Safety, risk and nuclear power

It has been pointed out by many people, including on this blog by Sacha (quoting James Lovecock), that nuclear is much safer than pretty much any source of power for electricity. The relevant comparison was that per Terawatt-year of electricity generated there are 342 deaths for coal, 885 deaths for Hydro, 85 deaths from Natural Gas and only 8 for Nuclear. This comparison appears to be using a low figure for the Chernobyl accident as the WHO finds around double that number of deaths directly to the Chernobyl accident, but even so that brings the total to 16 per TWy, still well less than the next most safe method, Natural Gas. Hydro rates poorly due to some severe accidents with dams bursting in India that have killed in the thousands each.

Death of course is not the only risk associated with nuclear. Thousands more have had thyroid cancer directly as a result of Chernobyl although most have been treated and over 99% have recovered it is still a cost to bear. Then there is the contamination of land and the wholesale abandonment of the surrounding area. Also this is not to mention that we don’t really have much historical data to base our estimate of how bad or how frequent a meltdown can be. Still if we look at the total historical human costs and average over all the power that has successfully been generated by nuclear the human cost still comes out as being low, certainly lower than coal power.

If that is the case then isn’t it rational that we should adopt nuclear on the basis of safety? What that kind of comparison misses out is that people regard riskier situations as different to less risky situations for similar expectations. Thus although most nuclear power plants will sit there quite happily not hurting anyone, the rare one that does is potentially extremely hazardous. It is reasonable to treat this volatile outcome as much more serious than the equivalent. We do after all routinely pay away money to insurance companies when we would be better, on an expected outcome basis, to save the money ourselves.

If we believe that nuclear is not just a bit safer (in terms of deaths) than other forms of electricity but significantly safer, then surely this is enough to outweigh our risk aversion? I would say yes, but I could quite easily understand others coming to the no conclusion as well even if they were fairly well informed of the facts and the true risks.

That said I believe it is clear that many people over estimate the risk of nuclear compared with other risks that they don’t even consider or take for granted. On the other hand its also seductively easy to look at nuclear power’s track record in the west and do the reverse. It’s easy to believe there are no black swans if you’ve never seen one. We know catastrophic accidents are rare, but have we been lucky or unlucky seeing as few as we have seen?


9 Responses to Safety, risk and nuclear power

  1. Sacha Blumen says:

    Hey Steve,

    I quoted Lovelock because the information in it surprised me and decisions on nuclear power should be informed by reality (I don’t know what the reality it). This is a key thing – maybe determining “reality” is difficult to do, particularly correct risk assessments including the risk of weapons proliferation and how the attainment of nuclear technology affects international relations and the “balance of power” – it’s not just about energy production.

    One key thing often underlying debate about the use of nuclear power is the potential for a catastrophic event and what that would mean for people relatively near the reactor and the land around it (as you mention). As you wrote in another post/comment, the average number of deaths/injuries from nuclear might be much smaller than from other forms of energy production but the variance might (or might not, I don’t know!) be much higher.

    Interestingly, Lovelock writes that the abandonment of the area around Chernobyl by people has effectively allowed wildlife to thrive in that area – he writes that it’s the surest way to have an area for wildlife unthreatened by humans and human development! I don’t know what effects radioactivity would have on the animal and plant populations.

    I don’t understand the approach to the debate about nuclear power by people on “the left” – by which I mean the automatic rejection of it. It seems to be informed by fear.

  2. Sacha Blumen says:

    Yes, it’s the potential of using uranium (weapons and accidents) that drives reaction against it, I think. People might say that the 16 deaths per terawattyear doesn’t take into account the potential for mass destruction.

    I don’t know what to say about that – Lovelock’s view is that using coal as we have will definitely lead to massive problems, and any problems with using nuclear power are miniscule in comparison.

    Maybe the “solution” is a superconducting intercontinental electricity grid connecting all continents, the idea for which was discussed in a recent Scientific American article here: With such a grid, all human societies on Earth might be able to draw on renewable energy sources if the entire collection of renewables altogether had the ability to produce enough electricity at all times.

  3. Hmm. Certainly looks like fossil fuels have turned out to be a good deal more harmful all round (smog, global warming, diseases caused by mining) over hundreds of years than nuclear power. I’d agree that the response of most people to nuclear power is generally one of fear rather than rationality – but how many of us would actual want to live next door to Sizewell B. Then again, it was not unusual where I was brought up (an area honey combed with mines) for holes big enough to swallow cars and buses and to demolish homes to suddenly open so. So living next door to a coal isn’t exactly the safest location either.

    On the other hand, the technology does exist to deliver ‘greener’ solutions (other than the visual pollution of a countryside full of windmills). Pity the political will to implement it doesn’t.

  4. […] Safety, risk and nuclear power – Steve Edney – “[M]any people over estimate the risk of nuclear compared with other risks that they don’t even consider or take for granted. On the other hand its also seductively easy to look at nuclear power’s track record in the west and do the reverse. It’s easy to believe there are no black swans if you’ve never seen one. …” […]

  5. One thing to keep in mind with the massive increase in thyroid cancer is that most of that was avoidable if the locals had stopped giving contaminated milk to children.

  6. Sacha Blumen says:

    All decisions about using nuclear power must be informed by all relevant information. Decision makers must approach nuclear power with an open mind.

  7. James Aach says:

    You might find my site an interesting way to get a unique insider’s perspective on nuclear energy.

  8. Jc says:

    I don’t think the russion accident should be counted only because of the plant was built by commies that didn’t factor in the necessary protections that a market based system would offer. There was no legal redress or inurance pricing assesing the risk as an example. Consequently the fail safe system were almost non existent.

  9. graemebird says:

    Nuclear is the safest, cleanest energy source there is.

    But its not the GREENEST energy source there is.

    The GREENEST energy source is of course COAL.

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