In our era, the media have almost complete control over public perception, and the messages they transmit are heavily influenced by factors other than scientific analyses. As a result, there can be a vast difference between public perception and scientific analyses of risk.
Nuclear energy is a well- established resource with the potential to provide energy in the form of electricity, district heat and process heat (i.e. for industry). According to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) the nuclear energy uses may contribute to climate change mitigation and to the actual electricity generation gap. However this potential will be entirely beneficial only if nuclear power plants can meet the challenges of national safety requirements, economic competitiveness and public acceptance.
Not knowing the size of the safety margin makes it difficult to predict how vulnerable other plants would be to natural disasters like earthquakes that exceed their “safe shutdown earthquake”. This is a major concern now, because new information on seismic hazards indicates that many nuclear plants may be subject to greater earthquakes risks that they were designed to handle.
After the Fukushima accident, U.S. industry spokes-people claimed that a Fukushima type event was very unlikely to happen in the United States because few U.S. plants are vulnerable to tsunamis. This claim misses a vital point: every nuclear plant is vulnerable to some degree of natural disasters like earthquakes, floods and high winds or to deliberate disasters (including terrorist attacks) and the possibility always exists that an unexpectedly sever event will occur.
“The risk of the public from such occurrences depends on the likelihood of such extreme events and on how plants would respond if such events occur. Significant uncertainties exist in regard to both factors.”
It is highly unlikely that a technological magic bullet will inoculate nuclear power against the eventuality of another Fukushima. Regulators and the public worldwide should work together to come to a consensus regarding the level of risk of nuclear power that is acceptable, and nuclear energy should adjust to this new higher design basis or face obsolescence.
Environmental & Human Risks of Nuclear Power
From an environmental point of view, the two most important reasons for public concern are reactor accidents leading to very large releases of radioactivity, and the disposal of radioactivity waste, which is widely viewed as a very difficult unsolved problem.
Hundreds of thousands of gallons of high-level radioactive waste have leaked from government controlled storage tanks, causing toxic fission products and Plutonium to enter the soil and air. Antinuclear proponents frequently mention the fact that Plutonium, in particular, is so toxic and dangerous that its use in commerce is immoral. A good example of its possible long-term impacts is Plutonium-239, with a half-life of 24,360 years, which requires isolation for very long periods (250,000 years) in order to assure adequate protection.
Furthermore, if radioactive waste were to get into ground water or rivers, this could affect food chains. Although the dose produced through this indirect exposure is much smaller than a direct exposure dose, which means that there is a greater potential for a larger population to be exposed.
On the other hand, some studies show increase in leukaemia among children living near to nuclear power stations. A good example is a research made in Germany among children living within 5 Km of all German nuclear plants. This study suggested that high-levels of infant leukaemia might be due to radionuclides incorporated to pregnant women living near nuclear reactor affecting embryos and foetuses.
Therefore, as Mark Z. Jacobson said: “Every dollar spent on nuclear is one less dollar spent on clean renewable energy and one more dollar spent on making the world a comparatively dirtier and a more dangerous place, because nuclear power and nuclear weapons go hand in hand.”