The safety or danger of energy sources is often discussed in the context of nuclear energy - but what is the actual impact of the various sources of power, including nuclear, solar and coal? In brief:

  • Conventional coal power is by far the deadliest source of power, from mining accidents and health effects of air pollution. It is claimed that coal-fired power stations emit more radioactivity in normal operation than do nuclear power plants.[verification needed] This is reduced significantly through cleaner coal technologies which remove particulates and other air pollutants.[1] Mining deaths are reduced significantly through appropriate industrial safety measures.
  • Nuclear energy emits very little pollution when all goes according to plan. Rare accidents are hard to predict, and while modern reactors are increasingly safe, there is still a risk of accident or attack. Alternative designs such as the liquid fluoride thorium reactor promise intrinsically much safer nuclear power, but are decades from producing power at a commercial scale.
  • Renewable energy emits no pollution in operation. However their production requires materials including conflict minerals such as rare earth metals.

Calculations[edit | edit source]

A comparison in a blog post, Deaths per TWH by energy source[2] (TWh = terawatt hour) claims that:

  • Coal is by far the most deadly, globally (161 deaths per TWh, largely due to the health effects of air pollution). However US coal has much lower fatality rate (15 deaths per TWh, which we could speculate to be due to different composition in coal resulting in different levels of pollution, or to more efficient power plants and anti-pollution equipment in the US, or a combination of both[expansion needed]).
  • Renewable energy sources are much lower - of these solar rooftop installations are estimated to be the highest based on falls from roofs during installation (0.44 deaths per TWh, though actual figures are not available, so this is estimated based on deaths during roof tiling). Electricians working on solar installations allegedly can face additional risks because functioning solar panels are producing live current as long as they are in sunlight, though whether this is a serious danger is unclear.[3]
  • Nuclear energy is given in the blog post as the lowest, at 0.04 deaths per TWh. However, the numbers used are questionable and there appears to be a strong pro-nuclear slant in assumptions and figures used. Going back to the earlier post where he published the numbers, the blog states talking about Chernobyl:
    • "Averaging about 2100 TWh from 1985-2005 or a total of 42,000 TWh. So those 50 deaths would be 0.0012 deaths/TWh. If those possible 4000 deaths occur over the next 25 years, then with 2800 TWh being assumed average for 2005 through 2030, then it would be 4000 deaths over 112,000 TWh generated over 45 years or 0.037 deaths/TWh."

This is a fairly low estimate on the number of deaths from nuclear power over its history (itself a very controversial topic). If you use some more recent numbers on the high end - See Chernobyl: Consequences of the Catastrophe for People and the Environment is an English translation of the 2007 Russian publication Chernobyl. It was published in 2009 by the New York Academy of Sciences in their Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences. It presents an analysis of scientific literature and concludes that medical records between 1986, the year of the accident, and 2004 reflect 985,000 premature deaths as a result of the radioactivity released.[4] So if we take out our calculator and assume no other deaths (a very conservative assumption) we get 7.8 deaths/TWh using the blog's electricity values. That number of course is incomplete as it doesn't include any other deaths (e.g. Uranium mining, likely cancer deaths from Japan's latest nuclear disaster, etc.) - and this is without verifying the electricity generation numbers (this will increase every year and bring the deaths/TWh value down) -so this calculation needs to be dynamic and be completed with much more rigor. It would also be better to use some sort of "premature death years" for the quantification rather than simply deaths. However, the New York Academy of Sciences warns that the article has not had any peer review and that the Academy does not validate the claims made within it: "This collection of papers, originally published in Russian, was written by scientists who state that they have summarized the information about the health and environmental consequences of the Chernobyl disaster from several hundreds of papers previously published in Slavic language publications. In no sense did Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences or the New York Academy of Sciences commission this work; nor by its publication does the Academy validate the claims made in the original Slavic language publications cited in the translated papers. Importantly, the translated volume has not been formally peer‐reviewed by the New York Academy of Sciences or by anyone else.

"Under the editorial practices of Annals at the time, some projects, such as the Chernobyl translation, were developed and accepted solely to fulfill the Academy’s broad mandate of providing an open forum for discussion of scientific questions, rather than to present original scientific studies or Academy positions. The content of these projects, conceived as one-off book projects, were not vetted by standard peer review."

There are other factors not accounted for here:

  • Nuclear has the most terrifying of worst case scenarios in the short term, in terrorists or "rogue states" gaining and using nuclear weapons. This has not happened to date, and thus is not included in the statistics - to ignore this is to risk a black swan event. The risk of it happening is also a reality that affects decisions of international policy and war.
  • Coal has the greatest negative impact on a long term threat, in increasing our rush towards climate change

Notes[edit | edit source]

  1. Carbon capture and storage (CCS) is only one aspect of cleaner coal technologies. CCS generally requires particulates and acid gases to be removed prior to carbon dioxide separation. Aside from this, more efficient coal-fired plants will burn more completely and leave less particulates - other pollutants will be affected in varying ways (and will also depend on pollution control equipment used).
  2. Next Big Future blog, March 13, 2011.
  3. While it is true that solar panels produce electricity, this would be avoided if (A) the PV surface is covered until electrical components are installed and safe, (B) risk of contact by the installer is brought to an absolute minimum through well-designed fittings and appropriate insulation, and (C) the installer is wearing appropriate safety equipment (including shoes with insulating shoes, and gloves). Ideally all three safety measures would be applied. (Information needed here on actual installation procedures and PV fitting design.) Further, if this is actually a danger and people are dying, evidence should be supplied - ideally in reliable statistics.
  4. Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences. Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences. Retrieved 15 March 2011. see also [1].

See also[edit | edit source]

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Authors Chris Watkins
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Created June 5, 2012 by Chris Watkins
Modified May 31, 2024 by Kathy Nativi
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