Sunday, January 20, 2008


This article must have been among the last things my father participated in writing prior to his retirement from ORNL. The authors have noted global warming as one of the serious consequences from the choice of coal ranter than nuclear power as a choice for the source of energy American electrical generation. One point, that is often overlooked now, is the value of coal as a industrial resource. As I read this article, I had a feeling that a tremendous opportunity had been wasted when we as a nation chose coal over nuclear power 30 years ago.

From Aviation Medical Bulletin
February 1977


J.E. Till, C.J. Barton, G. W. Parker Environmental Sciences Division Oak Ridge National Laboratory Oak Ridge, Tennessee 37830

In your July issue, Dr. H. Curtis Wood, Jr., M.D., a retired obstetrician and gynecologist, published an article in which he classified nuclear energy as "the greatest threat to the human species that has yet evolved" and nuclear radiation as "our greatest health hazard." Here we have a representative of the pro­fession which was quick to recognize the usefulness of x-rays and radium for dealing with human health problems - labeling nuclear radiation as our greatest health problem after he discussed nutrition, cancer, heart disease, and arthritis in earlier issues of the Bulletin. It must be assumed that Dr. Wood was referring to potential radiation exposures associated with nuclear energy production and, in our opinion, Dr. Wood has not presented an accurate picture of the risks involved in this growing industry. As scientists who are engaged in both nuclear and non-nuclear research, we would like to address the health effects of the principal energy alternatives available for production of electricity (coal and uranium) and some of the hazards of the element plutonium that were misrepresented in Dr. Wood's article.

Energy, like food and water, is an essential commodity for the survival of modern man. Ultimate selection of the best source of energy involves an evaluation of technological feasibility, economics, availability, and environmental compatibility. Man must determine the sources of energy that most satisfactorily meet these criteria. It is possible to live with less energy and to learn to use energy more efficiently, but we cannot live without it.

Studies have been made of projected energy needs of the U.S. during the remaining years of this century and of the resources that we have available to meet those needs. Potential energy sources include solar wind, and geothermal; however, investigations by Well-informed scientists have shown that coal and uranium are the only feasible solutions to this near term energy problem. From an economic standpoint, nuclear energy costs approximately 30% less to pro- duce than energy from coal.

Coal IS an abundant natural resource in the U.S., and our supplies may last more than 250 years, but the suppress are not inexhaustible. Nuclear energy represents a virtually exhaustible supply of energy if plutonium IS recycled and if breeder reactors are successful. By utilizing nuclear energy to the greatest extent possible, we can preserve valuable and irreplaceable coal supplies, and use them as a source of hydrocarbons for liquid fuel and the manufacture of synthetic maternal.

It is interesting to compare the health and environmental impacts of these important energy sources since we must rely so heavily on them for the next 25 years and perhaps longer. A 1000-megawatt fossil fuel power plant requires approximately 2,000,000 tons of coal per year at the normal use rate (l00 train car loads daily), while a similar capacity nuclear plant requires about 140 tons of uranium annually. The environmental impacts associated with mining 2,000,000 tons of coal are more severe than those associated with mining 140 tons of uranium. During the combustion of this coal, approximately 230,000 tons of solid wastes must be disposed of and 50,000 tons of pollutants in the form of sulfur oxides, nitrogen oxides, hydrocarbons, carbon monoxide, and heavy metals may be released into the atmosphere.

Of primary importance to humans are the sulfur and
Nitrogen oxides which are known to cause bronchitis and respiratory infections. Very little is known about the harmful effects of some of the other gases and particulates emitted from coal burning plants. For instance, great concern has been expressed by scientists that the projected release of CO2 from fossil fuel combustion may lead to severe changes in global climate by the end of this century or shortly thereafter. On the other hand, the nuclear fuel cycle may release significant quantities of radioactive gases to the atmosphere and radioactive liquids to the hydrosphere. However, technology is available to contain most of these gases if it becomes necessary, and the potential effects of these radioactive gases and liquids are minimal in comparison to the biological harm
associated with emissions from burning coal (variously estimated to be 3 to 125 excess deaths per year from a 1000-MWe coal burning plant).

The philosophy of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission is to keep radiation exposures to the public from nuclear facilities as low as reasonably achievable, taking into account the state of technology and the economics of reducing exposures in relation to the benefits.

Sold wastes produced at nuclear plants, a matter of public concern, consist of highly concentrated radioactive maternal that must be stored until they have decayed to non-radioactive isotopes. Some of the radio-nuclides will require millions of years to become. completely inert. The long-term storage of radioactive wastes has not yet been demonstrated on a large scale, however, exponential tests have indicated that solid nuclear wastes can be buried deep

underground in salt or in some suitable geological formation. According to Eisenbud (Environmental Radioactivity), the volume of nuclear wastes generated by the entire U.S. nuclear power industry from now until the year 2000 would fit into a cube 84 feet on a side. Although it involves tremendous quantities of radioactive waste products, this relatively small volume of waste products simplifies the disposal problem. In contrast, waste from coal combustion requires large land areas for disposal and toxic chemicals may be leached from the waste and pollute water supplies for years after they have been stored.

Operating experience with a number of nuclear plants has shown that the radiation exposure from radioactivity, which escapes into the environment, is small. Regulations proposed by the Environmental Protection Agency require that the maximum radiation exposure to a member of the public not exceed 25 millirems per year from facilities in the nuclear fuel cycle - which is about 25% of the 102 millirems exposure that the average U.S. citizen receives from naturally occurring background radiation emitted from rocks, soil, and cosmic rays, or 50% of the exposure one receives during an average chest x-ray.

Pilots flying at 35,000 feet between 0-30° latitude for 700 hours each year, for example, receive an addition al 130 millirems of exposure from cosmic radiation because the intensity of cosmic radiation increases with altitude.

The risks attributed to hypothetical nuclear acci­dents that could result in irreversible health effects such as genetic injuries or cancer - are much less than the risks man encounters in everyday life. A compre­hensive report known as the Reactor Safety Study was published last year in which the risks of death from 100 nuclear power plants producing more than 25 million megawatt-days of electricity annually were compared to other risks in our society. The indivi­dual annual probability of death by automobiles in the United States is 1 in 4,000, by air travel 1 in 100,000, by lightening 1 in 2,000,000, and from a nuclear plant accident 1 in 3,000,000,000. Thus the benefits from a nuclear power far outweigh the risks involved, and, from an environmental health point of view, nuclear energy may be more acceptable than burning coal.

Plutonium will be produced as a byproduct in nuclear reactors; however, large scale processing and separation of plutonium from nuclear wastes may occur only if this element is used in reactors as a nuclear fuel. The chemical, environmental, and toxi­cological properties of plutonium have been studied thoroughly and are well documented in scientific publications. Since the hazard of plutonium is from alpha radioactivity, which cannot penetrate the skin except when it is punctured - a comparatively rare occupational hazard -plutonium is primarily a hazard if it is swallowed or inhaled. The hazard from inhaled plutonium is approximately 8000 times greater than the hazard from ingested plutonium. And, it is this inhalation hazard that nuclear critics usually refer to when discussing the toxicity of plutonium. However, no known deaths have ever been caused by over ex­posure of a nuclear worker to plutonium, and it seems certain that if plutonium were as toxic as critics claim it to be. there would have been some adverse health effects attributed to plutonium intake by workers in the nuclear industry.

Because of its potential in the development of nuclear weapons, stringent controls have been placed on the availability of plutonium. Sensors at nuclear plants can detect as little as 0.5 grams of plutonium. Therefore, it would be difficult to steal enough plu­tonium to construct a bomb. Taylor and Willrich in Nuclear Theft: Risks and Safeguards have shown how difficult it is to get plutonium and to make a bomb out of it. More stringent safeguards adopted recently make the theft of plutonium less likely than when the book was published in 1974.

The majority of scientists seem to agree among themselves about nuclear energy and see it as the cleanest, safest, and most economical energy source. We heartily agree with Dr. Wood that responsible citizens should learn enough about nuclear energy to form an opinion. However, this opinion should be based upon information that is factual and lacks emotionalism and sensationalism. As a start, we recom­mend the following publications:

H. A. Bethe, "The Necessity of Fission Power," Scientific American, January 1976.

Stanford University Institute for Energy Studies, The California Nuclear Initiative, - Analysis and discussion of the issues, April 1976. Write:
Nuclear Analysis, Institute for Energy Studies, 5ODA, Stanford, California 94305 ($3.50).

Jean Briggs, "Don't Confuse Us With the Facts," Forbes (June, 1975).

Nuclear Power and the Environment, Interna­tional Atomic Energy Agency. Write: Unipub, Inc., P. O. Box 443, New York, N.Y. 10016.
Oak Ridge National Laboratory, 0ak Ridge, Tennessee 37830 Operated by Union Carbide Corporation for the Energy Research and Development Administration. Publication number 941, Environmental Sciences Division.

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