What Netflix got wrong about nuclear power.

Netflix recently released a new documentary series called History 101. Each episode provides viewers a brief history lesson on a variety of hot-button topics, including nuclear power. While providing an entertaining take on a crucial industry, there were a few inaccuracies that we feel needs to be addressed.

It’s no secret that the public’s relationship with nuclear power is complicated, so kudos to Netflix for addressing this complex topic.

Overall, the series attempts to summarize the facts about nuclear energy and the important role it can play in helping us meet our domestic energy demand and provide clean and reliable power around the world.

Here are 5 things Netflix got wrong about nuclear power in its History 101 series.

FALSE: Having nuclear power plants equals having nuclear weapons capabilities.
FACT: Nuclear power plants are not used to make nuclear weapons.

Toward the end of the episode, the narrator states that “if you have a nuclear power plant, you also have the means to make a nuclear weapon.”

This is not true. A commercial nuclear power plant is designed, constructed, and built to do one thing— produce heat and electricity.

Furthermore, commercial nuclear power plants and their operators are completely transparent with international safeguard and security inspections. When other countries use U.S. technology, they form long-standing relationships with the United States and emulate our high standards for safety and security. Therefore, it is crucial that the United States continue to lead the world in nuclear technology and export our expertise to other countries. Simply having commercial nuclear power does not mean that a country has the capability or ability to develop nuclear weapons.

FALSE: The existence of nuclear power plants means meltdowns are imminent.
FACT: Nuclear meltdowns are not immediate threats.

The documentary describes nuclear meltdowns as “immediate threats” and later details three global nuclear accidents. While most people have heard of Three Mile Island, Fukushima, and Chernobyl, many don’t realize that radiation from these events resulted in less than 50 deaths (all from Chernobyl).

In the United States, our 95 reactors currently operate at full power more than 93% of the time—the highest reliability of any energy source—and have been doing this safely and securely for many decades.

However, the episode had a few inaccuracies:

  • Three Mile Island - All of the radiation inside the containment building at Three Mile Island DID NOT leak into the surrounding area. The reactor’s containment building did its job as designed.
  • Chernobyl - There was NO SAFETY REASON to see if Chernobyl’s reactor could survive the loss of off-site power without its cooling system. The Russians disabled six different safety systems to try this demonstration, and Chernobyl serves as a perfect example of why global transparent safety standards, like those we follow in the United States, must be in place.
  • Fukushima - Vast stretches of land are NOT completely uninhabitable at Fukushima. The area is still recovering from the 2011 tsunami, but radiation levels in the local prefecture are the same as in London or Hong Kong, for example, today. While on the Fukushima reactor site, a vest, dosimeter and street clothes are all that’s needed during most of the tour conducted by power plant workers.

FALSE: Russia established the world’s first fully operational atomic power plant.
FACT: The U.S. was the first to create usable electricity through atomic fission.*

EBR-I four lightbulbs

On December 20, 1951, EBR-I powered four 200-watt lightbulbs in Idaho.

While the episode correctly states that Russia became the first country to connect its nuclear power plant to the grid, the United States was actually the first to generate electricity from a nuclear reactor.

On December 20, 1951, Argonne National Laboratory’s EBR-I powered four 200-watt lightbulbs and eventually generated enough electricity to light the entire facility. That paved the way for other reactors to eventually build upon this success.

Russia’s Obninsk APS-1 provided 5 megawatts of electricity to the grid in 1954, while the United States powered its first town in Arco, Idaho, in 1955 with Borax-III. Two years later, the Shippingport Atomic Power Station, located just outside Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, became the first full-scale atomic electric power plant in the United States.

*This one was a little nit-picky. We know!

FALSE: Any exposure to radiation could cause cancer.
FACT: Exposure to small doses of radiation is not likely to cause cancer.

When talking about used nuclear fuel, the documentary mentions that “any exposure to radioactive material in small doses could cause cancer down the line.”

Low levels of radiation are around us every day. Some come from natural sources like the sun and rocks. That means that a person living in higher altitudes is exposed to more radiation than a person living at sea-level. In fact, you get more radiation from your granite countertops than by living next to a nuclear power plant. 

The effects of low-dose radiation have been studied extensively and are the subject of some debate. Although low-dose radiation is regulated conservatively, operating as if there were the potential for an adverse impact, low levels of radiation have not been shown to increase a human’s chances of getting cancer.

The nuclear industry is heavily regulated to ensure that nuclear workers and the public are always protected from any hazard. Simply put, exposure to small doses of radiation is not likely to cause cancer.

FALSE: France is the biggest user of nuclear energy.
FACT: The United States is the biggest consumer of energy from nuclear power.

Finally, the episode states that France is the biggest user of nuclear energy. While France does have the highest percentage share of nuclear power on its grid compared to other countries, the United States generates and uses more nuclear power than the next two leading countries combined.

In 2019, U.S. nuclear power plants generated a record 809 billion kilowatt hours of electricity. That is the most ever produced in the world. Nuclear energy meets 20% of the nation’s power needs and is currently responsible for more than 55% of its clean energy. The United States also has the most reactors in the world with 95 units and currently has two more under construction in Georgia. The new units are set to debut in 2021 and 2022.

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References in this story to any specific commercial product, process, or service, or the use of any trade, firm or corporation name is for the information and convenience of the public, and does not constitute endorsement, recommendation, or favoring by the Department of the Energy.