SocraticGadfly: Planes, cars, nukes, fossil fuels

March 14, 2011

Planes, cars, nukes, fossil fuels

William Saletan of Slate has an excellent article, in the wake of Japan's nuclear concerns, about how nuclear power is saving lives every day compared to fossil fuels.

Fukushima's radiation releases put into context.
The details?
If Japan, the United States, or Europe retreats from nuclear power in the face of the current panic, the most likely alternative energy source is fossil fuel. And by any measure, fossil fuel is more dangerous. The sole fatal nuclear power accident of the last 40 years, Chernobyl, directly killed 31 people. By comparison, Switzerland's Paul Scherrer Institute calculates that from 1969 to 2000, more than 20,000 people died in severe accidents in the oil supply chain (PDF). More than 15,000 people died in severe accidents in the coal supply chain—11,000 in China alone. The rate of direct fatalities per unit of energy production is 18 times worse for oil than it is for nuclear power.

Even if you count all the deaths plausibly related to Chernobyl—9,000 to 33,000 over a 70-year period—that number is dwarfed by the death rate from burning fossil fuels. The OECD's 2008 Environmental Outlook calculates that fine-particle outdoor air pollution caused nearly 1 million premature deaths in the year 2000, and 30 percent of this was energy-related. You'd need 500 Chernobyls to match that level of annual carnage. But outside Chernobyl, we've had zero fatal nuclear power accidents.
So, there's your price tag.

This put me in mind of the difference between air travel and driving. All the statistics show air travel is safer, but people don't believe it, by and large.

Why not?

Airplane accidents, when fatal, kill dozens if not hundreds at once time, and kill people from around the country if not the world, while a car accident kills a couple of people, usually local to the accident area.

At least in the western world, I suspect something similar is at play. And, it's fueled, pun intended, but some environmental groups who simply refuse to consider nuclear as part of the anti-climate change equation. It's also fueled by "War on Terror" frothers who can't think straight on breeder-type reactors.

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