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Give Nuclear Respect

Entry 1987, on 2019-07-02 at 20:34:31 (Rating 2, Comments)

Here's a question: who thinks we should not build any nuclear power stations because they are too dangerous?

I recently got involved with a debate about the safety of nuclear power. This might be a topical issue because of a recent TV series, "Chernobyl", which I haven't seen, but which apparently does make some aspects of nuclear power look a lot worse than they really are.

And because I like to be a contrarian for various reasons - mainly because it is a good way to make people think a bit, instead of just accepting the nonsense they are fed by politicians and the media - I took the side that nuclear is actually a very safe technology and one that we should be using more.

Ironically, it is exactly the people who want to save the environment the most - members of green parties and organisations like GreenPeace - who are often most against it, and it is that lack of rationality which sometimes makes me think twice before supporting these groups. I should be fair here though, and say that all political parties and pressure groups seem to have their own irrational beliefs to varying extents.

But let's get back to the facts of nuclear power. First, I do concede that nuclear power has risks, but all sources of power have risks, because everything does, and it's especially unavoidable with power generation because of the nature of the process: creating and storing a lot of energy. Energy is inherently dangerous because fires, explosions, and some other disasters are just uncontrolled releases of energy.

I recently saw a statistic that showed that nuclear power causes far less deaths per unit of power generated than any other power source, even solar. Of course, I was immediately skeptical, because I thought how could solar possibly be responsible for any danger at all? And in particular how could it be more dangerous than nuclear where the accidents associated with nuclear facilities are so well known, yet there is never any news at all about solar?

Many people would have left it there. If they were supporters of nuclear they would have just quoted that statistic as if it was absolute proof. And if they were against nuclear they would have just ignored it by labelling it as false propaganda created by big corporations who make a lot of money from nuclear generation.

But, of course, as a skeptic, I spent some time actually investigating the claim by doing a search using a neutral search engine (DuckDuckGo) and looking for sources which seemed to take both sides. And it turns out that the stat is probably true, because there are many people killed each year when they fall from height while installing solar panels, and despite the well publicised accidents the number of people killed by nuclear accidents is actually quite low because it happens so rarely.

But there are other problems with nuclear, apart from potential accidents. What about disposal of nuclear waste? Well, that isn't as serious as is made out for several reasons. First, nuclear waste is a misnomer because most of the material is unused fuel and already existed before the plant used it. And the newer nuclear plants are actually capable of using this "waste" to generate more power, in some cases they can even use the waste left over from older plants.

And that brings me to another point. That is that most of the criticisms apply to older technologies. Newer technologies are not only far safer, but also produce very little waste. And even the safety of old facilities is not as bad as is often suggested, because the three famous accidents (Three Mile Island, Chernobyl, and Fukishima) were not really just caused by bad engineering or poor safety mechanisms, they were more caused by gross incompetence in the operation of those plants. So if the operators had done their jobs properly, even though those plants are far less safe than modern designs, the disasters would not have occurred.

And there are other pieces of information, usually not understood by the average person, which make nuclear look a lot better too. For example, coal fired plants release far more radiation than every nuclear plant that ever existed, even when the accidents are accounted for. How can this be? Well, nuclear material is perfectly natural part of the environment, and small quantities exist in coal which is released into the atmosphere when the coal is burned. In fact, far more is released than any properly run nuclear plant.

The word "nuclear" has been made to look scary, but anyone with a science background or some knowledge in that area might think differently. Sure, nuclear materials can be incredibly hazardous, but the risk needs to be seen in context. For example, did you know that practically all of the helium we have on Earth, including what you have in your party balloons and what you breathe to give yourself a squeaky voice, is the product of the nuclear breakdown of Uranium and Thorium? Sounds bad, doesn't it, but are you going to stop using helium?

And did you know that when you get an MRI scan in a hospital that you are being scanned with a technology more properly called nuclear magnetic resonance imaging? The word "nuclear" was dropped because people were scared of it. And did you know that many medical treatments use radioactive tracers? Maybe nuclear should be treated with respect, both for its dangers and its great benefits.

I like numbers and stats, and if you do too, I would now like to give you the actual stats relating to the safety of various power generation technologies. As I said, I was initially skeptical of these, and I think they could vary a bit, depending on your definitions of various concepts, and on your sources, etc. But even if the numbers are off by a factor of 10 (I don't think they are) they are still very interesting and counter-intuitive. OK, here are the numbers relating to deaths caused by various power generation methods...

Coal (global average) - 100,000 (41% global electricity)
Coal (in China) - 170,000
Coal (in US) - 10,000 (32% U.S. electricity)
Oil - 36,000
Natural Gas - 4,000
Biofuel/Biomass - 24,000
Solar (rooftop) - 440 (< 1% global electricity)
Wind - 150 (2% global electricity)
Hydro (global average) - 1,400
Hydro (US) - 5
Nuclear (global average) - 90 (11% global electricity)
Nuclear (US) - 0.1 (19% U.S. electricity)

These numbers represent the number of deaths per trillion kWh of power generated. A kWh is a kilowatt hour, meaning one kilowatt generated for one hour. The numbers in brackets show what part of the country or world power generation comes from that source. These came from an article in Forbes, written by James Conca, an expert on the subject and a member of various organisations with an interest in nuclear power, but also a member of some environmental organisations, like GreenPeace. Other sources which I generally think of as reliable, such as "Our World in Data", show similar numbers, so I think they are credible.

So you can see that, in the US, you are 100,000 times more likely to be killed by the effects of a coal-fired station than you are by a nuclear facility. On the other hand the global rate for nuclear is almost 100 times worse, but is still 1000 times better than coal. Also notice that global nuclear is 5 times safer than global rooftop solar, and that solar accounts for less than 1% of global generation. That was the stat that most surprised me.

And here's one final fact which might surprise a lot of people: in normal operation, a coal plant releases 100 times as much nuclear radiation into the environment as a nuclear station, just through the natural radiation which exists in the coal. And living within 50 kilometers of a nuclear station for a year exposes you to as much radiation as eating one banana. Note that bananas are relatively high in a radioactive isotope of potassium. As a point of reference the amount received from the nuclear plant in a year (or the one banana) is less than one tenth of what you receive in a day from natural background sources.

So, who wants to build more nuclear power plants now?

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