The Real Story of Nuclear Energy and Your Health

By Alan Fellman, Ph.D., CHP, Senior Health Physicist, NV5

The connection between radiation and human health is one of the most broadly misunderstood aspects of nuclear power. When it comes to nuclear energy’s impact on health and safety, many myths are accepted as fact. These inaccurate claims should be challenged and considered in their proper scientific context. Here are a few truths about nuclear energy radiation and your health:

TRUTH: We are exposed to natural radiation every single day, from a wide variety of sources.

Countless household items contain radiation that is safe, including bananas, granite countertops, cat litter, televisions, and certain nuts and plants. In fact, your house itself emits a naturally occurring radioactive gas. Radiation can be a natural and safe part of life, but what is it?

Radiation is essentially energy in the process of being transmitted, and it takes many forms. Lower energy radiations are referred to as non-ionizing radiation. Examples of this include radio waves, microwaves, visible light and ultraviolet waves. Higher energy radiations comprise the ionizing radiations, such as those used to generate electricity in a nuclear reactor, include x-rays, gamma rays, and other particles. The average American receives a dose of ionizing radiation of approximately 300 mrem each year from natural sources such as radiation originating in outer space and materials naturally found in soil – the equivalent of about 50 chest x-rays. The average person also receives another 300 mrem from man-made radiation typically from medical procedures. For example, a dental x-ray delivers a dose of about 1 mrem. Being exposed to radiation is anything but unnatural. In fact, we encounter both non-ionizing and ionizing radiations daily.

TRUTH: There is no widely accepted correlation between cancer rates and distance from a nuclear facility.

Despite many studies, there have been no findings which indicate that populations receiving high natural background radiation doses or living near a nuclear power plant suffer from an increased incidence of cancer or any other radiation-induced health effect. Commercial nuclear power plants emit a very limited amount of radiation in addition to natural sources. In fact, on average, a U.S. nuclear worker receives approximately 100 mrem of occupational exposure in a year, a relatively low dose that falls within the range of natural background doses.

Current statistics indicate that approximately 40 percent of all human beings will develop cancer at some point in their lifetimes and that 20 percent will die from cancer. That is true of all people regardless of their distance from a nuclear facility. Cancers occur when our immune systems become unable to repair cellular damage and keep pre-cancerous cells from developing into tumors. More often than not, there is no “cause” that can be identified, other than having been born a human being.

TRUTH: The data surrounding nuclear energy and health effects show that it is demonstrably the safest form of power generation.

In more than 60 years of nuclear operations, only three major accidents have occurred worldwide. Deaths resulting from those three accidents over the course of six decades equal about one month of coal-related deaths.

Regarding nuclear waste, there are strict protocols in place to safely handle and dispose of used fuel rods, including storage in concrete casks and pools. Conversely, the vast amount of toxic ash and waste that is produced from burning coal and other fossil fuels is much harder to control and dispose of safely, and harmful materials like lead and mercury may adversely affect the health of individuals living near disposal sites for decades.

Overall, the amount of state and federal safety regulations in place for absolutely every aspect of nuclear power generation is unprecedented and not even remotely replicated in other forms of energy production. Each part of the process is stringently monitored and controlled to protect the health of the employees, the communities near nuclear facilities, and the environment. Moreover, the risk of accidents is low and getting lower with each new technology and innovative safeguard.

It’s time we stop fearing nuclear power because of what we think we know about it. Nuclear power generation stations are inherently some of the safest industrial facilities in the world, and the radiation associated with nuclear energy does not pose a threat to humans or the environment. Fear mongering at the expense of nuclear power does nothing to help advance our society or the environment we live in. You can rest easy knowing our nation’s 98 nuclear reactors are safe and secure, and so are you.