Safe Nuclear Power?

Helen Caldicott has gotten her facts mixed up and relies on invalid assumptions in her commentary (“Our Friend the Atom?” July 2006). A better estimate of the amount of greenhouse gases associated with the nuclear fuel cycle is less than one-hundredth of that relative to plants using fossil fuel to produce the same amount of electricity, in contrast to the one-third she conjectures. Utilization of other alternative energy sources also are accompanied by the release of significant amounts of greenhouse gases—from the aluminum, steel, and plastics used for their construction materials.

Even as Caldicott discusses the medical effects of radioactive noble gas emissions, she misstates that these isotopes are gamma emitters instead of the less hazardous beta emissions. Radiation from nuclear power plants is a concern of hers, but data around Minnesota nuclear power plants show nothing above background. She neglects to also state that a coal plant emits more radiation into the environment through the fly ash than any normally operating nuclear power plant. Nuclear power generation has not resulted in any reported deaths in this country and several reputable studies have not shown any health effects. Energy policy needs to be debated, but it should be based upon facts, not conjectures.

Wayne C. Wolsey
St. Paul, Minnesota

Helen Caldicott responds:
Wayne Wolsey has accused me of using invalid facts and data. I would challenge him on that. In my book Nuclear Power is Not the Answer (The New Press), he will find an excellent life-cycle study of nuclear power generation by Jan Willem Storm van Leeuwen and Philip Smith, which estimates the energy and quantity of fossil fuels used to mine, mill, and enrich uranium fuel; to construct the reactor and decommission it at the end of its life; to transport and store radioactive waste for 500,000 years; and to regenerate uranium mines and clean up the millions of tons of uranium tailings presently scattered over the ground in the U.S. Southwest.

The noble gases krypton and xenon are indeed beta and gamma emitters. My book also notates the amounts of radiation routinely emitted from nuclear power plants and includes accidental releases that are relatively common in this industry. Indeed, various studies of populations living near old nuclear reactors are finding clusters of malignancies, particularly among children and young people, who are 10 to 20 times more sensitive to the carcinogenic effects of radiation than adults. The incubation time for cancer post-radiation-exposure is long—five to 60 years. As a physician and scientist, I work from a factual basis, not conjecture.

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