How Are Nuclear Power Plants Kept Safe?

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Nuclear power has the potential to deliver cleaner energy and, in the future, even supply cosmic explorers on spaceships and at space stations with the energy they need.

While the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) notes that nuclear power plants are among the safest facilities in the world, the ability to control nuclear energy is crucial.

Below, we explore the safety measures put in place for nuclear plants so that they can continue to produce electricity for our businesses, homes, schools, and hospitals.

What Is Nuclear Energy?

Nuclear energy is electricity generated indirectly through fission or the splitting of uranium atoms. This split produces heat, which turns water into steam to spin a turbine, producing electricity without producing byproducts.

Ensuring Nuclear Plants Are Safe

The designs of nuclear power plants are continually under review and improved upon. The IAEA provides its member states with safety requirements as well as recommendations and best practices for power plants.

However, there are currently 437 operable power reactors in the world, many of which use US designs from the ’60s and ’70s. These plants are aging, but safety measures are in place to prevent nuclear incidents.

To prevent any accidents from taking place at a nuclear plant, plants often follow the “defense in depth” approach. This includes an adequate design for specific site characteristics, physical barriers to the release of radioactivity, and strong safety requirements and engineering practices.

When it comes to design, plants are often built close to bodies of water for cooling purposes. Even after power loss, nuclear power plants ensure that cooling capabilities — such as submersion in water — remain intact.

To uncover avenues for error, systemic safety reviews and stress tests are frequently performed. The main three goals of averting a catastrophe include: shutting down reactors, cooling them to remove heat from the nuclear fuel, and containing any radioactivity.

These goals are accomplished by improved and increased power supplies, communication systems, structural containment, personal protective equipment, upgraded drills, and refined procedure manuals.

A more recent safety measure being implemented is cybersecurity. With 50 new reactors currently in construction globally, protecting them relies on more innovative risk assessment and safety processes.

Streamlining Processes to Increase Security

According to a report from the Department of Energy, around 20% of all accidents at high-risk plants can be attributed to equipment failure, while more than 80% are due to human error.

However, compared to Generation I reactors, today’s nuclear power plants are far less likely to release radioactivity during an incident. More specifically, it’s been reduced by a factor of 1600, according to the OECD Nuclear Energy Agency.

Streamlining processes and ensuring knowledge and compliance with proper protocols can further slash human-mediated errors.

There are “over 18,500 cumulative reactor-years of commercial nuclear power operation in 36 countries,” according to the OECD Nuclear Energy Agency. In 1979, Three Mile Island Unit 2 experienced significant damage due to equipment failure and human operational error. In 1986, there was a flawed reactor design in the Soviet Union’s Chornobyl. Then, in 2011, there was a loss of cooling after a seismic tsunami at Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi. Since then, several measures have been taken to increase safety and security at nuclear power plants, including:

  • The adoption of Early Notification and Assistance Conventions, which detect issues earlier
  • The implementation of the Convention on Nuclear Safety, an International Atomic Energy Agency treaty established in 1994 to help govern safety rules of nuclear power plants
  • Improved equipment and training were provided to nuclear reactor operators and regulators

The Future of Nuclear Power Plants

As global consumption of renewable energy continues to grow, nuclear power could play a part in decreasing greenhouse gas emissions.

Some countries are taking advantage of this opportunity, like France, which announced plans to build six new nuclear reactors by 2050, with the possibility of building eight more.

Additionally, for the first time in more than three decades, new nuclear units are being built in the United States. Georgia Power’s Plant Vogtle units 3 and 4 will use advanced pressurized water reactor technology to prioritize safety and quality. Once constructed, the units in Georgia will be able to produce enough clean energy to power one million homes and businesses.

Image Credit: TTstudio /

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