Thursday, April 17, 2008

The Secret Safety Record of Nuclear Power

When it comes to the environment and electricity there are two basic schools of thought for clean energy: nuclear power versus wind/solar (and occasionally hydroelectric). Nuclear power has the advantage of being reliable (the weather doesn't effect it so it's great for base-line power) and cost effective. Its main problem is that it's scary.

There's only been two major accidents in nuclear power history--Chernobyl and Three Mile Island. Lots of other accidents involving isolated radiation leakage occur, but it's the disaster scenarios that people are scared of. It's very strange, much like how people are afraid of flying because there's been a few big accidents yet don't bat an eye at the thousands of car wrecks a year. If we want to truly judge the safety of nuclear power versus other sources, let's examine how many people die per terawatt-hour. Note these deaths can occur in many ways, such as accidents, pollution, construction and maintenance.

Coal: 32.6
Solar: 0.83
Wind: 0.4
Nuclear: 0.052

The solar rate are based largely on rooftop solar and most of it comes from the danger of installing it (roofing is one of the most dangerous occupations in the States). See this article for more information. I picked up the coal and nuclear numbers from this article.

Granted, it's difficult to tell how dangerous nuclear power is given the long-term effects of radiation and issues regarding nuclear waste. At the same time since nuclear power is so much cheaper its customers could afford other things that they couldn't otherwise such as healthier food or better medical care. The net effect is far from obvious but it seems unlikely to overcome the ten-fold increase in the death rate compared to its clean alternatives. Nuclear power is a lot safer than you think.

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