Tuesday, March 29, 2011

What Fukushima Dai-Ichi Doesn't Teach Us About Nuclear Power

The ongoing crisis at the Fukushima Dai-ichi power plant in Japan has a lot of people reexamining nuclear power as a generation method. In Europe in particular, people are taking a very close look at whether continuing or expanding nuclear power generation is a good idea. If what is happening in Japan is what one can expect from nuclear power, the argument goes, we need to find some alternate sources of energy.

So let's take a look. As it turns out, if you compare the various ways you can generate power and the fatalities associated with that method -- including those due to workplace accidents, but also including those due to environmental damage (like a nuclear accident) -- the range is vast. In fact, the most lethal method of power generation has more than 4,000 times as many deaths attributed to it per terawatt hour generated as the least lethal one, and about 4.5 times as many as the second most lethal method.

It would make quite a bit of sense, given the statistics, for countries to take a good, long, hard look at this deadly form of power, and start now to take steps to eliminate it. In fact, looking at the numbers, you might expect that there would be a major initiative to shift from the most lethal to the least lethal form of power generation, which would be in everybody's best interests.

As it turns out, that's exactly what had been happening before the Japanese earthquake. You see, the most lethal way to generate electricity, as it turns out, is from coal, which accounts for about 50% of the world's electricity generation right now and causes 161 deaths per terawatt hour generated. In addition to the deaths attributable to pollution and global warming, coal generation requires coal mining, one of the most dangerous occupations in the world.

So, before the earthquake, many countries were looking at switching more generation over to a much less deadly form of power generation. As it turns out, the lowest fatality rate per terawatt hour in the world is nuclear power, with just 0.04 deaths per terawatt hour, even taking into account the Chernobyl disaster and other smaller incidents. Even wind energy has more than 4 times this death rate -- caused by turbine blades flying off and workers falling from turbines.

So why are we so upset about nuclear power right now? Why can we muster opposition to even continuing to use the plants we have, let alone building new ones, but nowhere near the push to switch from coal to something -- anything -- else?

First of all, deaths related to coal generation are often invisible. When people die early because of respiratory problems, it doesn't make the news as being "coal-related." These deaths are spread out around the world, and the connection to electricity generation is not terribly obvious. Even when miners die in a mine collapse and it does get a lot of attention, this is generally seen as relating to mine safety, not to power generation. It's much easier to blame mine owners than it is to blame ourselves for using so much power in the first place or tolerating coal-burning plants.

With nuclear power, on the other hand, accidents are big news. This is in part because they really are very rare, but also because the environmental damage is much greater for a small pollution incident. Think about it. If we paid the kind of attention to a tiny seepage of coal smog that we are to the problems at Fukushima, we'd do nothing but talk about coal plants all day long. Unlike coal, which releases a continuous stream of pollutants into the air all the time, the release of nuclear material is much more unusual and much more deadly.

And that's the problem. We don't tend to react to overall averages when we think about deaths and risks. We react to what's going on right now. If every nuclear power plant released radiation the way the Fukushima plant is doing now, and they did it day in and day out, 365 days a year, it would really be catastrophic. The thing we're missing when we say that because of this accident nuclear is too dangerous is that, in fact, every nuclear plant doesn't do that, and even at worst they won't.

Does that mean there's nothing to learn here? Of course not. The safer nuclear plants can be made, the better. Same goes for reducing pollution from coal and making mines safer. And if we can figure out a way to generate power that never kills anyone, I'm all for it. But if we're going to make energy policy, maybe we should consider making it based on the complete facts, and not just what we're scared of today.


Colleen said...

It's a mistake to only look at clear cut deaths....you also have to look at the future....how do you balance coal pollution in the future to nuclear radiation? You have to look at how long any nuclear accidents will continue to pollute, as well....just as you have to look at how long a drilling in the water accident will continue to pollute.

Also, what is the worst case scenario with the fuel? Worst case for coal is limited...a mine collapsing, killing people, ruining the local environment....how long will that affect how much area needs to be compared to the worst case nuclear disaster, should *all* the failsafes fail. How much of the world would be affected, would it suddenly become the most deadly type of fuel, and by how much?

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Naomi Zikmund-Fisher
is a clinical social worker, former school Principal and a Crisis Consultant for schools and community organizations. You can learn more about her at www.SchoolCrisisConsultant.com
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