The Nuclear Power Advantage

Nuclear energy can avert many of the environmental
consequences arising out of the use of fossil fuels.

  Prof. Bernard L. Cohen presents in this paper his point of view as an independant university researcher, into the advantages of nuclear power vis-a-vis other energy options.

I must begin with an apology for the fact that this paper is written from the standpoint of an American citizen.  All of my research has been based on U.S. as a "laboratory", using U.S. statistics and U.S> experience and practices.  Hopefully, much of it is applicable to other countries.  The Material to be presented is covered in my book "The Nuclear Energy Option" (Plenum Publishing Co., New York; 1990), which also includes its technical justification.

Avoiding the environmental problems of fossil fuels

One important advantage of nuclear power is that is avoids the wide variety of environmental problems arising from burning fossil fuels - coal, oil, and gas.   These environmental problems probably exceed those of any other human activity.   The ones that have received the most publicity have been "global warming", which is changing the Earth's climate; acid rain, which is destroying forests and killing fish; air pollution, which is killing tens of thousands of Americans every year, while degrading our quality of life in many ways; the destructive effects of massive mining for coal; and oil spills which do great harm to ecological systems.

"Some of the most important problems caused by acid rain are political."

Global warming:  Burning fossil fuels produces vast quantities of carbon dioxide, for example 3.7 tons for each ton of coal burned, and carbon dioxide in the atmosphere traps heat, increasing the earth's temperature.  Estimates of the rate of the temperature rise and of the consequences vary, but eventually the effects are bound to be important.  Agriculture is very sensitive to climate and hence will be heavily affected, requiring shifts in crops that cannot be grown in different areas.   Livestock will be affected through problems in breeding, diseases, and pest control.  Forests will come under heavy stress as growing areas for each tree species shifts and insect populations, disease patterns, competition from other plants, and factors affecting fires change.  Eventually, the melting glaciers will cause sea levels to rise - this floods valuable land, escalates the frequency and severity of disasters from hurricanes, allows inland penetration of salt water which heavily impacts aquatic life (e.g. oyster harvests), and leads to loss of urban water supplies and contamination of groundwater.  Effects of changing storm tracks, rainfall, and wind patterns are bound to be important.

The global warming issue has been the subject of a series of high level international conferences, culminating in a still unratified agreement to reduce carbon dioxide emissions, the implementation of which is estimated to cost the U.S. economy hundreds of billions of dollars per year.

Acid rain:  Burning fossil fuels releases large quantities of sulphur dioxide and nitrogen oxide gasses which combine with moisture in the air to produce acids that fall with rain.  The effects are complicated and conclusions about them are controversial, but there is strong evidence that, in some cases, acid rain is making lakes unlivable for fish and is badly damaging forests.

Some of the most important problems caused by acid rain are political. The emissions from coal burning power plants in Midwestern U.S. are the cause of acid rain in Eastern Canada and this has been a top priority political issue in Canada, making it an important sources of difficulty in U.S. Canadian relations.  The situation is similar in Europe where coal burning emissions from Britain are damaging lakes and forests in Scandinavia and Germany.

"30,000 deaths per year in U.S. result from air pollution due to emissions from fossil fuel burning power plants."

Air Pollution:  While global warming causes only economic disruption, and acid rain kills only fish and trees, air pollution kills people and causes human suffering through illness.  Vast amounts of research have gone into understanding the processes involved and tying down the responsible components, but successes have been limited.   There are well recognised health effects from many of the components, sulphur dioxide, nitrogen oxides, carbon monoxide, fine particulates, hydrocabons, ozone, volatile organic compounds, and toxic metals, but probably the health effects result from combinations of several of these.  The problem is complicated by the fact that effect build up slowly over many years or decades, causing illness and weakening constitutions to the point where death eventually results but is not obviously tied to air pollution.  The epidemiological evidence, however, seems fairly clear in indicating that something like 30,000 deaths per year in U.S. result from air pollution due to emissions from fossil fuel burning power plants.  Shifting from fossil fuel to nuclear power would avert these deaths, and if electricity becomes much more widely used for transportation (e.g. with electric cars), the life saving would be much larger.  Human discomfort ill health is an important part of the price we pay for burning fossil fuels.  Economic losses from worker absence and/or reduced efficiency due to illness are also substantial. 

Air pollution discolours and otherwise damages buildings, soils clothing, and makes for a generally dirty environment, which adversely impacts on our quality of life.

Coal mining:  Sixty percent of U.S. coal is obtained by strip mining, which involves removing up to 200 feet of covering soil.  There are laws and good faith efforts to reclaim the land, but these have had only limited success, and the land is often left badly scarred.  The remaining 40% of coal comes from underground mines, and this percentage is increasing.  Acid drainage from these mines gets into streams, killing fish and leaving the water unfit for drinking, swimming, or many industrial applications.  About one-fourth of the 8 million acres of U.S> land about coal mines has subsided causing buildings on the surface to crack or even be destroyed, and often changing drainage patterns so as to make land unfit for farming.   There are hundreds of long lasting fires in U.S. mines which release air polluting smoke and vegetation-destroying heat, often for many years.  Waste banks from coal washing outside mines are unsightly and frequently catch fire, leading to another sources of air pollution.

Oil Spills:  The highly publicised 40,000 ton oil spill off the coast of Alaska in 1989, even after 10 years of clean-up costing several billion dollars, has still left substantial long term damage to the ecology of the region.  But there have been much larger oil spills, including one of 305,000 tons off the coast of Tabago in 1979 and one of 237,000 tons, which ruined many miles of French beaches in 1978.   U.S. tankers spill several hundred thousand tons of oil each year on average.   At any given time, 100 million tons of oils being transported by ships, so accidental spills are inevitable.  Land based accidents can also be important.   A Mexican well that could not be capped spilled 700,000 tons of oil into the Gulf of Mexico in 1979, doing extensive damage to the aquatic life.

"There are much easier, faster, and cheaper ways for a nation to develop nuclear weapons than through a nuclear power programme."

Fuel resources 
Another nuclear advantage is in the nature of the fuel consumed.  Oil and gas are the principal fuels used for space heating and for transportation,  and are difficult to replace in those applications.  The world's supply of these is limited,  probably enough for less than 100 years of projected consumption, and costs are bound to rise sharply long before supplies are exhausted.  Coal can be used to produce further supplies of oil and gas, but its supply is also limited.  Coal, oil and gas are the principal feedstocks for producing plastics and organic chemicals, without which our technological society would be severely crippled.  There is thus every reason to preserve our supplies of fossil fuels.   Uranium for nuclear fuel, on the other hand, has little value for other purposes, and with breeder reactors, there is enough to satisfy World energy needs for billions of years, without increasing the cost of electricity by as much as one percent.

Waste disposal issues
We have been bombarded with propaganda about the potential dangers of long lived radioactive waste from nuclear reactors.  But these wastes have the extremely important advantage of being very small in volume and can be easily contained so they can be buried deep underground.  The results of an analysis, shown in Table 1, indicate that the wastes from coal burning, including those that end up in the ground, are far more dangerous.  These include chemical carcinogens like beryllium, cadmium, arsenic, nickel, and chromium which, unlike the nuclear wastes, last forever.  They also include uranium, which occurs as an impurity in coal, ends up in the top surfaces of the ground, and serves as a source for random emissions; nuclear power, in contrast, consumes uranium, thus averting future deaths from exposure to radon gas as indicated by the negative sign in Table 1.

Table - 1: Eventual number of deaths caused by the wastes from generating 1000 MWe-y of electricity


High level waste


Radon emissions


Routine emissions (Kr, Xe, C-14, H-3)


Low level waste



Air pollution


Radon emissions


Chemical carcinogens


Solar (photovoltaics)

Coal for materials
(steel, glass, aluminium)


Cadmium sulphide (if used)


*The negative number indicates deaths averted, rather than caused.

Nuclear bombs
Much has been made of the connection between nuclear power and nuclear bombs, although the relationship is really very weak.  There are much easier, faster, and cheaper ways for a nations to develop nuclear weapons than through a nuclear power programme.  All nuclear weapons states have developed their bombs independently from their electricity generation facilities, and any nation with a serious desire to obtain nuclear weapons could and would do the same.  The problem here is not so much to avoid the development of nuclear bombs that is essentially a lost cause as to avoid their use.   One of the most likely scenarios for their use is in fighting over oil as world supplies dwindle to precarious levels during the twenty-first century.  Oil resources are limited and located largely in the politically unstable Middle East, so that competition for it can become intense.  The 1991 Persian Gulf War could easily be a forerunner of much more serious confrontations.  However, electicity can replace oil for space heating, and produce hydrogen as a substitute for oil in transportation applications.  Nuclear Power thus has the advantage of mitigating the need for oil, thereby avoiding one of the prime potential reasons for using nuclear bombs.

Accident risks
The public has been bombarded with fears of reactor accidents, nearly always focussing on the effects of the worst accident evaluated in some study, and never treating the probability of such an accident.  In fact, it is often said that probability doesn't matter; the only important thing is the worst possible accident.  To face the accident risk squarely, one must recognise that it is absolutely essential for probability to be considered because there is no such thing as the worst possible accident - any hypothetical accident can be made worse by extenuating circumstances, albeit with reduced probability.

For example, one of the innumerable gasoline tank trucks that roam our streets can have a collision spilling the fuel, leading to a fire that could destroy a whole city, killing millions of people.  It might require a lot of improbable circumstances combining together, like water lines being frozen to prevent effective fire fighting, a traffic jam aggravated by road construction or other accidents limiting access to fire fighters, substandard gas pipes which the heat of the fire cause to leak, a high wind frequently shifting to spread the fire in all directions, a strong atmospheric temperature inversion after the whole city becomes engulfed in flame to keep the smoke close to the ground, bridges and tunnels closed for various reasons to eliminate escape routes, errors in advising the public, and so forth.  Each of these situations, is improbable, so a combination of many of them occurring in sequence is highly improbable, but not impossible.  If any anyone thinks that is the worst possible accident, consider the possibility of the fire being spread by glowing embers to other cities which were left without protection because their fire fighters were off assisting the first city, etc.

As an example for nuclear's chief competitor, coal burning, consider the possibility of the abundant mutagenic chemicals it produces leading to development of a virus that could wipe out mankind; a virus as deadly as HIV that could be as easily spread as the influenza virus could come close to that!  There is no such thing as the worst possible accident, and probability must be considered.

This is another important advantage for nuclear power - the probabilities have been determined and they are very small indeed.  The best way to display this advantage is to compare the risks of nuclear power with other risks.  This is shown in Table 2 in terms of the loss of life expectancy, LLE they cause.

Table - 2: Loss of life expectancy (LLE) due to various risks in U.S.

Activity or risk


Living in poverty


Smoking cigarettes (1 pack/day)


*Heart disease


Being unmarried


Working as a coal miner




Being 30 pounds overweight


*Motor vehicle accidents






*Air pollution


Small car vs midsize car


*Speed limit 65 vs 55 miles per hour




*Poison + asphyxiation + suffocation


*Road in homes


*Fire and burns


*Dam failures


Living very near a nuclear power plant


*All U.S. Electricity nuclear


*All U.S. Electricity nuclear - accidents only


*Asterisks indicate average over total U.S. Population; others refer to those exposed.

Note that a substantial fraction of air pollution is due to fossil fuel power plants and that dam failures are largely tied to electricity generation.  Oil and natural gas contribute to fires, and the latter is an important contributor to asphyxiation.  A very important contributor to dangers from energy usage is conserving energy which causes us to use smaller cars, with the attendant danger from Table - 2, and to tighten our homes which increases indoor air pollution which is now regarded to be more important that outdoor air pollution.  One example of this is increased radon in homes which gives us hundreds of time as much radiation as nuclear power.  It is clear from Table - 2 that nuclear accidents are not an important problem, and their very low probability is a great advantage of nuclear power.

This advantage can perhaps be expressed more clearly by saying the risk to an average American of a very large nuclear power program in U.S. is equivalent to the risk of a regular smoker smoking one extra cigarette every 15 year, or to the risk of an overweight person increasing his weight by 0.012 ounces, or of raising the U.S. highway speed limit from 55 to 55.006 miles per hour.

Nuclear power has advantages in many areas, including some that have been traditionally viewed as problem areas it averts the pollution and environmental degradation of fossil fuels, it guarantees the world an everlasting supply of fuel without affecting resources sorely needed for other applications, it solves difficult waste management problems, it contributes to avoidance of nuclear warfare, and it diminishes risks from accidents.

Dr. Bernard L. Cohen is Professor-Emeritus of Physics and Astronomy and of Environmental and Occupational Health at University of Pittsburgh. He has authored 6 books, over 300 papers in scientific journals, and about 75 articles in non-technical journals.  He has presented invited lectures in 47 U.S. States, 6 Canadian provinces, 7 Japanese prefectures, 6 Australian states and territories, and 24 other countries in Europe, Asia and South America.  His awards include the American Physical Society Bonner Prize, the Health Physics Society Distinguished Scientific Achievement Award.  He has been elected Chairman of the Division of Nuclear Physics of the American Physical Society, and Chairman of the Division of Environmental Sciences of the American Nuclear Society.

He enjoys outdoor sports, plays golf, and is also devoted to his family and eight grand children.

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