Health Risks of Nuclear Power

Jan Willem Storm van Leeuwen

Independent consultant

Ceedata Chaam, The Netherlands 22 November 2010


This study starts with a physical assessment of the quantities of the radioactivity being generated and mobilized by the entire system of related industrial processes making civilian nuclear power possible. It assesses the actual and potential exposure of the public to natural and human-made nuclear radioactivity, and it discusses empirical evidence of harmful health effects of these exposures. The biomedical effects of radionuclides in the human body are briefly discussed.

Furthermore this study analyses the mechanisms which may cause the uncontrolled spread of very large amounts of radioactivity into the environment. The study explains some consequences of a basic law of nature (Second Law) for the health risks of nuclear power now and in the future. Misconceptions, uncertainties and unknowns of the nuclear safety issue are addressed. Risk enhancing factors are discussed, along with the consequences of the present economic paradigm for the health risks of nuclear power at this moment and in the future.


The author would like to thank Ian Fairlie for reviewing this report and for his suggestions, Angelo Baracca for his suggestions, and Stephen Thomas and John Busby for their comments. The author notes that this report does not necessarily reflect their opinion.



1 Introduction

2 Origin of nuclear health risks


The nuclear energy system

Nuclear process chain
Nuclear chain as it ought to be Nuclear chain: the current practice


Mobilization and generation of radioactivity Mobilizing natural radioactivity Generating radioactivity
Nuclear bomb equivalents

Immobilizing radioactivity

2.3 Exponential growth of the mobile radioactivity


Engineered safety

Bathtub hazard function

Bathtub curve and nuclear technology


Immobilization of radioactivity



Solutions from cyberspace



Box 1 Second Law

3 Radioactivity and health

3.1 Radioactive decay of human-made radioactivity


Radioactivity in the human body

Biochemical aspects of radioactivity

Non-targeted and delayed effects


Tritium, carbon-14 and krypton-85 Tritium



Nuclear radiation

3.4 The KiKK study

Box 2 Nuclear radiation

4 Pathways of nuclear health risks

4.1 Releases of radioactivity into the environment Routine releases

Unauthorized discharges Severe accidents Risk-enhancing factors Cumulation effects

4.2 Uranium mining
Mine reclamation


Routine releases of the nuclear chain Front end

Interim storage of spent fuel Reprocessing plants

4.4 Other sources of radioactive contamination
Depleted uranium
Orphan sources
Cleanup, decommissioning and dismantling of nuclear plants

4.5 Extent of large-scale accidents

4.6 Conceivable sources of large-scale accidents

Spent fuel storage

Reprocessing waste

Geologic repository

4.7 Terrorism and MOX


Risk-enhancing factors

Human factor
Illegal trade, smuggling and criminality Transport
Armed conflicts

Box 3 Radionuclides in dismantling scrap and debris of a nuclear power plant

5 Views of the nuclear industry

5.1 Safety studies of the nuclear industry

5.2 Reliance on models

Uncertainties in dose estimates Uncertainties in risk estimates Troublesome detection of radionuclides Limited significance of models

About the radiological models used by the nuclear industry

5.3 Entanglement of interests

6 Health risks and economics

6.1 Energy on credit

6.2 Monetary debt

6.3 Economic challenge


6.4 Economic pressure

Price-Anderson Act
Relaxation of exposure and activity standards Standards and quality control
Independency of inspections

6.5 Health risks of nuclear power: an economic notion

References and endnotes


(the full report can be read below in pdf format)

Assessment of nuclear health risks proves to be a complicated and multilayered issue. The first layer concerns the technical aspects and empirical observations. The second layer comprises the views and perspective of the nuclear industry and the information flow on nuclear matters to the public and to decision makers. The third layer concerns the relationship between health risks and common economic views.

Starting point of this study is formed the following observations:

  •  The generation of nuclear energy irrevocably goes together with the generation of immense amounts of human-made radioactivity.
  • Radioactivity cannot be destroyed.
  • Radioactivity cannot be made harmless to humans.

Nuclear power involves the mobilization of naturally occurring radioactivity and the generation of human-made radioactivity, a billionfold of the mobilized natural radioactivity. Each reactor of 1 GWe power generates each year as much radioactivity as 1000 exploded nuclear weapons (Hiroshima bombs).
Nuclear health risks are posed by the spread of radioactive substances into the environment. Non-radioactive substances posing health risks are not included in this study to limit its scope.

The only way to prevent disastrous exposure of the public to human-made radioactivity on unprecedented scale is to immobilize the radioactive waste physically and to isolate it from the biosphere in deep geologic repositories, lasting at least a million of years.
To deal with the global radioactive waste at the current rate of generation about every year a new large deep geological repository has to be opened, at an estimated cost of at least €10bn each. To dispose of the existing radioactive wastes from the past dozens of deep geologic repositories would be required.

The nuclear energy system

The technical assessment of the potential spread of radioactivity into the human environment is based on an elaborate life-cycle analysis (LCA) from cradle to grave of the complete system of industrial processes which makes nuclear power possible. This LCA uncovered a number of uncertainties and unknowns of great importance with respect to the viability and safety of nuclear power now and in the future.

In the first part of this study the present state of the nuclear energy system is briefly described in connection with the potential pathways of radioactive discharges. The analysis follows the course of events involving the mobilized radioactivity and especially the human-made radioactivity. Adequate solutions to immobilize and isolate the human-made radioactivity from the biosphere exist only in cyberspace. All anthropogenic radioactivity ever generated is present in mobile state within the human environment.The nuclear process chain is still open ended.

Radioactivity and health effects

Human-made radioactivity at the moment of its generation is contained in the spent nuclear fuel and comprises dozens of different radionuclides, representing all possible decay modes and all elements of the Periodic Table. A large number of the generated radionuclides have very long half-lives: thousands to millions of years. Even after a cooling period of a 100 years the specific radioactivity of spent fuel is still at such a high level that about 1 milligram of it ingested or inhaled would mean a lethal dose to a human.

The biological effects of radiation in living cells are a very complex matter, with many unknowns. The direct relationship between the exposure to a relatively low dosis of nuclear radiation (i.e. a dosis other than directly lethal) and the resulting adverse health effects on individual scale is very difficult to prove for a number of reasons, such as:

  • long time delay (sometimes decades) between exposure and observable health effects
  • stochastic character of radiation-induced health effects
  • interference with other factors
  • basic biomedical unknowns.

Only elaborate epidemiological studies can provide the empirical evidence of the relationship between radiation and health effects within large groups of individuals.

Exposure to radionuclides and nuclear radiation can cause carcinogenic, mutagenic and teratogenic effects, such as: cancers, leukemia, premature biths, low birth–weight, infant mortality, congenital defects and chronic diseases (e.g. immune system, diabetes).

The health effects of all different types of radionuclides within the human body are not well understood and the biochemical mechanisms are poorly investigated.

Furthermore there is strong empirical evidence that damage also occurs in cells not directy hit by radiation: the so-called non-targeted and delayed effects (e.g. the bystander effect), via unknown mechanisms. Adverse health effects from low radiation doses might be far more serious than previously assumed on the basis of the classic dose-effect models.

A major study (called KiKK) commissioned by the German Government revealed that the leukemia incidence among young children living near nuclear reactors was increased by 120%, and solid cancers were increased by 60%. This result has been affirmed in other studies.

The official exposure standards are based on models and concern only direct exposure to radiation from extern radiation sources. The models do not include:

  • biological effects of radionuclides within the living cells, after inhalation and/or ingestion of radioactive materials via air, water and/or food.
  • non-targeted and delayed effects.
    Empirical evidence proves the dose-effect models to be inadequate to explain observed health effects of routine releases from nominally operating nuclear power plants.

The pathways of tritium and carbon-14 into the human body via drinking water and the food chain are briefly discussed. The biomedical effects of these two biochemically very active radionuclides in the human body are not well understood. Both tritium and carbon-14 are released on daily routine basis in large quantities by nuclear power plants, spent fuel storage facilities and reprocessing plants, under nominal operating conditions.

Health risks of nuclear power are exacerbated by the fact that a number of hazardous radionuclides are difficult to detect, such as tritium, carbon-14 and iodine-129. These radionuclides are routinely discharged into the environment.
But also numerous other hazardous radionuclides in scrap and debris, including some actinides, are hard to detect by commonly used radiation detectors and so these radionuclides can easily enter the public domain.

Views of the nuclear industry

The second layer of this study addresses the perspective of the nuclear industry with respect to nuclear health risks. The nuclear industry claims nuclear power to be safe and clean, refering to a limited number of probabilistic risk analyses (PRAs). This claim is weakly underpinned for two reasons:

  • The probabilistic safety analyses done by the nuclear industry cover only a small part of the existing nuclear installations worldwide which have the potential of large-scale accidents.
  • Not all events and factors potentially leading to a severe nuclear accident can be analysed or quantified in a PRA. Two unavoidable and unpredictable factors are:

– degradation of materials and constructions (consequences of the Second Law) – human behaviour and economic pressure.

The official radiation exposure standards for individuals are based on computer models, starting from unclear axioms and assumptions, which are not widely understood by scientists outside of the nuclear world, let alone by the public and politicians.
Any computer model has its inherent limitations and specific limitations and may exhibit considerable built-in uncertainties.

The nuclear industry advocates two concepts with regard to the reduction of the radioactivity problem which work out only in cyberspace, namely vitrification and transmutation, because these concepts do not reckon with one of the most basic laws of nature, the Second Law. Vitrification leads to a huge volume increase of the radioactive waste and to massive discharges of radioactivity into the environment. Transmutation is practically unfeasible and even if it would work it will cause a large increase of the amount of anthropogenic radioactivity instead of a reduction.

Information on nuclear matters to the public and politicians originates almost exclusively from institutions with vested interests in nuclear power, for example IAEA, WNA, NEA, NEI, and from the nuclear industry itself, e.g. Areva and EdF.
There are strong connections between the IAEA and UNSCEAR and ICRP and consequently these institutions do not operate independently of each other.

Even the World Health Organization (WHO) cannot operate independently of the IAEA on nuclear matters.

The nuclear industry has a habit of Après nous le déluge by postponing indefinitively the actions required to deal adequately with the human-made radioactivity. The assertion of the World Nuclear Association, representing the Western nuclear industy, that all safety matters are fully under control is in flagrant contradiction to the practice

Spread of radioactivity into the environment

Inherently safe nuclear power is inherently impossible.
Only engineered safety exists, which is subject to the Second Law of thermodynamics and to the unpredictable human behavior. Solely dedicated and substantial human effort can prevent large-scale dispersion of anthropogenic radioactivity into the environment, causing extensive and irreversible damage to the public health and well-being.

There are four basic categories of events leading to the spread of radioactivity into the environment:

  • authorized routine discharges of radioactive substances by nuclear power plants and other nuclear facilities
  • unplanned, unauthorized discharges
  • illegal trade and smuggling of radioactive materials and equipment
  • large-scale accidents of Chernobyl-type.

The radioactive wastes of uranium mining are dumped into the environment. Risks posed by dust and groundwater contaminated with the radioactive decay daughters of uranium and thorium are poorly or not investigated by the nuclear industry, but affect vast areas. Radioactive dust from uranium mines, containing extremely hazardous radionuclides, is blown by the wind over distances of thousands of kilometers in arid areas, for example in Australia, Namibia, USA.

A nuclear reactor discharges significant amounts of radioactivity into the environment, even when operating nominally. Empirical evidence points to seriously adverse health effects of these ‘routine releases’, as mentioned above.

Reprocessing plants are extremely polluting. All gaseous radionuclides from spent fuel are released into the air. A great deal of the chemically mobile radionuclides are released into the sea, along with a significant fraction of the uranium, plutonium and other actinides from the spent fuel. Separation processes never go to completion (a consequence of the Second Law), so unavoidably a fraction of the radionuclides from the spent fuel end up in the waste streams of the reprocessing plant.

In addition to the routine releases of radioactivity other, uncontrolled discharges from the nuclear process chain occur. The frequency and the involved amounts of radioactivity of these unplanned and unauthorized discharges are likely to increase with time.

Furthermore the nuclear system hides the potential of severe accidents of extremely large spatial extent and long timescales. Such accidents, which may pale the Chernobyl disaster, are possible even with ‘inherently safe’ reactors (which do not exist). Several scenarios are conceivable, involving nuclear reactors, spent fuel cooling ponds and reprocessing plants. A number of risk enhancing factors are discussed, some technical, other non-technical.

The chances of severe accidents and the magnitude of the imposed health risks increase with time for three reasons:

  • rapidly increasing amounts of human-made radioactive materials in mobile state
  • unavoidable deterioration of materials and constructions
  • increasing economic pressure.

Nuclear facilities are vulnerable to terroristic attacks. Severe accidents could also be initiated by hostile actions in an armed conflict anywhere in the world. The consequences of a Chernobyl- type accident do not stop at our borders.

The use of MOX fuel in civil nuclear reactors poses a great risk for terroristic use of plutonium in primitive but effective bombs.

Nuclear health risks and economics

In the third layer of this study the interactions between economics and health risks are discussed. The current economic paradigm is at odds with nuclear safety. Strong economic forces dominate the views in the political and industrial domains with regard to nuclear power and the perception of its health risks. Two topics are here addressed: the energy debt and the economic pressure to relax safety standards and inspection.

Nuclear power is building up immense energy debts by postponing the immobilization and isolation of the radioactive waste from the biosphere, which is the only way to prevent large- scale accidents affecting vast regions. A physical analysis of the activities required to finish the overdue cleanup of the nuclear heritage points to the consumption of massive amounts of energy, materials and human resources and consequently to unprecedented economic efforts. The energy debt has a physical basis that will grow with time instead of depreciating with time; the energy debt cannot be discounted nor written off like common monetary debts. The financial consequences of the nuclear debts in countries like France and the UK are estimated to rise to hundreds of billions of euros, several times the final cost of the entire US Apollo moon project.

We may ask ourselves if the future generations will be able to solve the problem we could not. Would the future generations have to their disposal sufficient energy, materials, human resources and economic ‘ability to cope’ to make their living environment as save as we and they would wish?

Liability of the nuclear industry is passed on to the taxpayer.

Delayed expenses, for example definitive waste storage and dismantling of nuclear power stations, are systematically passed on to the taxpayer: privatising the profits, socialising the costs.

Discussons on lifetime costs, the only method for a fair comparison of different energy supply systems (e.g. nuclear and renewables), are carefully avoided.
Nuclear power is energy on credit.

De-regulation of electricity markets has pushed nuclear utilities to decrease safety-related investments and to limit staff.

The official standards for discharge of radioactive substances into the environment are susceptible to economic pressure. Relaxation of the standards of emissions and of the classification of radioactive materials as radioactive waste occurs on grounds of economic arguments, not on grounds of scientific evidence.

The efficiency and the independency of inspections of nuclear activities are under high economic pressure. The frequency of inspections is lowered to save costs. The nuclear industry urges for simplified and shortened license procedures with elimination of participation of local authorities. independent institutions and the public.

Unambiguous scientific safety standards based on empirical observations are not feasible, other than no radioactive discharges at all. Under economic pressure a trend is observable to relax nuclear safety standards and to limit the inspections and quality contral. A paradigm of short- term profit seeking and living on credit seems to dominate the decision processes with respect to nuclear power. Health risks posed by nuclear power are found to be an economic notion:

What are we willing to pay for the health of ourselves, our childern and grandchildern and their offspring?

For what reasons do we think to need civilian nuclear power?