Fossil Fuel vs. Nuclear for Safe and Clean Power

World Energy Consumption 1970-2025

World Energy Consumption 1970-2025: Photo by Xenoforme

We need energy to provide electrical power to our homes and support our infrastructure, to name a few. So, the question is not: How do we live without power? The real question is: How do we pick the safest power-generation industry to supply electricity for our needs?

Most of the power generation in the United States is produced by turbine generators; a fluid or gas passed by blades rotating on a shaft and turning to convert mechanical energy into electrical energy. The method of sending the gas or liquid to the turbine is promoted through various fuels. In a steam turbine, for example, these fuels heat water to produce steam, which then, through various designs, drives the turbine blades. Coal, natural gas, nuclear (uranium), and petroleum are examples of fuels used to heat the water in steam turbines. The mix of which fuels are used, and when and where they are used, is changing, based upon many considerations such as pollution and safety concerns.

What Fuel Do We Use Now?

Within the United States, coal is by far the most common fuel. In 2010, more than 45% of the electrical generation used coal as its fuel. Natural gas is second on the list at 24%, and nuclear power, at 20%, is produced through 104 reactors in 31 states. The remaining power producers, such as solar and wind, produce much lower percentages of our nation’s power.

World electrical power fuel, as of 2007, gave oil the top billing at 36.04%, followed by natural gas at 23.39%, coal at 26.84% and Nuclear at 5.84%.

Safest Fuels: Nuclear vs. Coal and Oil

Numbers don’t lie; nuclear power wins the safety contest hands down. After 14,000 reactor-years of operation, over a 50-year history, three significant accidents have occurred: Three Mile Island (1979), Chernobyl (1986), and Fukushima(2011). With this extended operation history, only Chernobyl and Fukushima resulted in radiation exposure with the worst nuclear death toll of 58 people at Chernobyl, and none so far from Fukushima. Increased thyroid cancer as a result of radiation released from Chernobyl involved about 4000 people, of which most was curable.

Global CO2 Emissions

Global CO2 Emissions: photo by Pflatau

Compare this safety record to coal and petroleum; statistically a lot deadlier.

Pollution: For oil pollution, look no further than the Gulf of Mexico spill or its contribution to global warming. Coal, although inexpensive to recover, has mercury and carbon dioxide as by-products, both requiring expensive treatment options. In addition, the amount of radiation produced from a coal plant far exceeds that of a nuclear plant.

Health Risks: Let’s talk about death tallies. In one year, over 4,000 U.S. coal miners are injured and nearly 24,000 die prematurely from diseases such as lung cancer (black lung disease).

Is Nuclear Power Safe?

With the recent Fukushima accident, the public wants to know: is nuclear power safe? The answer lies with the design and age of the individual power plant. From the advent of the nuclear power plant option, there has been an awareness of the potential hazard from release of radioactivity. The basics of nuclear power are uranium dioxide pellets with a 5% enrichment of U-235 splits to produce energy and particles that heat the water and start a chain reaction. The heat then drives steam towards the turbine and produces electrical power.

The nuclear plant design has evolved throughout the years.

  • After the Three Mile Island accident occurred, significant testing followed to strengthen design against future melt-downs and potential radiation release.
  • Chernobyl made clear the need for a containment as the few remaining plants were upgraded or shut down and more modifications to older plants ensued.
  • Automation became an important upgrade for older plants, since operator error was a leading cause in the Chernobyl accident.
  • New training and automation are now part of the licensing of new reactors and upgrades to older ones.
  • The recent Fukushima accident caused the nuclear industry to re-evaluate their safety standards, the results add another round of progressive upgrading.
  • The age of the reactor may cause further closures.

One thing is for sure, through the wisdom gleaned from these three significant nuclear accidents, the future of nuclear power plant design has the public safety first and foremost. New design, redundancy, and automation remove even more risk from an already safety-conscious industry.

The Answer is Clear: Nuclear Power is Safe

Nuclear Power Plant

Nuclear Power Plant Photo by Greudin

The three major reactor accidents have shown the industry that even among the worst accidents, few and far between, there is little loss of life, as compared to other fuels. In addition, nuclear power producers are constantly assessing safety upgrades, in an effort to protect the public from any pollution or harm. We are living in a energy-demanding world which will continue to increase its need. The proposed shift to electric cars is just one example. Nothing is risk-free, but risk can be minimized through constant review, upgrade and new designs. Nuclear generated power meets all these criteria, and more.


Green Grid Partners. Renewable Generation. Accessed December 12, 2011.

World Nuclear Association. Safety of Nuclear Power Reactors. (2011).  Accessed December 12, 2011.

The Virtual Nuclear Tourist. Comparisons of various energy sources- Updated.(2009). Accessed December 12, 2011.

Adams, Cecil. Is nuclear power safe? (2011). The Straight Dope. Accessed December 12, 2011.

EIA. Electricity in the United States. (2011). Accessed December 12, 2011.

Svoboda, Elizabeth. Debunking the Top 10 Energy Myths. (2010). Popular Mechanics. Accessed December 12, 2011.

© Copyright 2011 Judy Haar, All rights Reserved. Written For: Decoded Science
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  1. says

    The worst thing to come out of the Japan tsunami is the fear that it has created over nuclear energy! Nuclear energy is vastly cleaner and safer then fossil power sources and better for the environment than damns.

  2. prowberr says

    I am shocked at the comment “that there is little loss of life (in nuclear accidents), as compared to other fuels”. This is bad science. It is true that deaths which can be DIRECTLY attributed to nuclear accidents are very low, but this is like saying that the only people who die from smoking are those killed in fires from dropped cigarettes, ignoring all the deaths which it is likely were caused by smoking related illnesses, such as cancer. Estimates of deaths caused by Chernobyl vary from the World Health Organisation view of around 4,000, the lowest, up to the figure of around 1 million, advocated by some Russian scientists and which is supported by Dr Chris Busby. My view of the science, based upon an analysis of the methods involved and the models used, is that the true figure is around 100,000. The WHO model relies on dose rate data which relies too heavily on casualties following WWII bombs and ground based nuclear tests, high doses which may well be masking the effects of prolonged exposue to lower dose rates. Some other models do run the risk of double counting, hence my rather more conservative view. It is clear from the data, if we compare the use of fossil fuels with nuclear over the same timespan, i.e. since the 1960s, and in proportion to the amount of energy generated, acknowleding that fossil fuels have produced an order of magnitude higher energy than nuclear ver has, that nuclear is NOT SAFE in comparison.

    However, the greatest argument here is why are we comparing the MOST polluting forms of generation with each other? Why are we not moving towards a regime of even lower polluting and sustainable technologies, such as solar, wind, tidal and hydro? Comparing the safety of these technologies with nuclear is a whole new ball game. We must use and develop sustainble resources if we are not to store up problems for future generations and for which we do not have any technical solutions, such as the disposal of nuclear waste. Wake up world and solve real problems, not create new ones.

    • enlightenment17 says

      @prowberr, Please make sure you are aware of the sources where you get your information and numbers from. The World Health Organization’s report on Chernobyl is vastly considered the reliable source on true Chernobyl-related sicknesses and deaths, as they conducted the most thorough and unbiased investigation in the aftermath of the disaster. The 4,000 lives quoted in this article comes directly from the World Health Organization’s report. I encourage you to check out the report for yourself.

      And as far as believing in the renewables fairytale, you need to be fully aware of our true energy demands and the limited capacity of renewables. While I fully support the use of solar, wind, hydro, etc… it’s just never going to be enough to supply the baseload, 24-7 electricity that our grid demands. That’s it, end of discussion. It’s just not possible. Those sources are not, by their very nature, reliable energy sources. They can be a great addition during peak electricity needs or for small, remote needs but relying fully on them will cause us to live in the dark much more frequently. And by the way, hydro is already at it’s full capacity unless you’re able to discover new rivers that somehow escaped all those geographic satellites orbiting the earth.

      Nuclear power is far and away the best choice to meet the majority (baseload 24-7) of our energy demand if we want a clean(yes, I said clean. Nuclear power has less of a carbon footprint than even solar), reliable, and safe option. And if you really do care about “solving real problems”, please write your congress person and ask him/her why we do not reprocess spent nuclear fuel in this country? Or why we don’t invest in nuclear technologies that use commercial spent fuel as fuel of their own. Spent nuclear fuel is not a problem that needs solving. Science has had those answers for decades. The problem is getting the government on board so that we, as a country, can meet our energy needs in a clean and safe manner.

      And if you’re still not convinced, please read “Power to Save the World” by Gwyneth Cravens. It will truly change your perception on energy.

      • Judy Haar says

        Thank you for your comment, I will definitely read the referenced book. I agree, nuclear is a reliable and safe option. I’ll be writing soon on the future of nuclear. Some interesting stuff. Would appreciate your comments.


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