correctly, your questions. Would you need more precisions, don’t hesitate to refer to the other documents available on our web site :

My name is Michel Noraz, I live in the beautiful French countryside near the sea in Normandy. I am retired. I want to leave a clean planet for the future generations, and I am very proud that my country has safely contributed to lower the pollution for the entire planet. Without nuclear energy, France would consume almost twice as much oil, coal and gas, and pollute much more the atmosphere, as is the case in many other countries with less nuclear energy. Other countries should also develop safe nuclear energy. If it is well handled, it can be very respectful of the environment.

Best regards.

Michel Noraz

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