We Were Once Terrified of Fire, Too

By Steven B. Krivit

The discovery of fire a million years ago must have been terrifying to cave men and women. Since that time, many people have died and much damage to the earth has occurred as a result of chemical energy released through fire. Nevertheless, that chemical energy found its place in the world, providing great benefits, and most people take it for granted. 

In stark contrast, humankind began to develop and use nuclear energy less than a hundred years ago. In 2010, nuclear energy provided 13.5 percent of worldwide electricity. 

On March 11, 2011, several of the Fukushima-Daiichi, Japan, nuclear power plants were damaged from a 9.0 magnitude earthquake and a 14 meter tsunami. The event dominated headlines and, with help from the mass media, re-sparked the public’s fears of nuclear radiation. Fifteen thousand people died as a direct result of the earthquake and tsunami. Nobody died from radiation exposure. Yet no governments have called for a moratorium on coastal development. However, some have on nuclear energy.

Some people wrongly believe that radiation has no place in a safe and healthy world. Yet radiation has always been around us. It comes from a variety of natural sources, and it is widely used in medicine.

The difference between radiation levels that pose a significant health risk and radiation levels that pose negligible or no risks has everything to do with emission rate, concentration, dispersion, distance from, and duration of exposure. Other key factors include the unique properties of each isotope, such as how it affects the body and how long it remains radioactive.

In light of the public’s fear, examining how nuclear energy has fared in terms of safety and environment is useful. Chemical energy and hydroelectric energy have caused their share of environmental damage and deaths.  

The undercurrent of fear affects all matters related to this industry. It must be addressed. Doing so requires examining the risks and consequences of nuclear energy and comparing it to other energy technologies, for none is perfect.  

The 1986 Chernobyl nuclear accident – by far the worst – is most instructive. In 2006, the Chernobyl Forum published an authoritative analysis of the health, environmental and socio-economic impacts of Chernobyl.

The report concluded that 31 emergency workers died as a direct consequence of their response to the Chernobyl accident. The Forum was unable to reliably assess the precise number of fatalities by radiation exposure. The best it was able to do was speculate based on the experience of other populations exposed to radiation. By 2002, 15 deaths were reported from among 4,000 people exposed to radiation and diagnosed with thyroid cancer. These data are in stark contrast to a number of other poorly referenced sources which have speculated on large numbers of radiation-related deaths from Chernobyl.

Clearly, the fears about nuclear energy are based on perceptions, imagined or engineered, and not on the consequences of actual events.

For example, in August 1975, the Banqiao hydroelectric dam in western Henan province, China, failed as a result of Typhoon Nina, 180,000 people died. Another example is that 1 billion gallons of oil from 21 disasters have been spilled in the oceans since 1967. A third example is that, in Nigeria, on Oct. 18, 1998, a natural gas pipeline explosion took the lives of 1,082 people.

Members of the public would benefit from scrutinizing the comparative safety and track record of clean, emission-free nuclear energy. The nuclear industry would benefit by helping the public learn the basic concepts and principles of nuclear technology. Nuclear energy can help achieve quality of life for those who don’t have it and help sustain it for those who do.

Steven B. Krivit is the senior editor of New Energy Times, an online magazine specializing in low-energy nuclear reaction research.  He also is the editor-in-chief of the 2011 Wiley and Sons Nuclear Energy Encyclopedia.

23 Responses to We Were Once Terrified of Fire, Too

  1. There is a difference between the use of fire and the use of nuclear energy that goes to the heart of public acceptance of nuclear energy. The fact is that an individual can work with fire directly, even if it is something as simple as lighting a candle, seeing the light and feeling the heat. One step removed, but still a commonplace use of fire controlled by the individual is driving an automobile. This direct and immediate involvement with fire breeds familiarity with its benefits and risks, and thus the acceptance of the dangers.
    Nuclear energy does not allow such direct, every-day experience for the ordinary person. It is “locked away” in awesome machines somewhere “out there.” Its processes are inherently not knowable in an immediate, direct way. Most people fear the unknown, and thus fear nuclear energy more than they fear fire, even though the latter is much more dangerous.
    I strongly support the use of nuclear energy, but I am an electrical engineer who is comfortable working with forces that cannot be seen (electricity, magnetics, radio waves). I am comfortable with stuff “out there” done on a grand scale. I am comfortable with comparing the dangers of generating electricity using fire vs. using nuclear reactions, and readily accept the safety of nuclear. But most people don’t have this same level of comfort.

  2. Verle Blaha

    Good article and reply. I uderstand the problem very well. As a pioneer in microwave ovens, we had to educate the users in understanding microwave energy and the use of the word “radiation”. The simplest explanation I used was to picture a bonfire. A flat rock in the fire could be used as the transfer of heat by conduction. Putting the roast directly above the fire, provided heat by convection. A reflecter oven sitting along side of the fire cooked by radiation. The sensitivity to heat by radiation can also be felt by holding your hand near your arm and this transfer is by radiation.
    Sixty five years ago I tested the radar output by placing my hand in front of the radar antenna. If it got hot I knew it was working. Nothing at all visible.

  3. James Greenidge

    In a nutshell, the nuclear industry is LONG LONG overdue assuaging these exaggerated often irrational public fears by a strong and constant advertising campaign “humanized” by a Carl Sagan-like spokesperson. The anti-nuclears have only keenly filled the void stupidity presented them. It’s amazing that the Oil and Gas agencies have so saturated the airwaves with promos — and Gas even taking head-on the qualms about fracking! Atomic energy — which has incurred far less death and public property damage — including accidents — in its existance than Oil and Gas do in a year woreldwide has nothing to apologize for! I hope the nuclear industry and atomic workers union get a handle on this!

    James Greenidge

  4. Brad Arnold

    I’m just glad our society can’t make electricity from people (like in the movie “The Matrix”) to save a few cents per kilowatt hour, or that’s what they would do. That is why LENR is so great: yeah it is clean, but it is also very cheap!

  5. I couldn’t disagree with you more.
    Comparing combustion to fission? —> lunacy
    You don’t know if you’ve been contaminated or not by radiation. Well, not without sophisticated machines and even then there are severe limitations in their ability to detect. Don’t make me bring up internal emitters. I’ve heard ‘fuel fleas’ are no picnic.
    You sure as $hit know when you’ve been burnt by fire. That, along with the fact that you can see it, smell it, feel it and hear it, makes radiation by comparison genuinely more scary and fire inherently more safe – it’s widespread use the reason for all the related carnage.
    Think about it like this: You have to get from point A to point B. Inbetween the points are AIDS filled syringes scattered on the floor (the syringes are fire – dangerous – yes) now imagine the same setup except the syringes are invisible and so sharp they stick you without feeling it (the invisible syringes are radiation). Did I mention you have no shoes on?
    I’m a nurse, so I do work with some kinds of radiation.. but it’s creation (and certainly it’s administration in hospitals) should only be on an absolutely necessary basis and we should be striving for ways to image and treat cancers differently and better anyway. And we are.
    I’m sure you guys are engineers – you must know about the alternatives. Are you really going to tell me that fission is absolutely necessary in that context? Or do you all feel some kind of loyalty to your particular type of energy conversion? Wise man once say, “It’s a hell of a way to boil water..”
    The age of commodity driven energy production and it’s stranglehold over populations around the world is drawing to a close. This is cause for celebration. People are already generating their own energy needs AND making money by feeding power back into the grid where I live. Their “inadequate” energy harvesting machines are literally paying for themselves as I write this.
    Food for thought:
    Great terrorist target
    Terribly potent pollutants that no one wants to deal with or can
    Terrible legacy for future generations
    No room for error
    Humans make errors
    Machines break down
    Fail safes fail – see Daiichi (3 consecutive fail safe failure in a row)
    Natural disasters occur everywhere
    Wars are being fought constantly and as your industry popularises itself in more volatile regions (eg. middle east), they will be fought closer and closer to nuclear power plants. Look at our relation ship with Germany – it seems unimagineable that the entire world was at war with them ~ 50 years ago. That could never happen again though, could it? We are entering another bleak financial time, there must be a race we can scape goat around here somewhere..
    Meteorites.. ok, that’s a bit ridiculous, but it would make say, a city destroying meteorite an even bigger problem if it mashed a power plant and atomised it’s fuel and spent fuel into the atmosphere for everyone to breath/consume.
    Combine these factors with an aggressive business model that strains safety measures and I just don’t want a bar of it. That’s not because I’m a cave man, which I find condescending in the extreme.

  6. Do you remember the mith of Prometheus ? He was a Titan, and was accused of “stealing” the fire fr the gods.
    He had not “discovered” how to use fire, he had “stolen” it.
    What is behind that mith ? There is the same fear of the progress, that you can find in the environmentalist ideology.
    At those times, like now, there was (and there is now), people who fight against the progress.
    We know now that fire is necessary for us to live a better life. Some people died because of fires ? That’s true, but how many more people lived, and lived more comfortably, and longer ! Fire means more life, and I think that no reasonable person can be against fire.
    The same should be for nuclear energy. He who is against nuclear energy is against progress, and is similar to those who killed Prometheus telling he had “stolen” fire to the gods.

  7. Mr. Luke,

    It is evident you have a chip on your shoulder and will not be persuaded, so I have no notion I will change any of your opinions (which you have for a reason, as we all do). Instead I attempt to offer a rebuttal [of some of your comments, I don’t have all day] for other readers of the comments section.

    You correctly state that radiation is not observable with any of the natural senses–instead requiring specialized machinery for observation. This is not the end of the story. Radiation is ubiquitous. Radon gas seeps out of the ground. Atmospheric CO2 is continuously being converted into radioactive 14-CO2. Aircraft passengers are positively bombarded with cosmic rays. Every X-ray, CT, MRI and PET patient undergoing a diagnostic test receives a dose. Everybody at a hospital working or injected with Technetium receives a dose. How many lives have been saved with these technologies? Your analogy of walking barefoot through a room of HIV tipped needles is incoherent because all though radiation is ubiquitous, most of it is benign. A better analogy is simply that of one with bacteria. They are everywhere, most of them are neutral for your health, but there are a few nasty ones out there. And you can’t see, smell, hear, touch or taste bacteria either.

    As far as your comments regarding the viability of nuclear as an energy source, Mr. Krivit hit the nail right on the head. Nuclear has a safety record that is quite competitive with traditional sources (all fossil sources and hydro). It is reliable, as in available 24-7, something new alternatives cannot offer.

    My own background is that of health physics in academia, and commercial nuclear power radiation protection, for anybody curious.

  8. “I couldn’t disagree with you more.” as luke said too.
    I am physics student at the end, radiation and the whole nuclear physics are well known for me. So my “Fear” concerning nuclear energy can not be lying in not knowing what goes on.

    For me, the arguments of luke are more convincing then yours. Also your comparison of fire and nuclear energy lags horrible, especially considering you as a scientific journalist. If you compare the dead people caused by accidents from one or the other energy source, you have to at least compare dead/kW. Or something like injured/facility, or injured/machine using one of the two power sources. Also you schould consider the time it needs to get off all effects of the accident, wich is much longer for nuclear accidents.

    And the Waste problem? No single word on this…?

    Best Regards
    Blafurz

    PS: Sorry for my english, i am good in math, but not in speaking foreign languages ;-)

  9. Mr Blafurz, that’s a good idea of yours to compare dead/kW. Actually, the proper measure is dead/kWh (kWh is an amount-of-energy unit, kW is rate-of-energy).

    If we do this, we actually find that nuclear is the safest of the lot. This is written up in detail with supporting references at http://nextbigfuture.com/2011/03/deaths-per-twh-by-energy-source.html .

    The nuclear waste problem is severely over-exaggerated. See my comment to the previous article at http://ansnuclearcafe.org/2011/10/04/we-must-cooperate-to-overcome-fear-of-radiation-and-nuclear-energy/ .

  10. @Luke and Blafurz,

    The fact of the matter is, when it comes to meeting the energy needs of industrial societies, we only have a handful of viable options: coal, gas, and nuclear.

    ‘Renewables’ have their niche applications, but they cannot power industrial societies economically. They are diffuse, and the storage technology is not there. And it may never be there.

    Newer designs for nuclear plants offer immense safety improvements over the existing fleet or reactors. And, we are on the brink of seeing thorium reactors with liquid fuel become commercially viable. Do some research on thorium and you will be blown away by its potential.

    As far as fukushima…do you know about the other nuclear complex on the coast that was closer to the epicenter? It did not fail, and the only reason seems to be is that it was built in the 80s, while the daichi plants were built in the 70s. (http://depletedcranium.com/the-other-fukushima-nuclear-power-plant/) Think about that. A 10 year advance in design was able to withstand a natural disaster of biblical proportions. Imagine the safety improvements with more modern designs.

    Coal and gas kill tens of thousands per year. Every year. Even more people die because they don’t have access to electricity. The world’s needs for energy are only going to increase, not decrease. And renewables by their nature cannot meet the needs of the emerging middle classes of China, India, Brazil, and other countries. Not to mention if we want to electrify our transportation fleet, we are going to need a lot more electric power, no matter how efficient we become.

    You can wish and hope that people just start using less, but all that efficiency will be offset by increased demand in emerging countries. If people have to choose between freezing to death in the winter and burning coal, they will burn coal. That’s the reality.

    To Blafurz’s specific point about deaths/kWh, nuclear is by far the safest energy source.

    Renewables are still not economical, and even if they are, we have to built 3x as many as their nameplate energy rating because their capacity factors are so low. That’s a lot of land! And has anyone looked at how the earth’s climate and environment might change when millions of square miles that used to absorb the sun and cause organic life to grow are now being reflected by solar panels? This could have drastic unforeseen consequences.

    And when it comes to waste, we have a couple options. Bury it in the side of a mountain for 10,000+ years, or develop fast reactors or thorium reactors that actually consume existing nuclear waste, leaving a waste stream that is 80%+ less in volume, and only harmful for about 300 years (for which we have engineering solutions to store waste for that long) instead of 10,000. What seems like the responsible/environmentalist path to choose?

    Nuclear is not perfect, but it is by far the best option we have. We should support newer designs, modular reactors, and the thorium fuel cycle.

  11. Chris
    I do appreciate the advances in design. Are those the kind of reactors that are being built? Is that the fuel cycle being supported? – No. Everyone wants to use the older cheaper designs.
    The estimates for surface area required for solar to power the world are huge but still a tiny percentage of the surface of the Earth. Plus it would be off set by the recovery of the vast tracks of land ruined by uranium mining.
    I can understand protecting your industry to a degree. I’d hate to go back to study and retrain. Reflecting too much sun though? :) Really?

  12. Luke, it sure is not “my industry” as I work in the energy efficiency field, not nuclear energy.

    Newer designs are being built, with a uranium fuel cycle…and entrenched interests are pushing back against thorium, but that is to be expected. Momentum is building though. The more people learn about it, the more popular support there is. The cat’s out of the bag.

    Offset by the recovery of uranium mines? Really? Do you have a source for the amount of land required to meet our need with solar, versus the amount of land comprising uranium mines? I’m guessing the footprint of mines is vastly smaller than that of a massive solar build out.

    To power the world with solar would indeed be a “tiny” percentage of earth, considering most of the earth is covered with water!

    And yes, think about the consequences of millions of square miles of land that just stop undergoing photosynthesis. What sort of environmental ripple effects does that have? I don’t know personally, but it’s not something to dismiss outright.

  13. Chris,
    I’ll concede your point on my dismissal of the potential effects of vast solar. It is indeed that kind of flippancy/pig headedness that has us staring down the barrel of hastened global warming and of the many problematic consequences of fission.
    Solar of course is expanding regardless, so any studies determining environmental impact of that nature would need to be done fairly swiftly. Maybe they already did and found it was insignificant? However, I do suspect the oil companies or someone with a competing interest would have funded any such research for a slightly larger slice of the energy pie if it were a winner.

  14. I’ll just add also that, at worst, a large solar build out is not irreversible if there was some freak, unforeseen effect. It’s not like CO2 etc. in the air or radioctive waste.

  15. Theodore Rigley

    I am appreciative of the thoughtful comments here, and I think that Steven Krivit is generally correct in his positive assessment of the nuclear power option. However, I will quibble with his assertion that fears associated with nuclear power are based “…not on the consequences of actual events”. I don’t see that as correct; my own fears relating to nuclear power stem from seeing the large swath of abandoned land around Chernobyl, the consequence of an actual event. For years afterward, and maybe still, you couldn’t eat wild mushrooms in Germany because of their accumulation of radioactive isotopes from that disaster. This seems like a fearsome consequence to me, because I love gathering and cooking with wild mushrooms.

  16. A ballpark estimate of the land required to meet power needs with solar power:

    Year average solar insolation is ~100-200 W/m^2 on a horisontal flat-plate collector. People don’t generally live in the arctic or antarctic circle or in deserts so we can safely ignore those places.

    A basic, bog-standard poly-si panel is ~10% efficient. That brings the figure down to ~10-20 W/m^2 of average power.

    You want to minimize the use of expensive silicon and you don’t want rain, leaves, dust or any other crud to build up on the panels so the panels are placed in a roughly south-facing, inclined fashion. This actually increases the land area because inclined panels may self-shadow at shallow angles of illumination and that’s very bad. Solar panels cannot deal with shadows; shadowing just a few percent of a panel can drop output to nearly zero. This is because the current going through a chain of series-connected PV cells is limited by the least illuminated cell. For this reason and for reasons of physical access to the panels they are spaced quite widely apart; allowing approximately half of sunlight to fall through the cracks. Now we’re down to 5-10 W/m^2 of average power.

    From here on things get difficult and depend heavily on what assumptions you’re willing to make on meeting the massive storage requirement. I’m going to be optimistic and assume it only doubles land requirements because it’s difficult to guess what the composition of an actual system would be like. Presumably it would be some combination of short-term storage to level out intra-day variations(batteries or flywheels probably; note the cost per kWh of this type of storage alone is higher than the generating cost for most conventional electricity sources; high round-trip efficiency), weeky or seasonal energy storage to level out longer variations in power production and demand(probably hydrogen gas; can squirrel away a lot of it in underground caverns, but the round-trip efficiency is only ~3o% with current technology) and overbuild(can build more panels and avoid the hard problem of seasonal energy storage, simply dumping surplus power in the summer into a big resistor or some low-value use if you can find one).

    Now we’re down to 3-5 W/m^2.

    To replace a single nuclear reactor with 1 GW average output(say 1.2 GW rated capacity at ~80% capacity factor) you will need on the order of 200-300 km^2 of land area.

    Unlike the Chernobyl exclusion zone, which is an unintentional national park; this area is well and truly dead and will stay that way forever, or at least until there are no more people who need its power. The vegetation is scraped away with the fertile top-soil, the ground is leveled, herbicides may be required to supress new growth, binder may be required to prevent dust; a thick layer of gravel may be applied to suppress both plant growth and dust. It is about as good for biodiversity as 200-300 km^2 of asphalt.

  17. “I’ll just add also that, at worst, a large solar build out is not irreversible if there was some freak, unforeseen effect.”

    If you bet the farm on solar you may do irreversible damage. It may turn out that I am right and solar power just false hope and hype; a dead end that will never remove any significant amount of coal and gas from the grid or anywhere else.

    If that’s the case, the CO2-emissions from coal and gas keep going, fueled by complacency and wishful thinking. We keep having a coal-chernobyl every day; with several thousands dying from particulate pollution every day and many countless more being sickened.

    Its even possible that an energy starvation-diet render us unable to respond effectively to peak oil(which will be a slow squeeze and shouldn’t be a disaster if we have lots of energy from other sources).

    And of course. Some types of panels contain some rather nasty stuff; like cadmium, which has an infinite half-life, it stays toxic forever.

  18. @Luke

    Your arguments seem rather weak on the petrochemical front just look at enviro impact footprints with regard to hydrocarbon in such categories as:
    -Air
    -Land
    -Water/water table impact/water useage
    -Climate change
    -Carbon dioxide sequestration
    -Release of isotope pollutants in burning of coal
    -Aquatic life deformities
    -Public health impacts
    On events such as: Exon Spill Valdez Alaska, Athabasca oil sands mining in Alberta, Off shore well explosion Lousiana State Coast line in N. America.

    Does nuclear have the same level impact in N. America?

  19. Just saying, to reverse the impact of a fraction of a errant gigantic solar power project would be massive costly.
    Oh..Luke you do know of course, that Nuke Power Plants NPPs are DECOMMISSIONED meaning reversible.
    Google: The NASA Plum Brook Reactor Facility operating from 1962-1973 it is now prime farm land zoned agricultural.

    see. Documentary ‘Of Ashes & Atoms’

    Yes, Fukushima will also end up as farm land too. Imagine, companies do decommission NPPs sites and reprocess spent fuel.

  20. I wouldn’t imagine so, not right now. I shudder at the thought of the trillions of liters of oil that have contaminated the gulf and killed loads of dolphins and is probably going to have a million unforeseen health effects as it gets everywhere. Maybe if we could discuss this in a hundred years or so after a few more Chernobyls, Fukushimas..

    For me, the environmental arguements against nuclear are only part of the picture. It’s about not repeating the process of granting one industry (oil) control of the world. I want power literally to be returned to individuals for obvious reasons.

  21. If we didn’t discover fire we wouldn’t need cloths today. You could just walk outside and you would be perfectly comfortable. Sleep in the tree, drink from the lake and eat the apples of course.

    Free of sin :D

  22. I’m not an engineer nor in any industry directly affected by which electric generation methods win and which lose. I consider myself reasonable, sensible and a decently sharp analyst in general. I also have some excellent business experience, which includes marketing and sales. Aka, I’m a good sounding board, IMO.

    I think that every major generating method I’m aware of has done a poor job at public relations and education. Therefore my emotional reaction is to ditch them all the minute something good comes around. The good news for the incumbents is that dramatic improvements can be made, it appears. The starting point for such efforts is often honesty. Everything out on the table. EVERYTHING. What the public doesn’t at all understand and/or fears, will be rejected or at least resisted. No way to refresh a partnership.

    No commercials implying that fracking is perfectly safe. Or that coal burning hasn’t all but killed some fishing. Or that nuclear doesn’t have a waste problem. Or a giant, though rare, point problem. Or that solar doesn’t have a timing/storage problem. Disclosure is needed about the good AND bad. Put all the goods and bads on a big chart and weigh them. Trade-offs will have to be acknowledged and made. Admit that diversification is often a VERY good thing–this is not an attempt to corner the mkt. A dispassionate, fairly presented executive summary, with full supporting detail for the experts to analyze. Work towards generally accepted principals and solutions. People are generally very reasonable–treat them as such.

    Hey, maybe I should run for president.

  23. Hi there just wanted to give you a quick heads up and let you know a few of the images aren’t loading correctly. I’m not sure why but I think its a linking issue.

    I’ve tried it in two different internet browsers and both show the same results.