Historian Pulls Back the Veil on Nuclear Power's Safety

Government historian's book about nuclear risks does not instill confidence
By Mike L. Ford,  Newser Staff
Posted Aug 20, 2022 5:30 AM CDT
Historian Pulls Back the Veil on Nuclear Power's Safety
A nuclear power plant of RWE AG is seen In Lingen, Germany, Friday, March 18, 2022.   (AP Photo/Martin Meissner)

At the moment, the world is wondering what will happen if/when an artillery round hits the wrong part of Ukraine’s Zaporizhzhia nuclear plant. But that’s not the only reason nuclear power is a hot topic. Some Europeans are counting on it as an alternative to Russian energy, and some environmentalists continue to promote it as an essential tool for reducing carbon emissions. In a lengthy piece for the New Yorker, Daniel Ford delves into a book published last year that everyone involved might want to look at. It's Safe Enough? A History of Nuclear Power and Accident Risk by Thomas Wellock, the official historian of the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission. The upshot: the world is quite lucky to have avoided worst-case scenarios. Also, we’re overdue for another meltdown.

During the nuclear building spree of the 1960s, the public was assured that the risk of catastrophe was "vanishingly small." But those assurances were based on "expert guesswork and calculations that often produced absurd results," Wellock wrote. Over the decades, reports, analysis, and draft letters about safety issues and the risks of placing reactors near cities were often suppressed within the NRC's predecessor, the US Atomic Energy Commission. Wellock doesn’t predict the future, but Ford adds his own perspective based on decades of reporting on and studying reactor safety. He says the nuclear industry's death warrant was signed decades ago, while affordable wind and solar power are picking up steam. Concludes Ford: Nuclear power "is not the key to world energy security." (Read the fascinating full piece here.)

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