The Misplaced Menace of Nuclear Power

Eric Medlin
5 min readMar 16, 2022

We need more nuclear power. We can’t abandon fossil fuels without it.

Shearon Harris nuclear power plant, Raleigh. Courtesy: Tripadvisor

Two stories in the past week illustrate the critical debate playing out over the world on the question of renewable energy. On March 6, another dire climate change report was issued by the United Nations predicting an existential threat to much of humanity if nations do not immediately reduce their carbon emissions. Two days earlier, the world was fixated on a nuclear power plant in Ukraine being bombed by the Russians. The story of the Zaporizhzhia plant drew much more attention than the U.N. report. CNN spent hours showing the plant and debating its status. The New York Times reported several stories on the plant’s health and its role as a target for Russian forces.

Inevitably, the two stories are connected. The invasion of Ukraine has thrown into stark relief the reliance of Europe on fossil fuels from Russia, a reliance that has helped cause climate change. At the same time, a major alternative to fossil fuels, nuclear power, was demonized for days as a vulnerable part of Ukrainian infrastructure. Pundits on Twitter and elsewhere have even speculated that the attack was a deliberate message to the West, a reminder of the nuclear fears that pushed them towards Russia in the first place.

Fears of nuclear power are primal and engrained. Humans understandably fear the awesome power of splitting large nuclei of poisonous substances such as uranium and plutonium. We are familiar with the stories of nuclear accidents and the specific details of these gruesome events. Nuclear accidents have an immediate, existential nature that is hard for the public to look away from. They involve the spread of radiation that can do unspeakable horrors to the human body. In many instances, they affect civilians and are related to natural disasters that are harming other sectors of society. Radiation can also pollute the environment. Hatred of pollution has fueled much of the anti-nuclear movement over the past five decades.

An important feature of these fears is the incorrect belief that nuclear power plants can explode like nuclear weapons. The nuclear material in power plants is nowhere near as refined as that in weapons. Chernobyl’s nuclear disaster was caused by a steam explosion that released radiation, not a nuclear explosion

Eric Medlin

I’m a writer interested in the intersections of history, ideas, and politics. I publish every week.