31 July 2017

Nuclear Power Still Safer Than Fossil Fuels and Biomass

Contrary to widespread intuition, nuclear power is still safer than any form of fossil fuel or biomass. This is even worse when global warming related harm is considered. Here's a blurb:
Discussions with regards to energy safety often incite the question of: how many died from the nuclear incidents at Chernobyl and Fukushima? We addressed this question in a separate blog post. In summary: estimates vary but the death toll from Chernobyl is likely to be of the order of tens of thousands. For Fukushima, the majority of deaths are expected to be related to induced stress from the evacuation process (standing at 1600 deaths) rather than from direct radiation exposure. 
As stand-alone events these impacts are large. However, even as isolated, large-impact events, the death toll stands at several orders of magnitude lower than deaths attributed to air pollution from other traditional energy sources—the World Health Organization estimates that 3 million die every year from ambient air pollution, and 4.3 million from indoor air pollution.15 As so often is the case, single events that make headlines overshadow permanent risks that result in silent tragedies.
In fact, coal is worse than nuclear even if one considers only accidental death and non-air based pollution. For example, coal waste which contains trace amounts of radioactive substances, exposes the environment to more radiation than nuclear waste does. Another huge factor in accidental deaths is that the energy density of nuclear fuel is so profoundly greater than fossil fuels that the volumes of materials that have to be extracted and transported for nuclear power plants is much, much lower.

Image from xkcd.

The study does not evaluate hydropower, wind or solar energy sources, each of which produces very little air pollution (mostly just associated with manufacturing these energy sources), but none of which is entirely accidental death free. Many solar energy resources also involve toxic compounds whose production and manufacturing can lead to pollution related deaths.

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