Nuclear energy continues to have a bad reputation despite the more dangerous effects of coal, said Donald E. Wall, director of WSU's Nuclear Radiation Center.
Wall discussed nuclear power as a more practical and safer source of energy than fossil fuels as part of the Common Reading Tuesdays lecture series.
“People don’t want to know what a beta particle is; they want to know if it’s safe for their kids,” Wall said.
Since the Fukushima accident, there has been a lot of news about the possible dangers of nuclear energy, Wall said, but in reality there is a low likelihood of anyone dying from radioactive materials released from the Fukushima nuclear reactor.
“It’s the dose that makes the poison,” Wall said. "A little salt is necessary for bodily functions, but a lot will kill you, the same is true of radioactive materials.”
The amount of radiation secreted from the Fukushima meltdown is so diluted that it is practically impossible for it to lead to cancer, he said.
Coal burning plants pump more radioactive material into the atmosphere than nuclear plants, about 200 pounds of uranium per day, Wall said. Modern scrubbers, however, remove most of these pollutants.
Fossil fuels have been correlated to deaths from asthma and other inhalation-related problems in America, adding up to the same amount of deaths as those caused by automobile accidents, Wall said. The number of documented deaths in relation to nuclear plants in America is zero.
Despite its apparent dangers, nearly half of America’s energy is dependent on fossil fuels, he said. Unlike France, where 75 percent of their energy needs get met by nuclear power and much of the rest by hydroelectric.
France does not have a large amount of nuclear waste sitting around, though, Wall said. That country recycles its excess nuclear waste and reuses the most dangerous and long-living radioactive material. The remaining waste has a half-life of about 200 years.
The U.S. developed the process first in 1947, but is the only country in the world that does not recycle its waste, he said.
The media tells the public there is only an 80-year supply of uranium accessible if the country stopped using fossil fuels, Wall said. However, this is only true if the practices used today continue. If the U.S. began to recycle radioactive waste and used breeder reactors in plants, we could increase the supply of useable radioactive material to an amount sustainable for tens of thousands of years, he said.
A breeder reactor takes stable atoms like uranium 238 and breaks them down into plutonium isotopes which can then be used as fuel, so it is a reactor that makes its own fuel, Wall said.
Nuclear energy is much cheaper than fossil fuels, he said. A piece of uranium the size of a grain of rice has the energy capacity of a ton of coal, which is equivalent to powering a thousand houses for a single day.
“If we got the uranium out of the coal first, we’d get more energy from the coal than if we burned it,” Wall said.