Choosing a Bigger Evil

 In Conservation, environmental education, Nuclear power

In a world faced with the simultaneous challenges of global warming and an growing power consumption, this author think it’s misguided to frown on the use of nuclear power as an alternative to fossil fuels. As a marine conservationist it’s interesting to note many conscientious scuba divers, consumers, environmentalists and people in favor of natural preservation are opposed to nuclear power, and I’d like to give this a closer examination.

Usually the sentiment that nuclear power is too dangerous comes with a default blanket statement to the effect, that although fossil fuels are bad we should seek to use alternate green energy rather than nuclear power. The ugly truth is, that while noone can object to solar power and windmills, these technologies are still hopelessly inept at meeting the enormous power requirements of the first world, not to mention the colossal power needs of the developing world which is starting to really gain momentum. While I won’t dedicate any space here to elaborate on the problems with green energy (those pertaining to storage, reliance and availability of energy,) I will address the issue of relative danger, because this needs to be said as often as possible.  Even if we believe that global warning is a myth or we know it to be true, but chose not to care –  fossil fuels, upon evaluation, turn out to be a really bad idea compared to nuclear power.

Let’s take a step away and look at this with a birds eye view. On one hand we can’t say how many people become happy, fulfill their aspirations, live a good life through one or the other (does earning a wage as a coalminer count in favour of fossil fuels for example?) Looking at the monetary side of things tend to get really fuzzy as well, because – just to pick one example – While it’s more costly to run nuclear power plants, shouldn’t you also, say,  factor in the cost of hospital treatment of millions of people with respiratory ailments caused by the burning of fossil fuels? Or flipping the argument – how much does it cost to clean up after something like the Fukushima disaster? Or how much does acidification of the seas, caused by burning of fossil fuels cost fishing communities and national economies exactly?

So while economy is really fuzzy to look at, we can look at deaths attributed to each of these power generation methods, because fatalities can not only be counted, but also estimated by scientific statistical and historical evidence. So while not exactly a merry subject, fatalities at least give us a pretty good idea of relative safety. And looking at real safety, not percieved safety, becomes hugely relevant, when the primary reason for being again nuclear power for many people is that “it’s unsafe.”

In the following comparison, I disregard the nuclear bombs over Hiroshima and Nagasaki – as, after all, they weren’t intended to produce electrical power. Yet the nuclear bombs are often – if not directly mentioned, then certainly implied, when discussing nuclear safety. This is perhaps natural as many of us share the collective cultural memory of the cold war era – but for the purposes of this comparison I’m disregarding them. With disclaimers out of the way – let’s move on to the really surprising stuff.

Fatalities directly related to accidents at nuclear reactors are very few, certainly less than a hundred, quite likely less than fifty. In fact more people have died from accidental radiation in other applications (such as submariners caught in malfunctioning nuclear subs or patients mistakenly receiving lethal doses of radiation by faulty radiotherapy equipment.) Most of the deaths caused by nuclear power production have occured at places which have since become household names – Windscale in England and Chernobyl in Ukraine. Of course due to the insidious nature of radiation, the true number of fatalities caused much later by cancer in people not directly involved with the accident, may never be apparent. A World Health Organisation report suggests the indirect death toll of the Chernobyl accident may reach 4.000 – The TORCH report of 2006 predicts 30.000 to 60.000 cancer deaths attributed to the Chernobyl indicent, and a Greenpeace report puts the number at 200.000 or more.  Most of these deaths, how ever many they may be, haven’t actually occured yet. – But they will in years to come, at least they’re expected to.

Presently Japan is dealing with the aftermatch of the Fukushima meltdown. While there haven’t officially been any deaths attributed to it yet, it’s probably reasonable to theorize that there will be. In the aftermatch of the Chernobyl accident it became apparent that Russian authorities were trying to cover up the extent of the accident. If you believe a multitude of tin-foil hat news sources (as well as a few serious ones) on the internet, this may also very well be the case in Japan.

So, If you take the most damning report on the Chernobyl incident, the one published by Greenpeace, and take it at face value. Then add a similar death toll from the Fukushima accident, (if it turns out to be worse than anyone currently thinks and just as bad as Chernobyl,) that gives us a number just short of half a million victims. This is the number of fatalities that nuclear power until today has caused (and, importantly, is expected to cause in the decades to come.)

Now we need to look at the danger of fossil fuels. In the US alone, a report from the US Clean Air Task Force estimates, 20.000 annual heart attacks, 9.800 other hospitalizations and 13.200 fatalities in 2010 were attributed to emissions from coal power plants alone. As profoundly disturbing as this is, the mortality rate of China is outright astounding. A report by the World Bank estimates, that upwards of 750.000 people die annually of air pollution (of which coal is by far the greatest contributor.)

In other words, worldwide, every year more than twice as many people die of coal power than the total number of fatalities caused by nuclear power in more than fifty years! A Report by the American Chemical Society from may 2013, estimates that the number of lives saved by nuclear power generation till today, by NOT causing dangerous air pollution is 1.84 million.  As we know only a mere 12% of all generated power stems from nuclear power, feel free to extrapolate how many lives could be saved if all our power was generated by nuclear power and green energy sources.

To percieve nuclear power as more dangerous than fossil fuels is ill informed. And although the numbers are readily available to anyone who cares to investigate, the true scale of the calamity hasn’t even been touched yet! Because, besides killing an awful lot of people every year, the much greater problem with fossile fuels – both in terms of lives eventually lost, but also in material damages is the damage caused by the immense carbon emissions of fossile fuels.

If the mass fatalities of power production by fossil fuels doesn’t scare you, then global warming ought to.  Because, very bluntly put – we’ve all got our behinds on the line – no matter if you live downwind from a coal plant or not.  We’re creating an unparallled ecological disaster – and the disproportionately large public scare of nuclear power, is very much contributing to ruling out one of the very real means at our disposal to do something about this sticky situation! While nuclear power arguably isn’t 100% safe, it is beyond doubt much safer than current alternatives, and doesn’t contribute to global warming in any significant way.

Would I like to have a nucear powerplant in my back yard? Certainly not – I’d like not to have any eyesoring windmills either – but I’d take any of those over a coal plant any day!


Soren Knudsen,

October 2014


2018 update

As the author of this piece, I feel it deserve a closer look and scrutiny in 2018, as a lot has happened since this piece was written. The danger of fossile fuels, particularly coal, to human health and the tremendous detrimental effect to the climate at large is not overstated. This is as true now, as when it was written, and serves to highlight the tragedy of recent American policy changes on coal. The conclusion however, that the only prudent response to this danger is nuclear, is not as clear cut today, as I felt it was a few years ago.

The past three years have seen massive innovative leaps in energy storage, allowing solar and offshore wind a more pronounced role. The MW capacity of solar and offshore wind roughly doubles every three year, and with exponential growth like this, coal and other fossile fuels is expected to take the back seat soon. Good riddance. If the massive rollout of industrial sized energy storage happens too, it will change everything.

My fingers are crossed.

– Soren Knudsen

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