New Scientist: Nuclear power far safer than fossil fuels.

From New Scientist:

IN THE wake of the nuclear crisis in Japan, Germany has temporarily shut down seven of its reactors and China, which is building more nuclear power plants than the rest of the world combined, has suspended approval for all new facilities. But this reaction may be more motivated by politics than by fear of a catastrophic death toll. It may be little consolation to those living around Fukushima, but nuclear power kills far fewer people than other energy sources, according to a review by the International Energy Agency (IAE).

“There is no question,” says Joseph Romm, an energy expert at the Center for American Progress in Washington DC. “Nothing is worse than fossil fuels for killing people.”

A 2002 review by the IAE put together existing studies to compare fatalities per unit of power produced for several leading energy sources. The agency examined the life cycle of each fuel from extraction to post-use and included deaths from accidents as well as long-term exposure to emissions or radiation. Nuclear came out best, and coal was the deadliest energy source.

The explanation lies in the large number of deaths caused by pollution. “It’s the whole life cycle that leads to a trail of injuries, illness and death,” says Paul Epstein, associate director of the Center for Health and the Global Environment at Harvard Medical School. Fine particles from coal power plants kill an estimated 13,200 people each year in the US alone, according to the Boston-based Clean Air Task Force (The Toll from Coal, 2010). Additional fatalities come from mining and transporting coal, and other forms of pollution associated with coal. In contrast, the International Atomic Energy Agency and the UN estimate that the death toll from cancer following the 1986 meltdown at Chernobyl will reach around 9000.

In fact, the numbers show that catastrophic events are not the leading cause of deaths associated with nuclear power. More than half of all deaths stem from uranium mining, says the IEA. But even when this is included, the overall toll remains significantly lower than for all other fuel sources.

So why do people fixate on nuclear power? “From coal we have a steady progression of deaths year after year that are invisible to us, things like heart attacks, whereas a large-scale nuclear release is a catastrophic event that we are rightly scared about,” says James Hammitt of the Harvard Center for Risk Analysis in Boston.

Yet again, popular perceptions are wrong. When, in 1975, about 30 dams in central China failed in short succession due to severe flooding, an estimated 230,000 people died. Include the toll from this single event, and fatalities from hydropower far exceed the number of deaths from all other energy sources.

Read more: Our interview with David Spiegelhalter, “Risk expert: Why radiation fears are often exaggerated”

(The interview linked to at the bottom is very good. Eeyore)

About Eeyore

Canadian artist and counter-jihad and freedom of speech activist as well as devout Schrödinger's catholic

4 Replies to “New Scientist: Nuclear power far safer than fossil fuels.”

  1. FYI: One of the interesting things about modern nuclear power (in the US at least) is that few really understand how it works day to day, and I include in that bin most scientists and journalists who are commenting to the media on the topic. It’s kind of treated as a black box from which occasionally spews toxic goo. While not necessarily leading to incorrect assumptions, this is perhaps not the best way to look at any of our potential energy supplies if we are to make better decisions about them in the future. Hundreds of nuclear workers are busy every day at every reactor. What are they doing?

    I’ve worked in the US nuclear industry for 25 years. My novel “Rad Decision” culminates in an event very similar to the Japanese tragedy. (Same reactor type, same initial problem – a station blackout with scram.) The book is an excellent source of perspective for the lay person — as I’ve been hearing from readers. The novel is free online at the moment at http://RadDecision.blogspot.com . (No adverts, nobody makes money off this site.) Reader reviews are in the homepage comments.

    Unfortunately, my media presence consists of this little-known book and website, so I’m not an acknowledged “expert”. I just do the nuclear stuff for a living. And I think I have explained it well in a non-yawn-producing manner. But it’s a bit of a tree falling in a forest………

    I believe there isn’t a perfect energy solution – just options – each with their good and bad points. And we’ll make better choices about our future if we first understand our energy present.

  2. Back in the 1950s the left in the west started opposing nuclear power because the fuel could be reprocessed into nuclear weapons, the left opposed nuclear weapons because they let us stand up to the USSR and prevent them from forcing communism down our throats. Now the left opposes nuclear power because they don’t want the west to be a strong economic power, if the leftist in the enviromental groups would let us build power plants and drill for oil both Canada and the US would be energy independent and the oil we wouldn’t be buying from OPEC would force the price of oil down to where Europe could once again become a major economic power to rival the US.

  3. FYI: One of the interesting things about modern nuclear power (in the US at least) is that few really understand how it works day to day, and I include in that bin most scientists and journalists who are commenting to the media on the topic. It’s kind of treated as a black box from which occasionally spews toxic goo. While not necessarily leading to incorrect assumptions, this is perhaps not the best way to look at any of our potential energy supplies if we are to make better decisions about them in the future. Hundreds of nuclear workers are busy every day at every reactor. What are they doing?

    I’ve worked in the US nuclear industry for 25 years. My novel “Rad Decision” culminates in an event very similar to the Japanese tragedy. (Same reactor type, same initial problem – a station blackout with scram.) The book is an excellent source of perspective for the lay person — as I’ve been hearing from readers. The novel is free online at the moment at http://RadDecision.blogspot.com . (No adverts, nobody makes money off this site.) Reader reviews are in the homepage comments.

    Unfortunately, my media presence consists of this little-known book and website, so I’m not an acknowledged “expert”. I just do the nuclear stuff for a living. And I think I have explained it well in a non-yawn-producing manner. But it’s a bit of a tree falling in a forest………

    I believe there isn’t a perfect energy solution – just options – each with their good and bad points. And we’ll make better choices about our future if we first understand our energy present.

    Back in the 1950s the left in the west started opposing nuclear power because the fuel could be reprocessed into nuclear weapons, the left opposed nuclear weapons because they let us stand up to the USSR and prevent them from forcing communism down our throats. Now the left opposes nuclear power because they don’t want the west to be a strong economic power, if the leftist in the enviromental groups would let us build power plants and drill for oil both Canada and the US would be energy independent and the oil we wouldn’t be buying from OPEC would force the price of oil down to where Europe could once again become a major economic power to rival the US.

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