The Safety of Workers at Nuclear Power Plants
We are living in a time of rapid technological change as on the one hand, electric devices in the home are becoming dramatically more efficient and using less power, and on the other hand, new technologies such as electric vehicles are expected to increase the demand for electricity in the coming years. This growing demand for electricity is accompanied by concerns about global warming, in part due to greenhouse gases released by power plants running on petroleum or coal. Nuclear power plants are alternative sources of power generation that release very little in the way of greenhouse gases into the environment. However, there is much concern about the health effects of the radiation produced by nuclear power. Is working at a nuclear power plant dangerous or harmful to one's health? Any solution to our electricity needs must take the safety of workers into account in order to be ethical. It turns out that working at a nuclear power plant is relatively safe, and the risks associated with exposure to low levels of radiation are pretty minor.
We have to get our power from somewhere. People are not going to stop using electricity in mass amounts anytime soon, so we will have to accept some method of power production as being the least harmful to workers, nearby residents, and the environment. No method of power production is going to be 100% safe or clean, but nuclear power plants end up being the lesser evil.
At this time, about 63% of electricity in the United States is generated from fossil fuels - coal, natural gas, petroleum, and other gases (eia.gov). Burning these fossil fuels releases large amounts of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere contributing to global warming. These types of power production are also somewhat inefficient. For example, it takes burning about 325 kg of coal to power a 100-Watt light bulb for one year. Coal-burning power plants also have their own set of safety hazards for the workers, such as explosions, fire danger, and respiratory problems. Hydroelectric power plants are at least clean, renewable sources of energy. However, they only make up 6.6% of the power production in the United States, and there are only so many rivers you can dam. The amount of power that can be generated by hydroelectric power plants is limited by the availability and practicality of rivers to be dammed. Not only that, but dams can be harmful to local ecosystems as they dramatically alter the local environment. This is not to mention the catastrophic consequences of dam failure. In the first 10 years of the twentieth century alone, around 200 significant dam and reservoir failures took place around the globe causing massive losses in property and human life (Cannata). Wind and solar energy are other clean and renewable methods of generating power, but they take up huge amounts of geographic space and produce relatively little power in comparison with other more commonly uses power production methods. It is not practical to think that all our power needs can be met by renewables like hydroelectric, solar, and wind. Even if nuclear power isn't perfect (no power production method is), its benefits outweigh its drawbacks, unlike the other methods mentioned above.
The biggest concern about nuclear power is the harmful radiation to which workers, neighbors, and the local environment could be exposed. However, nuclear power plants release very low levels of radiation, and studies have repeatedly show that low levels of radiation exposure are not harmful. For example, studies have been done around nuclear sites in Canada to gauge the harmful health effects, if any, on the residential areas near nuclear power plants from the release of small amounts of radioactive substances such as tritium. "Evidence suggests that current levels of tritium emissions from CANDU reactors in Canada are not related to adverse health effects." (Wanigaratne) Some studies have even shown that exposure to low levels of radiation over an extended period of time can actually reduce your cancer risk (Tucker). Not only that, but the levels of radiation being released by nuclear power plants is comparable to the levels of radiation we are exposed to by nature. Radioactive materials are naturally occurring and constantly bombarding us with cell-damaging radiation that our bodies are designed to cope with. Only in high doses does radiation truly become harmful.
The amount of radiation that we are exposed to is measured in units of rem (an acronym for roentgen equivalent man). The rem is an equivalent dose unit that measures the harmful health effects statistically caused by low levels of ionizing radiation to which the human body is exposed. Measurements in rem allow us to compare exposure to radiation from naturally occurring sources to radiation exposure from artificial sources, such as nuclear power plants. The average dose of radiation that the typical American receives each year is 620 millirem, with about half of that coming from the natural background radiation. The natural background radiation comes from the sun, natural substances in the air, and from the earth itself. Those who live at high elevation are exposed to higher levels of radiation from the sun since the thinner atmosphere higher up does less to shield them from the sun's cosmic rays. For every hour you spend flying on an airplane, you are exposed to 0.3 millirem of additional cosmic radiation from the sun. A chest x-ray gives you about 10 millirems of radiation. A full body CT scan exposes you to about 1,000 millirems of radiation. The annual dose limit for nuclear workers is set at 5,000 millirem. Although this is significantly higher than the typical annual dose, this is an upper limit and is still below the threshold of what are bodies are easily capable of handling.
As stated previously, radioactivity abounds in nature. Any organic material, whether plant or animal, contains radioactive isotopes of potassium, radium, and other elements. Eating one banana per day increases your radiation exposure by 3.6 millirems annually due to the radioactive potassium isotopes they contain. In fact, there is even an informal unit used to measure doses of radiation known as the BED (banana equivalent dose). Bananas are not unique in containing radioactive isotopes. Carrots, white potatoes, lima beans, and red meat, all have similar amounts of radioactivity to bananas per serving. This should not alarm us because low levels of radiation exposure are not harmful and may even be good for us.
Thyroid cancer is the main legitimate concern when it comes to the possible adverse health effects of working at or living near a nuclear power plant. Thyroid cancer is normally rare, so if there is an increase in thyroid cancer in a population, it is likely to be the result of exposure to harmful radiation. (Muller) When exposure to harmful radiation causes cancer, thyroid cancer predominates (Park). A scientific study was done in Belgium about whether or not there was an increased thyroid cancer risk for those living in the vicinity of nuclear sites located in Belgium. A scientific study was done in Belgium about whether or not there was an increased thyroid cancer risk for those living in the vicinity of nuclear sites located in Belgium. "No excess incidence of thyroid cancer was observed around the nuclear power plants of Doel or Tihange. In contrast, increases in thyroid cancer incidence were found around the nuclear sites of Mol-Dessel and Fleurus; risk ratios were borderline not significant." (Demoury) "For Mol-Dessel, there was evidence for a gradient in thyroid cancer incidence with increased proximity, prevailing winds, and simulated radioactive discharges." (Demoury) The risk of suffering from thyroid cancer as a result of prolonged exposure to low levels of radiation at a nuclear power plant, while relatively unlikely, is a real risk.
Supplementing with iodine can mitigate the already low risk of thyroid cancer and allow workers to safely work at a nuclear power plant. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) acknowledges that potassium iodide, which is a stable form of iodine, can protect the thyroid gland from injury by providing it with the non-radioactive iodine it needs to function, effectively blocking the uptake of radioactive iodine by the thyroid. Iodine supplementation only protects the thyroid from radiation damage and does nothing to protect other parts of the body. It also cannot undo damage to the thyroid that has already taken place. Nevertheless, it would be wise for nuclear workers to supplement with potassium iodide as a prophylaxis against possible damage to their thyroid gland, even though chances are they would be fine without it, since potassium and iodine supplements are good for you anyway. This supplementation could be thought of as analogous to other types of personal protective equipment (PPE) required in other lines of work to prevent health problems or injury.
Nuclear accidents are rare, but they are also a major concern when it comes to the safety of workers at nuclear power plants. Chernobyl is by far the most famous nuclear accident, but we also have a more recent example in the disaster at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant in Japan. This accident was caused by a 9.0 magnitude earthquake that also caused a seismic sea wave that flooded the plant. The only people who actually died in the nuclear power plant were killed by the impact of the Tsunami itself. In addition, over 18,000 people died elsewhere due to the earthquake and tidal waves (totally unrelated to the nuclear disaster). People actually working in the Fukushima plant during the disaster and cleanup were exposed to substantial levels of radiation, but still not enough to dramatically increase their cancer risk. "In hindsight, it is hard to resist the conclusion that the policies enacted in the wake of the disaster in Japan--particularly the long-term evacuation of large areas and the virtual termination of the Japanese nuclear power industry-were expressions of panic." (Muller) The regions in Japan surrounding the power plant that were evacuated long term had levels of radiation lower than those naturally occurring at typical high elevation cities across the United States. In the final analysis, high estimates are that up to 1,800 people may eventually die of cancer partly resulting from their exposure to high levels of radiation released in the disaster. However, based on the evidence, it is more likely that the number is closer to 200-300. It is impossible to know for sure since so many people die of cancer anyway.
There seems to be a double standard when it comes to the safety of nuclear power production versus the safety of other power production methods. Nuclear power disasters have caused relatively few deaths and injuries. Other types of power generation plants have caused major injuries and losses of human life, and yet they don't have the same stigma as nuclear power. The 1975 Banqiao Dam failure in China killed well over 85,000 people by conservative estimates and wiped out about 30 cities. Dam failures in the United States have killed over 11,000 people in the last century. More than 100,000 American coal miners died during that same time due to accidents involving suffocation, collapses, poisoning, lung damage, etc. In 2005 and 2006 in China alone, approximately 5,000 people died each year directly from coal mining accidents. In 1952, the Great Smog of London killed approximately 12,000 people in a matter of months due to inhalation of harmful smog caused mainly by the burning of coal and also of wood. Going down the list of all the hazards and fatalities caused by other forms of power generation puts nuclear power in a much more favorable light.
In fact, because they have to live down that stigma, nuclear power plants are one of the safest places you could possibly work. They are extremely safety conscious and have very strict protective protocols in place. Nuclear power plants are very careful about radiation levels and have strict standards regarding radiation protection (Kulkarni). The normal operation of a nuclear power plant exposes its workers to low levels of radiation, but these levels are below the threshold that would cause adverse health effects in the vast majority of people. In addition, nuclear power plants are very careful about other workplace injuries since they are working hard to have a reputation for being safe. First aid gear is everywhere, and staff are well trained in dealing with the kinds of injuries and workplace accidents that happen at just about any job.
Not only are nuclear power plants very safety conscious, they are also very security conscious for obvious reasons. Their security protocols are regulated by the federal government, and the independent National Regulatory Commission (NRC) holds them to an extremely high standard when compared to other industries. Nuclear power plants are staffed with heavily armed security guards and have strict rules regarding visitor and employee access. The reactor itself is deep inside the compound and is surrounded by multiple layers of protection including physical barriers, bulletproof glass, surveillance cameras, electromagnetic locking doors, and highly trained armed guards. All of this security is there to protect the reactor from assault, but in the process, it provides a tremendous amount of safety to the workers at the facility as well. There are about 5,000 bank robberies in the United States every year, not to mention all the convenience stores and other businesses being robbed. There are also thousands of incidents of workplace violence each year in the United States across all industries. A nuclear power plant is a very unlikely place for a workplace shooting or robbery due to the high level of security present.
There are many other jobs that are much more dangerous than working at a nuclear power plant. Any job will have its inherent risks, and the only way to be perfectly safe is to never leave the house. Some of the most dangerous jobs involve driving a car or truck since about 100 people die in car accidents every single day in the United States. Driving a semi or even a taxicab is far more dangerous statistically than working at a nuclear power plant. Being an electrician is certainly more dangerous than working at a nuclear power plant. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) estimates about 350 electrical-related deaths per year, which is almost one per day. The most dangerous jobs in America include logging, fishing, flying small aircraft, and roofing, but working at a nuclear power plant is not even on the list.
Nuclear power provides a practical and ethical solution to our continued need for power and our growing concern about greenhouse gases polluting the environment. While renewables such as water, solar, and wind seem like great solutions on the surface, they cannot realistically provide the quantities of power needed in the coming decades. They also have their own dangers and drawbacks that make them inferior to nuclear power, and they also take their own toll on the environment. When compared to other jobs, working at a nuclear power plant is relatively safe. The level of danger involved in working at a nuclear power plant is quite reasonable, making it an ethical source of power production from a worker safety standpoint. In the future, new superior methods of producing power may be discovered that we cannot even imagine today. Until then, nuclear power is the most viable all around option for an abundant supply of clean, safe power in the 21st century.
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