Going Critical is a Good Thing: Debunking Nuclear Myths

Nuclear power plants are among the safest, most affordable and environmentally friendly options for powering billions of homes around the world. So why do so many negative myths surround the industry?

Let's take a look at some of the most common misconceptions about nuclear power.

Myth: If a nuclear reactor is critical, it's out of control.
Fact: In popular culture, nuclear power is often fictionalized to create suspense, like when reactors go “critical” in movies and books. In the nuclear context, critical simply means that the reactor is in a configuration that will let it operate at a steady power level.

When a uranium atom is hit by a neutron it splits apart; a process known as fission. The atom splits into two smaller atoms and also emits a few neutrons. To keep reactor power steady, one of those neutrons needs to cause another fission. When the reactor is in a configuration where one neutron from each atom fissioned causes another fission, the reactor is said to be critical. For a reactor operator, criticality is desired and is certainly nothing to fear.

Myth: Nuclear energy is dirty.
Fact: Nuclear energy is one of the cleanest sources of energy in the United States. The fissioning of uranium atoms, how nuclear energy is created, does not produce greenhouse gases. In 2012, the Energy Information Administration reported that greenhouse gas emissions in the power sector were 15 percent below 2005 levels, due in part to carbon-free electricity produced by nuclear energy. There are no smoke stacks at nuclear plants. The white plume often seen rising from nuclear plants with cooling towers is clean water vapor.

Myth: Nuclear plants emit dangerous amounts of radiation.
Fact: Radiation occurs naturally in our environment. You can be exposed to non-harmful radiation levels by drinking a glass of orange juice, taking a plane ride or having a medical procedure like a chest X-ray. Even the bricks and construction materials in buildings have low levels of radiation. A person who stands just outside of a nuclear plant for one full year will be exposed to less than one millirem, the standard unit for radiation measurement, of additional radiation. That’s less than one single procedure chest x-ray, which is about 4 millirem.  The average annual radiation dose per person in the U.S. is 620 millirem

Myth: Nuclear energy isn’t safe.
Fact: Nuclear power plants are among the safest, most secure facilities in the United States.

According to the U.S. Department of Labor, it is safer to work at a nuclear plant than at a fast food restaurant, grocery store or in real estate. The nuclear industry is heavily regulated and safety is the cornerstone of all operations at nuclear plants. Multiple layers of safety systems and structures protect workers and surrounding communities. No radiation-related health effects have been linked to nuclear plants during the nearly 60 years of operation in the United States.

Myth: Nuclear power plants can explode.
Fact: It is physically impossible for a U.S. commercial reactor to explode like a nuclear weapon. The fuel used does not have enough uranium to be explosive and reactors are designed with layers of safety systems and automatic shutdown capabilities. It is not possible for a person to intentionally or unintentionally modify a commercial nuclear reactor to cause an explosion.

So next time you are watching a movie and hear that the reactor is critical, you'll know that means the nuclear plant is running and the lights are on.

Comments (4)

Posted July 15, 2016 by William W.
Just what "21st century" technologies are those? Nuclear is the most advanced energy production technology we have. If you are thinking of wind and/or solar energy, those are ancient, primitive forms of energy production. Windmills date back to the early Middle Ages, and solar energy was used as far back as the Neolithic era. Likewise, biomass (wood) was used by the ancient Greek and Roman civilizations, and coal and oil date back to the late 19th century and earlier. You want modern, pollution-free energy, that means nuclear, and nothing else (for now).
Posted July 15, 2016 by Susan Corbett
Nuclear power is DIRTY, DANGEROUS and EXPENSIVE. Every step in the nuclear chain, from uranium mining that has devastated Native American lands out west and exposed thousands to radioactive materials, to the end product of deadly, long lived radioactive waste. . .it is a VERY dirty technology. Dangerous? See: Fukushima, which is still in various stages of melting down, releasing million of curies of cancer causing radioactivity into the environment and which caused the evactions of tens of thousands and an end to their homes, farms and businesses. Expensive: the states with two new reactors being build, Ga and SC, now have the highest electricity rates from DC to Texas due completely to the constantly escalting costs of building these unnecessary boondoggles. Reactors are also very water usage heavy, in a time of concerned drought and efforts to conserve water nationwide. There is NOTHING good about nuclear. It needs to fade away along with many other 20th century technologies and stand aside for newer cleaner safer 21st century energy generators.
Posted July 15, 2016 by Paul
Susan... Nuclear is dirty??? You do realize that the uranium is already in the ground there. That's why it's being mined and taken away. So in a since...there is less Uranium there than before the mining. Dangerous??? Fukushima had a design problem that they didn't want to fix. Their fuel tanks for emergency diesels were destroyed from the tidal wave. This is not an issue in the US. The evacuation of the people there was from the tidal wave destroying everything in it's wake. The power plant didn't do that. People are moving back. You want nuclear to fade away??? Please tell me what your 21st century energy generator is. What magic power source have you discovered that can produce enough power for this country? I won't be holding my breath!!!!
Posted July 15, 2016 by Steve Nesbit
I have to disagree with about everything Ms. Corbett says. Every way of producing electricity (including renewables) has adverse environmental impacts and risks. The health and environmental impacts of nuclear power are very low compared to what it replaced. Fukushima was an accident in which three reactors suffered core damage, but no member of the public or plant worker was killed by radiation that was released (while the earthquake and tidal wave killed many thousand people). Safe, clean nuclear energy is one of the main reasons why electricity costs in North Carolina and South Carolina are low, relative to the U.S. (which is low relative to the world). Would you rather have the electricity prices they have in New York and New England? We need electricity - it saves lives and dramatically improves our quality of life. if you don't believe that, ask one of the billions of people on the Earth who don't have it! We need electricity 24 hours a day, not just when the wind is blowing and the sun is shining. If you are concerned about the impact of greenhouse gas emissions on the climate, nuclear power is essential for making a meaningful dent in greenhouse gas emissions while bring electricity to the people who need it.

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