An OECD expert report on it concluded that "the Chernobyl accident has not brought to light any new, previously unknown phenomena or safety issues that are not resolved or otherwise covered by current reactor safety programs for commercial power reactors in OECD Member countries. In other words, the concept of 'defence in depth' was conspicuous by its absence, and tragically shown to be vitally important."
Nuclear power: Safer than you are, dude.
The recent earthquake and subsequent tsunami in Japan on March 11th has most of the world staring at a few nuclear reactors in or near the Sendai area, hoping they don't cause even greater problems than the natural disaster itself. Some people are so afraid of the power plants and in fact nuclear power in general that they are proposing to ban them altogether. This is a very uninformed response, to say the least, with which its promoters ignore the data and jump to an undeserved conclusion.
Perhaps I'm over-reacting, and the anti-nuclear-power movement is confined mainly to my place of residence, Austria, which is only a stone's throw---over the invisible but still perceptible Iron Curtain---from the Czech Republic's Temelin Nuclear Power Station. Austria gave the Czech Republic problems in joining the EU because of disagreements over the station.
These Austrian protesters are wrong for three reasons. First (and least important) of all, The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) is based in Vienna. These guys probably wouldn't allow an unsafe nuclear power plant to operate so close to where they spend most of their time. Second, the modern Czech Republic is not a primitive, fascist country who would slap together a nuclear reactor like the U.S.S.R. did in Chernobyl, Ukraine. That was careless, and not something a First World country would do. Lastly, and by far most importantly, even including the Chernobyl disaster, the safety record of nuclear power is far better than that of all of the other major power sources, including coal, oil, natural gas, hydro-electric, and wind.
According to a report by the World Nuclear Association, outside of Chernobyl, not a single person has ever been killed by radiation from a nuclear power plant. And Chernobyl was an exception in more ways than one. From the report:
That is to say, even at the time, no one except a fascist, careless government would have built such an unsafe reactor. No nuclear power plant built anywhere else in the world has ever killed anyone with radiation. If it's the radiation you're worried about, what more evidence do you need?
But, yes, people have been killed at nuclear power plants, if not by radiation. The bottom of the WNA report includes a table comparing deaths per terawatt-year (TWy) of energy produced from various fuels between the years of 1970 and 1992. Of coal, natural gas, hydro-electricity, and nuclear, hydro-electric plants are the most dangerous at 883 deaths/TWy. Coal is second worst with 342, and natural gas third with 85. Nuclear power is the safest, with only 8 deaths/TWy. The safety of nuclear power plants is an order of magnitude better than each of the other three, and nuclear technology is improving such that new reactors are orders of magnitudes safer than those built 20 or even 10 years ago.
If that's not enough, try this fact: under normal operation, a coal power plant releases 100 times as much radiation as a nuclear plant of the same wattage. [source]
Or, the world's worst industrial catastrophe was at a pesticide plant in Bhopal, India in 1984. It was far, far worse than Chernobyl.
I could go on and on pulling statistics from various sources that demonstrate that nuclear power is safer than other conventional fuels, not to mention that it's better for the environment and will be able to produce power long after the world has depleted its supplies of coal and oil. But, I'll stop here. I'd rather issue a challenge to all of those opposed to nuclear power plants: show me any data whatsoever indicating that a kilowatt-hour of nuclear power is less safe than the average kilowatt-hour from your favorite provider.
Let me start the opponents off: nuclear waste is of course much more dangerous than the same weight of waste from other fuels. However, the amount of such waste is far less. The average nuclear power plant produces 240-360 tons of radioactive waste per year [source], plus some other less toxic waste. New reactors such as the integral fast reactor would produce much less. Coal power plants, for example, produce about 240,000 tons of toxic waste per year [source]. Considering that most nuclear waste around the world can be reprocessed into safe or useful products and that radioactive waste is an extremely small portion of total waste, we would once again have to go to the data to see which is worse. I don't have more comprehensive data at the moment, but I'm happy to be pointed in the right direction.
It seems intuitively obvious to me that for us here on Earth, there is only one source of energy that can last from today until our planet becomes an icy space rock: the sun. Before power plants existed, it provided all the energy that was needed for life to live and then some. But, obviously we don't yet have the technology/money necessary to make the full transition to solar power, which could happen within a few decades if we make it a goal, or maybe in a century or two if we continue to generally ignore it. Until then, though, we have to make a careful decision about which fuel to use to power our homes and offices. Let's not jump to conclusions simply because a power-generating technology is closely related to a weapons technology, and it scares us. That's bad science and bad politics. Let the data speak.