The 1986 nuclear disaster at Chernobyl in Soviet Ukraine - the only nuclear power accident ever to harm the public - spawned widespread fears about the safety of nuclear power. But the Chernobyl reactor had an acutely flawed design - one which would never have been allowed to be built outside the Soviet Union. It also had weak safety features that failed to guard against human error.
In contrast, the U.S. Three Mile Island accident, which harmed no one, was confined by the extensive protective systems that are now the worldwide industry standard. Reactors with Chernobyl's severe shortcomings have been eliminated or improved - and will never be built again.
Using the world's top experts, the UN has conducted exhaustive studies of the health effects of Chernobyl - beyond the original death toll of 31. Of around 4,000 thyroid cancer cases attributed to the accident, nearly all were successfully treated. Beyond this - after 20 years - there is no scientific evidence of any increase in cancer incidence at locations near or far. Theoretical projections of Chernobyl's possible long-term effects predict 4,000 late-in-life cancer deaths. Any such increase would be too small to confirm statistically.
The UN's authorative findings do not minimise the gravity of what happened at Chernobyl. But they do refute many sensationalized reports and help to place that singular event in perspective. Coal-mining accidents and gas explosions account for thousands of fatalities each year. Ironically, these deaths are so common that they generally go unreported. For example, a single mining accident killing scores of people may occur with little note, even while causing more fatalities in a day than have occurred in the full history of nuclear power.
The greatest health impact from over-use of fossil fuel comes from air pollution. The World Health Organisation (WHO) estimates that such pollution causes nearly three million deaths each year. Medical scientists predict that the fossil fuel mortality rate will triple by the year 2025. These devastating health effects - which equate to 600 'pollution Chernobyls' each day in the near future - overwhelm even the most distorted myths about nuclear power.
A Superb Record of Nuclear Safety
Although Chernobyl blemished the image of nuclear energy, the accident's positive legacy is an even stronger system of nuclear safety worldwide. In 1989, the nuclear industry established the World Association of Nuclear Operators (WANO) to foster a global nuclear safety culture. Through private-sector diplomacy, WANO has built a transnational network of technical exchange that includes all countries with nuclear power. Today every nuclear power reactor in the world is part of the WANO system of operational peer review. The aim of WANO's peer-review system standards set by the UN's International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).
Advances in safety practice are unmistakable. At most plants worldwide, reportable safety-related 'events' are now near zero. National and international insurance laws assign responsibility to nuclear plant operators. In the U.S. for example, reactor operators share in a 'pooled' private insurance system that has never cost taxpayers a penny.
Today, nuclear power plants have a superb safety record - both for plant workers and the public. In the transport of nuclear material, highly engineered containers - capable of withstanding enormous impact - are the industrial norm. More than 20,000 containers of spent fuel and high-level waste have been shipped safely over a total distance exceeding 30 million kilometres. During the transport of these and other radioactive substances - whether for research, medicine or nuclear - there had never been a harmful radioactive release.
Facts on Radiation
Radiation is release naturally from the ground and atmosphere in all places on Earth. This 'natural background' radiation, which varies considerable from region to region, is part of the environment to which all human beings are conditioned. Like many things, radiation can be both beneficial and harmful. Large doses are dangerous. Abundant evidence indicates that small doses are harmless.
The radiation produced within the core of nuclear reactors is similar to natural radiation but more intense. At nuclear power plants, protective shielding isolates this radiation, allowing millions of people to live in safety nearby. Typically, the radiation people receive comes 90% from nature and 10% from medical exposures. Radiation exposure from nuclear power is negligible.