Those who work in the nuclear industry can’t stop telling the rest of us how safe it is. And those more critical towards it can’t seem to shut up about its dangers and risks. So who is right?
Life is dangerous, and it ends with everyone dying. But us humans are notoriously bad at risk perception. Many people are afraid of some safe things (like flying), but are quite comfortable with other, much more dangerous things (like driving a car). It is therefore essential to every now and then check out the actual studies and statistics of the risks and dangers of different activities. What do they tell us about nuclear power?
A few years ago, prestigious medical journal The Lancet published a study which compared various energy sources and their dangers[i]. The subject has been studied by European Union in their Externe-project[ii], and consulting house Ecofys has prepared its own estimates of the subject as well[iii]. All of these came up with similar conclusion: Even when accounting for all accidents, storing of nuclear waste , uranium production and what have you, nuclear energy is one of the safest ways to produce energy.
There are various ways to measure the dangers, hazards and risks of different energy sources. One clear, if somewhat morbid, way is to calculate how many deaths have occurred on average per energy unit, for example a terawatt hour, produced. A terawatt hour is a significant amount of energy – Finland uses roughly 85 TWhs of electricity annually, and a similar amount of heat (space heating and industrial uses combined).
Globally, for every person who has died prematurely because of nuclear power, coal has killed over 6,000. Crude oil production is responsible for roughly 1,300 and natural gas for 500 deaths. Large hydro, where most deaths have been caused by large scale dam failures, has caused 25 persons to lose their lives per TWh. Bioenergy, Finland’s biggest single source of primary energy, kills on average more than 1,000 people for every fatality that is due to nuclear. Even wind and solar have similar or slightly higher death tolls compared with nuclear[iv].
Like everything in life, even nuclear is not without its dangers. But compared with other sources of energy, it is relatively safe. In fact, most of the health hazards from nuclear are not due to nuclear and radiation themselves (which is a common belief) but the fear and anxiety caused by accidents, and on the other hand, the evacuations due to accidents. Take for example Fukushima: by far the major health hazards due to the accident came from the evacuation and the (often unfounded) fear and anxiety people have towards radiation. Even today, with studies showing that living near Fukushima does not cause a significant increase in radiation doses, people are still reluctant to move back to their homes[v]. If radiation fear is such a potent hazard (compared to radiation itself), then maybe we should do something about spreading that fear in the first place?
There is another way to look at the situation. Several environmental organizations prepared a study[vi] on the health effect of European coal burning. It concludes that more than 20,000 people die prematurely because of coal burning, every year. Another study[vii] revealed that global health care costs alone (excluding lost work and lost lives) of burning will increase from current 21 billion (USD) per year to 176 billion in 2060. Even as today roughly three million people die prematurely due to outdoor pollution, in 2060 there will be 6-9 million annual deaths.
In Finland, roughly 1300 people die prematurely because of small particulate pollution every year, with tens of thousands getting sick[viii]. Largest sources of small particles in Finland are transportation[ix] and small scale wood burning in more densely populated areas[x]. In comparison, practically nobody in Finland dies because of the use of nuclear power. People tend to still fear the radioactive fallout from Chernobyl, but comprehensive studies on the matter have concluded that there will be no additional cancer cases in Finland due to Chernobyl[xi]. And that was by far the worst civilian nuclear accident in human history.
[i] Markandya, A., & Wilkinson, P. (2007). Electricity generation and health. The Lancet, 370(9591), 979–990. doi:10.1016/S0140-6736(07)61253-7, page 981.
[iii] Ecofys (2014). Subsidies and costs of EU energy. http://tinyurl.com/leutafn (pdf)
[iv] These numbers are taken from the website Nextbigfuture, which has a recently updated article on the matter: http://tinyurl.com/z9fus25
[vi] Europe’s Dark Cloud, 2016, tekijöinä WWF, Sandbag, Climate Action Network and HEAL. http://tinyurl.com/jz876kt
[vii] The Economic Consequences of Outdoor Air Pollution (2016), OECD, http://tinyurl.com/hoxnqoy
[viii] For more information, see for example https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Particulates
[ix] Especially heavy, diesel-burning vehicles like trucks and busses.
[x] In bigger power plants, it is easier and economically viable to clean up the particulate matter at the source.
[xi] http://www.cancer.fi/syoparekisteri/tutkimus/tshernobyl-ei-ole-lisannyt-syopi/ (In finnish)
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