How dangerous is nuclear power?

I rather like nuclear power. It’s not perfect but it is powerful and, although the depleted fuel does need to be carefully stored away, it’s clean. However there are those people that are intent on demonising it as nothing but a massive disaster waiting to happen. This happens all over the world, but is it actually true?

The reason I’m thinking about this is because the incidents of Fukushima have been back in the news again. It has been described as the “world’s worst atomic crisis in 25 years” and led to Japan shutting down all of it’s nuclear reactors. Where it gets really ridiculous is that there was a car crash a few blocks from where I live that killed almost as many people as are reported to have died from the Fukushima incident! The number seems to be between 2 and 5 people, none of whom died due to radiation.

Now it’s true Fukushima was a large disaster which required tens of thousands of people to be evacuated but it’s hardly the terrible symbol of nuclear power that some are claiming, in fact I’d say it’s the opposite. For example it’s one thing to look at the evacuation and restricted area and say Fukushima was terrible but let’s not forget the cause of the disaster. The plant was hit by a combination of an earthquake, the fourth strongest ever recorded, and tsunami. In that context Fukushima shows the safety of nuclear power. That it could withstand all that stress and still not kill people.

There’s still the long-term effects of the radiation to worry about right? Perhaps not. The area around Fukushima is certainly not going to be safe for a while but worries about thousands of radiation deaths globally are nonsense. Reports which are being published now are saying there is very little chance of increased incidents of cancer and the slight increase that might happen won’t even be statistically noticeable. Then there is a sign of increased radiation in fish but, again, it’s not a danger to anyone’s health. The scientists point out that natural radiation levels are much higher than those caused by Fukushima.

Other than Fukushima the big events that seem to get mentioned as examples of how terrible nuclear energy is are Chernobyl and Three Mile Island. Both events occurred over a quarter of a century ago. They are poor examples because using them ignores all advances in safety over the last 25 years, and it would be foolish to think that there aren’t any.

Also important is comparative safety. When people have looked at deaths per Terawatt hour something interesting comes up. Nuclear energy has the lowest death rate.

Energy Source                          Death Rate (deaths per TWh)

Coal – world average              161 (26% of world
                                                      energy, 50% of electricity)
Coal – China                             278
Coal – USA                                15
Oil                                               36 (36% of world energy)
Natural Gas                              4 (21% of world energy)
Biofuel/Biomass                       12
Peat                                           12
Solar (rooftop)                         0.44 (less than 0.1% of world
                                                      energy)
Wind                                         0.15 (less than 1% of world
                                                      energy)
Hydro                                       0.10 (europe death rate, 2.2%
                                                      of world energy)
Hydro – world                         1.4 (about 2500 TWh/yr and
 including Banqiao)             171,000 Banqiao dead)
Nuclear                                    0.04 (5.9% of world energy)

The site also contains a link to data on the EU which is slightly different. There hydro power is the safest form of energy production but nuclear is still second safest.

This means that globally nuclear, despite all the fears, is the safest way to produce power. It’s not hugely harmful to the environment either, unless an accident occurs which, as we’ve already seen, is very rare. There’s a nuclear power station near me that has chosen to demonstrate this by creating a nature reserve around the power station. Far more dangerous to people than nuclear power are those that oppose it through violent means. Unfortunately even the less violent environmental groups are not adverse to illegal activities and have had to be removed by police for blockading nuclear talks in South Africa and were arrested at COP17.

I’m not saying we should just be focussed on nuclear energy. Renewable energy is preferable and is constantly improving. Germany just reported a solar power record. While we work at improving and implementing those technologies, let’s not forget that nuclear power is safe and clean. It’s far superior to coal, which is what South Africa is currently using, which is not only dangerous to produce but responsible for pollution on a global level and the problem of global warming. In that context opposition to nuclear energy makes no sense.

Edit: No one pointed out where I’d accidentally pasted a sentence inside another one.:/

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