2011-03-15

Nuclear power: Safer than you are, dude.

The recent earthquake and subsequent tsunami in Japan on March 11th has most of the world staring at a few nuclear reactors in or near the Sendai area, hoping they don't cause even greater problems than the natural disaster itself. Some people are so afraid of the power plants and in fact nuclear power in general that they are proposing to ban them altogether. This is a very uninformed response, to say the least, with which its promoters ignore the data and jump to an undeserved conclusion.

Perhaps I'm over-reacting, and the anti-nuclear-power movement is confined mainly to my place of residence, Austria, which is only a stone's throw---over the invisible but still perceptible Iron Curtain---from the Czech Republic's Temelin Nuclear Power Station. Austria gave the Czech Republic problems in joining the EU because of disagreements over the station.

These Austrian protesters are wrong for three reasons. First (and least important) of all, The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) is based in Vienna. These guys probably wouldn't allow an unsafe nuclear power plant to operate so close to where they spend most of their time. Second, the modern Czech Republic is not a primitive, fascist country who would slap together a nuclear reactor like the U.S.S.R. did in Chernobyl, Ukraine. That was careless, and not something a First World country would do. Lastly, and by far most importantly, even including the Chernobyl disaster, the safety record of nuclear power is far better than that of all of the other major power sources, including coal, oil, natural gas, hydro-electric, and wind.

According to a report by the World Nuclear Association, outside of Chernobyl, not a single person has ever been killed by radiation from a nuclear power plant. And Chernobyl was an exception in more ways than one. From the report:

An OECD expert report on it concluded that "the Chernobyl accident has not brought to light any new, previously unknown phenomena or safety issues that are not resolved or otherwise covered by current reactor safety programs for commercial power reactors in OECD Member countries. In other words, the concept of 'defence in depth' was conspicuous by its absence, and tragically shown to be vitally important."

That is to say, even at the time, no one except a fascist, careless government would have built such an unsafe reactor. No nuclear power plant built anywhere else in the world has ever killed anyone with radiation. If it's the radiation you're worried about, what more evidence do you need?

But, yes, people have been killed at nuclear power plants, if not by radiation. The bottom of the WNA report includes a table comparing deaths per terawatt-year (TWy) of energy produced from various fuels between the years of 1970 and 1992. Of coal, natural gas, hydro-electricity, and nuclear, hydro-electric plants are the most dangerous at 883 deaths/TWy. Coal is second worst with 342, and natural gas third with 85. Nuclear power is the safest, with only 8 deaths/TWy. The safety of nuclear power plants is an order of magnitude better than each of the other three, and nuclear technology is improving such that new reactors are orders of magnitudes safer than those built 20 or even 10 years ago.

If that's not enough, try this fact: under normal operation, a coal power plant releases 100 times as much radiation as a nuclear plant of the same wattage. [source]

Or, the world's worst industrial catastrophe was at a pesticide plant in Bhopal, India in 1984. It was far, far worse than Chernobyl.

I could go on and on pulling statistics from various sources that demonstrate that nuclear power is safer than other conventional fuels, not to mention that it's better for the environment and will be able to produce power long after the world has depleted its supplies of coal and oil. But, I'll stop here. I'd rather issue a challenge to all of those opposed to nuclear power plants: show me any data whatsoever indicating that a kilowatt-hour of nuclear power is less safe than the average kilowatt-hour from your favorite provider.

Let me start the opponents off: nuclear waste is of course much more dangerous than the same weight of waste from other fuels. However, the amount of such waste is far less. The average nuclear power plant produces 240-360 tons of radioactive waste per year [source], plus some other less toxic waste. New reactors such as the integral fast reactor would produce much less. Coal power plants, for example, produce about 240,000 tons of toxic waste per year [source]. Considering that most nuclear waste around the world can be reprocessed into safe or useful products and that radioactive waste is an extremely small portion of total waste, we would once again have to go to the data to see which is worse. I don't have more comprehensive data at the moment, but I'm happy to be pointed in the right direction.

It seems intuitively obvious to me that for us here on Earth, there is only one source of energy that can last from today until our planet becomes an icy space rock: the sun. Before power plants existed, it provided all the energy that was needed for life to live and then some. But, obviously we don't yet have the technology/money necessary to make the full transition to solar power, which could happen within a few decades if we make it a goal, or maybe in a century or two if we continue to generally ignore it. Until then, though, we have to make a careful decision about which fuel to use to power our homes and offices. Let's not jump to conclusions simply because a power-generating technology is closely related to a weapons technology, and it scares us. That's bad science and bad politics. Let the data speak.


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3 comments:

Isaac said...

Whew, nice to have a place to stretch out: this kind of argument is way too nuanced for twitter. I'm about to start work so forgive me if I don't take the time to tighten all of the screws down here.

First, I don't want to come across as a supporter of some other energy source. I recognize there are large trade-offs associated with each of them, and that we're going to have to accept such trade-offs in order to enjoy (and grow) the comforts of modern life.

That said, this incident has raised some substantial doubts in my mind about nuclear power. I don't think the deaths/kW*hr directly caused by operation are really the appropriate way to measure the danger of most power plants. Radiation can and certainly has caused harm without being immediately fatal, and it can do this to a lot of people. As a result, estimates of the total harm caused by nuclear power is not robust to small changes in the expected impact on an individual nor is it easy to measure. Retrospective measures of nuclear safety are, as of about a week ago, now out of date. It's also true that the situation in Japan has pretty much exceeded many people in the nuclear industry's worst expectations. Those expectations may prove to be the victims of poor estimation of tectonic risk, and of the multiplying effect of having a nuclear incident occur in the midst of another major disaster, which are only accessories to the risk of nuclear power in general.

I heard about a study recently arguing that air pollution (to which coal is a major contributor) actually contributes more to heart-disease risks than smoking, not because it is much more dangerous, but because it affects so many people. What's happening in Japan right now should, I think, prompt a revision in the estimates in potential for harm from nuclear power. Such a revision will I think be borne out by the numbers, and will make a lot of nuclear-power-is-completely-safe types look bad.

That said, it's far from decided in my mind whether that revision will justify a wholesale condemnation of nuclear power, but I think it's reasonable right now for the people making these decisions to admit that some of their estimates will require updating and that it will change the calculus of comparative safety in the future.

There may be some irrationality in the way people perceive the risks of nuclear power, in the same way that the US spends way more money preventing deaths in airline hijackings than they do in shootings, that's a topic for another time though.

Thanks for prompting the discussion!

fbg said...

Make yourself at home!

You're absolutely right about waiting for the numbers to come in, but in the meantime I'm hating this knee-jerk reaction that is based on neither past data nor expected future data.

As bad as the current Sendai nuclear situation is, it still hasn't killed anyone as far as I know, and it has made only a few (<30) people sick, none of them very serious. I know that long-term effects are harder to judge, but even factoring in the sicknesses and cancers that resulted from the Chernobyl disaster, the level of current fear [in Europe] of nuclear power in general is not warranted.

I see it this way: these were relatively old reactors due for decommissioning at the end of the month, the earthquake and tsunami were the worst in recorded history, this is probably the second worst disaster in nuclear power history, and five days later people are still worried about what *could* happen, not what *has* happened. I think that's a very good sign for nuclear power safety, despite the harm it is obviously causing some people and the environment.

I think at this point, the only data which could convince me that nuclear power wasn't safer than coal or hydro would be those showing that the long-term effects of the Sendai meltdown are far far worse than we think. I mean, it's morbid to say it this way, but nuclear power can kill hundreds of people and make thousands more sick before it catches up with coal or hydro.

Kristenh said...

More importantly, even if nuclear WAS the most deadly of those major sources you mentioned, the power it produces, relative to waste material / potential danger and the fact the amount of power which could be produced, is not limited by a massive increase in production. Makes Nuclear the only scalable and current solution to the worlds energy demands.

We can't go on consuming coal and other dirty fuel sources at the current rate, just waiting for fusion or solar to take off in the meantime, hoping that comes along before we run out.