Is nuclear energy bad? 8 facts about nuclear energy - and 4 myths debunked
What does nuclear energy have in common with sharks? Mystery and misconceptions.
In the summer of 1975, Jaws made a splash on the silver screen and made director Steven Spielberg a household name. Shark populations suffered, however, declining by nearly 50% in the years following the film’s release.
While overfishing is often attributed to that decline, the movie perpetuated myths about the species that led to misplaced fears about sharks. So much so that Spielberg once told an interviewer that he “totally regrets” how he portrayed the species.
Yet sharks play a vital role in regulating the health of our oceans. They control species abundance, distribution, and diversity, which helps maintain the health of marine habitats.
Similar truths can be said about nuclear energy. While the public often views the technology and the process as dangerous and unstable – and entertainment programs like The Simpsons and Godzilla perpetuate those views – the use of nuclear energy for electricity generation is extremely safe, according to the World Nuclear Association. And U.S. power plants are among the safest and most secure industrial facilities in the country, explains the Nuclear Energy Institute.
Not only that, when it comes to power generation, nuclear energy is one of the most significant contributors to the health of our climate. Nuclear power plants produce clean, carbon-free electricity that plays a pivotal role in maintaining the stability and reliability of our power grid.
Quite simply, the world of nuclear energy is fascinating. Let's unravel some astounding nuclear energy facts – and debunk a few myths about nuclear power – to reveal its true potential1.
8 Fun Facts about nuclear energy that might astound you
1. The Clean Power Revolution
Does nuclear energy cause pollution? Nope. Unlike energy generated by power plants that burn fossil fuels, nuclear power plants produce clean energy. The power generation process releases no greenhouse gases, saving the atmosphere from unnecessary pollutants. And nuclear power plants can be built almost anywhere, including urban and rural areas, without radically altering the environment around them.3
2. Steam Machine
That "smoke" you sometimes notice billowing from a nuclear power plant? Well, it's actually steam. This steam drives the plant’s turbines and generators which produce electricity. Once it cools down in the aptly named cooling tower, the steam condenses into water. The power plant often uses this water again to make more electricity.
3. Clean Energy Powerhouse
The largest domestic source of clean energy is nuclear power. In 2022, nuclear power provided nearly half – 47% - of America's carbon-free energy. By heating water to its boiling point through fission, the nuclear energy process emits no greenhouse gases while generating electricity.3
4. Powering the Globe
In 2020, the U.S. generated nearly one-third of the world’s nuclear electricity, making it the largest producer of nuclear generated electricity. France, China, and Russia were also top contributors to our planet’s overall clean energy supply4. Overall, 32 countries operate a total of 436 nuclear reactors around the globe.
5. Innovative Energy
Nuclear energy powers homes and businesses in 28 U.S. states. With 92 operational reactors, states like Illinois, South Carolina, and New Hampshire enjoy more than half of their power from nuclear sources, solidifying its essential role in American energy3.
6. Mission to Mars
Nuclear energy powers Mars rovers through an innovative tool called the “Multi-Mission Radioisotope Thermoelectric Generator.” The generator converts heat into electricity through the natural radioactive decay of plutonium. The overall process has a 14-year operational lifecycle and allows scientists to maximize the capabilities of the rover's science instruments5.
7. Heavy Metal
Nuclear power plants use uranium as a fuel source. While it is a relatively abundant and common metal found in rocks, U-235, the uranium form used to power fission, is relatively rare, constituting only about 0.72% of naturally occurring uranium. Nuclear power plants use U-235 because its atoms are easily split. The western U.S. is where most uranium ore is mined7.
8. Safest Place to Work
The safest place to work is in the commercial nuclear industry, according to Forbes, with less than 1 fatal injury per 100,000 workers. Compare that to logging, which ranks as the most dangerous job in America, with more than 132 fatal injuries per 100,000 workers. The Nuclear Energy Institute backs up those findings by declaring “U.S. plants are among the safest and most secure industrial facilities in the country.”
4 myths about nuclear energy that might amaze you, too!
Myth 1: Nuclear Energy Can’t Be Clean Because of Nuclear Waste
Is nuclear power bad? Even though public perception of nuclear power continues to become more favorable11, many people still believe waste material generated by nuclear power plants negates nuclear power’s clean energy designation. It’s a belief that mostly grew out of pop culture depictions of the industry. (We’re looking at you, Homer!)
The process for handling spent fuel assemblies, however, is remarkably dependable. When ready for long-term storage, used fuel is sealed in dry casks – large steel-reinforced concrete containers – which are safe enough to touch.
In terms of emitting radioactivity, nuclear power plants and nuclear waste are low on the list of perpetrators. Only 0.005% of an average American’s annual radiation dose, measured as 620 millirems from natural and man-made sources, comes from nuclear power. To put it into perspective, that’s 100 times less than from coal and 200 times less than a cross-country flight.
It is, however, equal to the radiation emitted by eating one banana.
Myth 2: Is Nuclear Energy Safe?
Nuclear energy ranks among the safest energy sources available. In the entire half-century of commercial nuclear power in the United States, no public injuries or deaths have occurred. Recent studies suggest nuclear plants are safer to work in than office buildings8.
Not only are nuclear power plants safer, but the energy they produce is also better than some other energy sources, like fossil fuels. Clean energy from nuclear power plants doesn’t harm the environment like carbon dioxide-producing fossil fuel plants. Nuclear power provides a stable and reliable supply of electricity, too, differentiating it from solar and wind power, which are reliant on the sun and the weather to generate power.
Myth 3: Safely Transporting Nuclear Waste Is Impossible
Used nuclear fuel is safely shipped by truck, rail, and cargo ship every day. And when you consider hazardous waste produced by most major industrial processes, radioactive waste represents only 5% of it. And of that 5%, less than 10% is from nuclear power generation. Now consider that radioactive materials are transported along roads all around the world every year and, to date, none have reported leaks or cracks in the specially designed casks the waste is transported in10. Amazing, right?
Myth 4: Nuclear Energy Can’t Reduce our Dependence on Fossil Fuels
It certainly can. Already, nuclear-generated clean energy powers electric trains, subway cars, and automobiles. Submarines and ships have used nuclear power for more than 50 years. In the future, smaller modular nuclear reactors could provide power to islands like Hawaii and Puerto Rico, replacing imported oil used to generate electricity. And someday nuclear energy will help produce hydrogen for fuel cells, directly reducing our dependence on fossil fuels8.
1. Steven Spielberg Regrets How ‘Jaws’ Impacted Real-World Sharks, Smithsonian Magazine
2. Nuclear Energy, National Geographic
3. 5 Fast Facts About Nuclear Energy, Department of Energy
4. Nuclear Energy Fact Sheet, University of Michigan, Center for Sustainable Systems
5. Power Source, Elect rical Power, NASA Science Mars. 2020 Mission Perseverance
6. What is Uranium?, International Atomic Energy Agency
7. Nuclear Explained, U.S. Energy Information Administration
8. 10 Myths About Nuclear Energy, Argonne National Laboratory
10. Radioactive Waste – Myths and Realities, World Nuclear Association
11. Growing Share of Americans Favor More Nuclear Energy, Pew Research