Myth Busting the Nuclear Industry
Author: Charley Nevin, University of Sheffield
With the majority of the population getting the lion’s share of their information about nuclear power from The Simpsons, it is no wonder there is a great deal of misinformation out there about the industry. From green, glowing fish, to highly unskilled control room operators, there is plenty in the much-loved animation which makes nuclear workers cringe in their seats. So, let’s bust some of the big nuclear myths!
- Radiation glows green.
This is an extremely widespread myth, based on convenient cinematic devices and on the popularity of radium watches in the 20th century. Radium watches did indeed glow green, but this was not due to the radium itself, rather because of an admixture called phosphor. The alpha particles emitted from the radioactive radium hit the atoms in the phosphor, emitting a greenish glow due to the charged particles present.
From here, the myth was exacerbated in movies and on television; you can’t show something invisible like radiation so producers gave it a colour – green. The Rule of Perception, a psychological theory, states that ‘if the audience can’t perceive it, it doesn’t exist’; computers beep to show they’re working, swords go ‘shing’ to show they’re sharp, and radiation glows green to show it’s, well, radioactive.
In fact, there is only one instance where radiation ‘glows’, and that is as a result of Cherenkov radiation. When electrically charged particles that compose atoms (electrons and protons) move at speeds faster than the speed of light, most commonly in water, they glow. But, instead of the green we have come to associate with radioactivity, it actually glows a deep blue.
2. Critical reactors are out of control.
‘It’s gone critical’ is often a line used in movies and television to create suspense and drama as a disaster is about to unfold. However, in reality a ‘critical’ nuclear reactor is just one that is operating normally. In a nuclear reaction, one neutron bombards an atom to split it apart in a process known as nuclear fission. The atom then splits into two smaller atoms and emits 1-3 neutrons. One of these neutrons must go on to bombard another atom, whilst the spare ones are absorbed. This stable chain of reactions where one neutron from each fission event goes on to cause another fission event is when the reactor has gone ‘critical’. So now, if you ever watch a movie and they claim a reactor has gone ‘critical’, you will know they mean it is functioning normally and producing electricity!
3. High dosage of radiation emitted from nuclear plants.
Radiation is a normal part of life; in fact, in the UK, we get a dose of 2.7 milliSieverts of radiation a year from background sources. This can include medical radiation, radioactive radon gas in the ground, and cosmic radiation, amongst many other sources. To put the ‘danger’ nuclear plants pose to us into context, the average nuclear power station worker’s occupational exposure in 2010 was 0.18 milliSieverts. This means that someone working at a power station day in, day out will only receive a radiation dose equivalent to less than 7% of the background radiation they receive just by eating, drinking, walking around, and generally existing! In fact, due to radioactive elements in fly ash produced in burning coal, to generate the same amount of electricity, a coal power plant gives off at least 10 times more radiation than a nuclear power plant!
4. Nuclear power is dirty.
The fission process by which electricity is generated produces no greenhouse gases. In fact, the whole nuclear fuel cycle, including the mining of uranium, only produces around 15 – 50 gCO2/kWh. In comparison, coal produces around 1050 gCO2/kWh. The average life cycle CO2 equivalent emissions are amongst the lowest of all electricity generators, and is comparable to wind.
5. Nuclear power is dangerous.
Nuclear power has one of the lowest death rates per unit of electricity produced, second only to solar power. There are multiple independent and redundant barriers in place between a radiation source and the environment, meaning that if one safety layer fails, there are several in place to back it up! The current level of nuclear safety is a result of a continuous improvement process, which is based on countless hours of operating experience, including incidents.