Nuclear Accidents

That men do not learn very much from the lessons of history is the most important of all the lessons that history has to teach - Aldous Huxley

Nuclear Accidents

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Nuclear power has a bad rep, and sometimes not undeservedly. The recent disaster in Fukushima, the historical disaster at Chernobyl, Three Mile Island, Windscale… each demonstrated that nuclear power can be dangerous. What I wanted to do with this post was to try and put those into context, and hopefully explain why, although disasters are (obviously) terrible, disasters involving nuclear power are not the literal end of the world, nor are they automatically more dangerous than incidents involving other large scale power generation or industrial processes.

So, lets start with the big one. Chernobyl. Nobody is ever going to stand up and say Chernobyl wasn’t awful, an absolutely terrible loss of life, the evacuation of a whole area and man-made radioactive contamination on a scale the world had never seen. One problem with Chernobyl is the vast range of casualty estimates from the resulting release of radioactive material. The initial accident caused 64 deaths as of 2008. Cancer incidence is much harder to measure – the USSR's medical record keeping was sparse at best, meaning natural cancer incidence before the disaster is hard to gauge.

The WHO estimates some 4,000 civilian deaths may come about as a result. Greenpeace estimates 200,000. The Union of Concerned Scientists, an American body made up of scientists and engineers aiming to steer public policy estimates 50,000 extra cancer cases and 25,000 deaths. These are not small numbers, even the smallest WHO estimate still represents some 4,000 families who may suffer a loss as a result of the disaster and this must not be treated lightly, but it must be put into a context and treated in a scientific fashion if we are to learn from this, and the effects of other nuclear incidents.

The context I will use is this – the number of deaths that the use of other power options would directly cause without an accident, and the number of deaths caused by an industrial disaster of similar magnitude (Bhopal). The main contenders for power generation are coal or gas (the only real like for like comparison since other methods are fairly incapable of producing base-load electricity), wind and other renewables.

Let me start by saying that nuclear power is cheap. Anybody that tells you otherwise is misinformed or mistaken. Nuclear is sold to the grid at one of the lowest price-points, because in general it is an always-on solution. The only real competitor at this level are fossil fuel plants. The sad fact that accompanies this is that fossil fuels kill. Particulates released into the atmosphere are responsible for some 4000 deaths each year world wide.

Carbon dioxide releases from fossil fuels break down inversely to price (2249lbs/MWh coal, 1672lb/Mwh oil and 1135lb/MWh gas). Given that the UK national grid is based on buying electricity at its cheapest, coal will always be a preferred option (barring short-term government intervention). So essentially, the number of deaths world wide from coal fired power plants is roughly similar to the number of deaths caused immediately by the Chernobyl disaster.

Once again this isn’t to belittle the loss of life suffered from either, merely to provide a level of context.

Renewable energy is cited as the future, and I think that is certainly (hopefully!) a reasonable assessment. The idea that electricity can eventually be generated in meaningful amounts when required, simply by harnessing forces already naturally present within the Earth is laudable and something that should be pursued. There are of course some issues with it however, and many are quick to overlook these in the face of what is obviously an attractive solution. I’ve focused on on-shore wind here, as it seems to be the most mature method of generation to date.

It is sensible to look at accident rates per terawatt hour (TWh) of power produced in order to provide a meaningful value. For nuclear this number is 0.04 deaths/TWh. For wind it is 0.4 deaths/TWh. Wind power has a higher mortality rate than nuclear (including Chernobyl) for the amount of power it produces. Now, these are largely small scale accidents, incidents with turbines etc, and it goes without saying that a man flying into a turbine is not on the same scale as Chernobyl, but because of the very low amount of power wind turbines actually produce (if we were to build a wind farm to power the UK based on current technology we’d need an area the size of Wales to do so) this is the only real way to compare the two. Then there’s the human and environmental cost of wind turbines. The cost of mining the rare earth metals required to produce these turbines is staggering.

Hydroelectric power on the other hand is pretty much brilliant. If you have access to it of course. At deaths per TWh (not including the Banquao disaster in China where the hydro damn failed, killing some 171,000 people) hydro sits at 0.1 deaths/TWh. Including Banquao the rate is 1.4 (taken from a 2008 study). Having said that, hydro has some serious advantages – power is generated by the natural movement of water, so there’s no real waste produced here, although there’s an obvious environmental impact from damming large rivers, and the real problem is the geography of the site determines if hydro will work – this isn’t something that can be done in every country, and will therefore have a finite capacity to expand as the worlds energy needs increase.

Finally we come to Bhopal. The city in India generally accepted to have suffered the worlds worst industrial disaster, and it wasn't energy related. A gaseous release of some 23 tons of toxic gas released into the atmosphere, immediately killing an estimated 26,000 people and injuring or disabling hundreds of thousands of others.

None of these deaths should be taken lightly. These statistics shouldn’t be treated as ‘just statistics’ and yet they must be in order to make reasonable decisions. We need power – we need industry in all it forms – to maintain the lifestyle we are accustomed to. When it gets dark we now turn on a light, when it gets cold we turn up the heat, and these things come at a cost whichever way we go about generating the power behind them. Within the context of normal operation, nuclear power is the safest energy generation mechanism by far. In terms of accidents, the worlds worst nuclear accident is marginally worse than the worlds worst industrial accident (depending on which study you read). In terms of the power generated per death caused, even including Chernobyl, nuclear is still the safest.

Which brings us to Fukushima. The data presented above includes the Fukushima incident. It cannot be taken lightly that several hundred square kilometres of land were evacuated. People left their homes and may not be able to return for a long period of time, but many more people would be dead or seriously ill if nuclear power within Japan had been replaced by fossil fuels at an earlier stage. Now it seems the fear of using nuclear energy is under the spotlight for safety, people are once again afraid of radiation and it's possible that this may sway public opinion towards fossil fuels.

Let me finish by saying this – the radiation released by a coal fired plant is significantly greater than that of a nuclear plant, less well controlled and expelled into the atmosphere within the released particulates. The radioactive fission products produced by nuclear power stay where they are generated, barring a huge natural disaster (which in the case of Fukushima has somehow been overshadowed by the effect on the nuclear plant).

In the case of Fukushima, the news broke today that the release within the reactor building was much higher than they expected, and that was front-page news on the BBC. That sounds like terrible news. Awful shocking and very scary but again it requires a context – this is a building largely surrounded by nuclear experts and monitored 24/7. It wasn’t until they put a probe within the building that they were able to detect the release (and hence damage to the reactor) was larger than they initially thought and these are world experts, actively looking for heath risks. The building itself had done such a remarkable job of containing pretty much everything it was supposed to that the unexpectedly large release wasn't detectable from outside.

Source: Joel Turner, Nuclear Accidents in Context, Hitchhiker's Guide to Nuclear, April 1, 2012.

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Last Updated : Wednesday, August 7, 2019